By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Last week, the New York Times ran an amazing story. Evidently, a team of researchers have been spending the last few years developing a ‘genetic atlas’ of the world. What is a ‘genetic atlas’ you might ask? Put simply, the researchers have been collecting, and comparing the genomes of people living in many parts of the world, all the while finding similarities and shared genetic markers between seemingly disparate communities. Our DNA tells the story of human history, and surprise, surprise, it is pretty messy (the history, not the DNA). Shared genome sequences point to, in scientific lingo, ‘mixing events’, and
Some of the hundred or so major mixing events they describe have
plausible historical explanations, while many others remain to be
accounted for. For instance, many populations of the southern
Mediterranean and Middle East have segments of African origin in their
genomes that were inserted at times between A.D. 650 and 1900,
according to the geneticists’ calculations. This could reflect the activity of
the Arab slave trade, which originated in the seventh century, and the
absorption of slaves into their host populations
Two things stick out to me most with this amazing, exciting research. First, the findings of this study, and many others of the same ilk, are continually clouding our ideas about race. This is especially so for Americans, who historically have portrayed race as absolute, and physically evident. Historians realize that notions such as ‘white’ and ‘black’ have culturally metamorphosed over the years, and that race as a definitive genetic category is socially constructed. But to the average American born within the twentieth century, racial categories are non-negotiable. You are either ‘white’ or ‘black’ or ‘Asian’, or something else. Hence, when last quarter one of my students who was raised in Bulgaria mentioned to the class that she does not consider herself to be ‘white’, though she fits the ‘Caucasian’ physical bill, many of my students were dumbfounded. Since they were born in America, they believe her whiteness to be not a choice; it is a mark of her biological essence.
Studies such as the ‘genetic atlas’ throw such ideas for a loop. As the quote above illustrates, a white-skinned Italian-American student may have a genome made up of Middle Eastern, African and European portions. Though twenty-first century Americans would consider him/her white, how do we base such a notion? Do we simply go upon highest percentage of DNA for racial grouping? Well, American history has generally said no to this solution. Race, specifically ‘blackness’, but necessarily then ‘whiteness’ as well, is not based upon majority genome markers. As Professor F. James Davis explains:
To be considered black in the United States not even half of one’s ancestry must be African black. But will one-fourth do, or one-eighth, or less? The nation’s answer to the question ‘Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the “one-drop rule,” meaning that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black. It is also known as the “one black ancestor rule,” some courts have called it the “traceable amount rule,” and anthropologists call it the “hypo-descent rule,” meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation’s definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks. Blacks had no other choice….
As Davis points out, the ‘one drop rule’ became central to identifying power and status in the dark days of slavery and Jim Crow. Ironically enough, such a definition of ‘hypo-descent’ was necessary for American slave-owners since they themselves were consistently ‘mixing’ with their African-American chattel. Though the ‘Virginian Luxuries’ sign was meant to critique the practice, it illustrates the well-known fact that slave-owners (male only) were allowed, and sometimes encouraged, to take a slave mistress. Though never truly consensual, these interracial couplings produced thousands of ‘mulatto’ children. It was all-important to identify who was, and who was not, a slave.
Thus, I come to the second striking aspect of the ‘genetic atlas’ study. Notice from the initial quote above what historical events caused the genetic mixing? It was usually the worst aspects of human history. Slavery, wars, and the growth of empires caused human genomes to splice in all different directions. The history of American genetic ‘mixing’ events in the Colonial, and early Republican periods was nothing new to the human experience. American slavery was similar to Roman wars of conquest; or Mongolian empire building; or the Arab slave trade. Each was based upon unequal power dynamics with one people being the exploiter, and the other the exploited. Exploitation of labor, and exploitation of sex. Our genomes display the continually violent, often horrendous tale of human historical misery.
But, let’s look for a more positive side of this research, shall we?
Maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing the birth of a new, more peaceful ‘genetic atlas.’ The twenty-first century may be the first time that human-kind is mixing ‘racial’ genetic traits voluntarily and equally. Just look at America today. What was once a taboo ‘mixing event’ is becoming something common and accepted. Just in the last decade, there has been a 28% growth in interracial/ethnic marriages in the US. At this point, around 10% of married couples are interracial. The number is even higher for non-married couples (18%). As these couples have children, and their children grow up, and meet partners themselves, interracial numbers will only grow. The vast majority of Americans have no problem with this development. Is America specifically breaking racial ground? Is the genetic atlas of the 21st century going to be consensually complex?
You may say I am being naive, and maybe I am. You may say that America is still a racialized society, and you would be right. You may say that American racism is alive and well, and I would sadly agree with you. Racism is thriving in America. But, perhaps race is slowly perishing.
It’s a start.