Dolezal’s Delusion, Americans’ Delusion

The Rachel Dolezal case is interesting for reasons other than for why most of the media is in obsessive mode. It seems that she likely has many personal issues. Going by some of the reporting, here entire family may have issues. But that wouldn’t make the story interesting or worth all the attention it is getting.

Some people would label her delusional, or worse. If she is delusional, it is merely an expression of our delusional society. Or rather such personal delusions take the form of the delusions of the society in which they take place.

Race is a social construct. There is no other example that demonstrates this so clearly. It’s not that she is lying, since race itself is a fiction. How does one lie about a fiction?

Five to ten percent of American blacks have more European genetics than African genetics. Another 5.5% of American blacks have no detectable African genetics. Also, consider that there are more white Americans than black Americans with recent African ancestry (i.e., genetics that came from within the past 6 generations, well within the historical period of modern slavery).

Most of these people have no idea about their genetics. Their social identity or labeling by others as either ‘black’ or ‘white’ has nothing to do with genetics. It’s not necessarily even cultural, as there is no single ‘black’ culture or ‘white’ culture. It’s a racial order, pure and simple.

The delusion of Rachel Dolezal is simply that, like most Americans, she has mistaken a fiction for reality. Does it matter that her interpretation of that fiction is different from the interpretation of others? It’s about as meaningful as so many theological debates.

Now, if we want to talk about the real world results and legacies of oppression, that is more than a worthy topic. In that light, we can discuss how racial categories have been used to enforce a racial order based on racial prejudices and privileges. Along with this, we should discuss why people racially passing have always been deemed as such a threat to our society, deemed as such often by people on both sides of the racial divide.

Here are some of my previous posts about this type of thing (particularly check out the first two):

Racial Perceptions and Genetic Admixtures

The Racial Line and Racial Identity

Race Realism, Social Constructs, and Genetics

Racial Reality Tunnel

Also, check out this good piece from the New York Times:

Rachel Dolezal’s Unintended Gift to America
by Allyson Hobbs, The New York Times

But Ms. Dolezal’s view of herself — however confused, or incongruent with society’s — reveals an essential truth about race: It is a fiction, a social construct based in culture and not biology. It must be “made” from what people believe and do. Race is performative. It is the memories that bind us, the stories passed down to us, the experiences that we share, the social forces that surround us. Identities are never entirely our own, but does that mean that we should lose all control in determining who we are?

In the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson relied on elaborate mathematical equations to determine when a “mulatto” legally became a white person. Charles W. Chesnutt, a racially ambiguous writer, asked “What Is a White Man?” in an 1889 essay and poked fun at the laws that allowed a person to change his or her racial designation by walking across a state line. How was it possible, Chesnutt wondered, that the same person could be classified as black in North Carolina but white in South Carolina? Even W. E. B. Du Bois had trouble formulating a theoretically accurate account of racial identity, so he put it simply: A black man is “a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” But his statement still leaves us with a puzzle: What would a black man be without Jim Crow to define him?

We know that race is not based on skin color, or blood, or any other factor inhering in biology. The ability of some light-skinned African-Americans to “pass” as white makes plain the unreliability of skin color in determining race. [. . . ]

The historical evidence is overwhelming, then, that the color line has always been far more porous and fragile than one might assume. In some places, it was so brittle that it could buckle and break. [ . . . ]

There is no essentialized, fixed, “true identity” waiting just below the surface. Identities are contingent, elusive and, as the cultural theorist Stuart Hall argued, “always in process.”

The racial conditions of our time — increasing numbers of interracial marriages and mixed-race children — allowed Ms. Dolezal to move across boundaries in ways that would have been far more socially unacceptable in the past.

While we cannot know how Rachel Dolezal understood her place in the world, neither her choice nor the unsavory entanglements it has wrought are unique.

As we contemplate the morality of her choice, however, we might do well to reflect on how such individual choices might relate to the larger collective goals of social justice. One can only imagine the impact they would have if a significant number of white Americans chose to identify themselves as kindred of Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Freddie Gray, Kayla Moore, Oscar Grant, Shelly Frey and Michael Brown.

Or, at the very least, perhaps we can use Ms. Dolezal’s story, puzzling as it is, as an opportunity to have a candid, lively, long-delayed, public conversation about the knotty meanings of race and racial identity, and how it has confounded our nation’s best aspirations. Perhaps we may yet move beyond the imprisoning boxes we have made.

What Africans Brought to America

African in American Ironwork
by Rashid Booker
from Noir Tickets

“African men with iron making skills were brought to the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia to work as blacksmiths on plantations and in the developing iron industry of 18th century Colonial America.

“By 1775, the colonies were the world’s third largest producer of iron, a dominance built largely on slave labor. Those in the Chesapeake were the most privileged of African and African American workers. The most skilled worked independently in positions of authority, even paid for work done on their own time.”

Most people think of slaves as mere cheap labor. But the reality is that enslaved Africans included people who were in many cases highly trained and educated. 

They brought their knowledge, skills, and culture to colonial America and it became part of colonial society. The slaveholders had the military and political power to enslave others, but they lacked many practical abilities. These slaveholders were reliant on enslaved Africans in more ways than just manual labor. 

Like ironwork, rice cultivation was developed independently in West Africa. This rice cultivation, unknown to Europeans, involved a particular set of skills and knowledge embedded in a particular cultural social order. Slaveholders incorporated this, among many other things, into the plantation system.

Few Americans today realize how influential slaves were. Colonial America wasn’t just an English society, but a hybrid society.

Racial Perceptions and Genetic Admixtures

As to who is a Negro in the United States, I have come to the
conclusion after long and careful thought that to be an expert on
that subject the first qualification is to be crazy. Only those who
are able to throw all logic, all reasoning to the winds, can ever
hope to be authorities on that matter.
~ J. A. Rogers. The World’s Greatest Men of Color.

I came across further data on genetic admixtures in the American population. I’ve discussed some of this before, but a summary of the key data seemed in order.

First, there is more diversity among Africans than there are between all other geographic populations in the world. As stated by Rotimi (in Genetic ancestry tracing and the African identity: a double-edged sword?), “that African populations have more genetic variation between them (estimates are as high as 95%) than when Africans are compared to other peoples who migrated out of Africa thousands of years ago (estimates are as low as 3%)” It would make more sense to combine all non-Africans as a single race than to combine Africans as a single race.

Besides, all diversity in all populations exists in a continuum and phenotype features exist on a gradient (e.g., lighter to darker skin), the reason being that various genetic clusters exist across geographic populations. This is why Southern Europeans have more genetic diversity in a way that is more similar to Africans than to Northern Europeans. After all, Southern Europeans have shared more genetic history and proximity with Africans and other Mediterranean populations.

Which genetic cluster one focuses on will determine how one sees various populations as similar or dissimilar. The greatest diversity of such clusters, though, will be found among Africans rather than between Africans and non-Africans. Appearances such as skin color are genetically deceiving. Or to put it scientifically: There are many genotypes that can contribute to the same or similar phenotypes.

Second,  African-Americans have on average 20-25% European genetics (although some studies show it as low as 18% and some as high as 30%). This makes sense since, as Henry Louis Gates Jr explains, “As we have shown in the “African American Lives” series on PBS, […] between 30 and 35 percent of all African American males can trace their paternal lineage (their y-DNA) to a white man who impregnated a black female most probably during slavery.”

More interesting, at least 5% of African-Americans have more than 50% European genetics and a recent study (Shriver) puts that at about 10% of African-Americans. Some African-Americans are almost entirely European, except for a tiny percentage of African genetics. “People who identify as African-American may be as little as 1 percent West African or as much as 99 percent”, according to Genetic study clarifies African and African-American ancestry (Phys.org). Some studies have even found that 5.5% of so-called African-Americans had no detectable African genetics.

Taken together, this means that at least in some ways African-Americans are even more genetically diverse than the African populations that are part of their ancestry. African-Americans include the ancestors of the original slaves from West Africa and other slaves from the non-Anglo-American colonies with various other admixtures, Jamaicans in particular being highly diverse. Also included are the newer immigrants who have no enslaved ancestors and who come from every region of Africa, thus bringing with them that immense genetic diversity.

A not insignificant point is that a large number of African-Americans should be more accurately designated as European-Americans. Just think about this. Whenever you pass a group of ‘black’ people, the probability is that at least one of them is actually mostly European and may have very little or no African genetics. Indeed, if you suspend the typical American racial biases, you’ll notice most ‘black’ Americans do have lighter skin than the average African, often as light skinned as other non-African people including many Southern Europeans.

A person can have mostly European genetics and still have darker skin and wavy hair that they inherited from African ancestry even without any slave ancestors (after all, skin and hair genetics are only a small percentage of inherited genetics). Why aren’t dark-skinned, dark-wavy-haired Europeans  such as Italians more accurately called African-Europeans? Why aren’t dark-skinned, dark-wavy-haired Italian-Americans more accurately called African-European-Americans?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a person can have ‘white’ features while having a ‘black’ great grandparent or several ‘black’ great great grandparents. Even a single ‘black’ grandparent wouldn’t necessarily lead to a person being noticeably non-‘white’, depending on the genetics inherited. A genetic analysis of James D. Watson’s DNA, following some racist remarks he made about Africans, claimed to have shown he had 16% African genetics (and 9% Asian genetics for a total of 25% non-European genetics). Another self-identified white researcher, Mark D. Shriver, found he had 20% African genetics. Watson and Shriver look as white as can be and neither of their families have any stories about black ancestry. Around a third (30%) of white Americans has the equivalent of three African ancestors in recent centuries (2.3% African genetics).

Here is an interesting way to think about it (Stephan Palmié, Genomics, Divination, “Racecraft”):

“As Stuckert (1976) has pointed out in an ingenuous statistical extrapolation from historical records, by the time of the 1970 U.S. census, some 24% of all persons listed as “white” might reasonably have been presumed to have had African ancestors, while more than 80% of all “blacks” would have had non-African ancestors. Transformed into numerical values, this means nothing less than that the overwhelming majority of all Americans of African ancestry – i.e. about 42 millions at the time – had not been counted into the black population (which then stood at 22 millions), but classified as white. Put differently, there were (and surely still are) almost double the number of “white”Americans of African descent as “black” ones (cf. Palmié 2002).”

This is far from commonsense, according to our standard assumptions. ‘White’ Americans with African genetics are a smaller percentage of the total ‘white’ American population as compared to the percentage found in ‘black’ Americans. However, since the white population is larger, the raw number of ‘white’ Americans with African genetics is larger than the raw number of ‘black’ Americans with African genetics.

The US population is genetically mixed to a greater extent than most people would have predicted and more than the racial realists/purists would have preferred. Since the miscegenation laws ended, this mixing has been increasing generation after generation. All the above numbers would be even higher for the younger generations. As far as that goes, these kinds of admixtures are already higher in most countries around the world. To speak of ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ as general categories for all countries, the US is highly unusual in having relatively low rates of admixture. It isn’t just unusual, but maybe a bit unnatural.

In conclusion, ultimately race is an arbitrary social construct. Yes, it is real to the extent that, like any social construct, it can be enforced onto a population. But no, it isn’t inherent to genetics as an a priori reality. Plus, even with centuries of enforced genetic segregation, much of racial identity requires subjective perception and still perception often fails to tell us much about the actual genetics of individuals.

You have to be looking for the social construct of race in order to find it, both in appearances or in genetics. There are millions of distinctions between humans and hypothetically any or all of these could be called races. The point is that the folk taxonomy of races doesn’t fit the data, although one can cherrypick data to fit whatever theory one wishes to prove by way of circular reasoning. In the end, though, it just doesn’t add up to a plausible scientific theory. The relationship between genotype and phenotype is too complex and nuanced for centuries old non-scientific racist categories.

See below for more info:

Our Hidden African Ancestry
by ScottH

Researchers at 23andMe looked at the genetic ancestry of about 78,000 customers likely to consider themselves as entirely of European ancestry and found that somewhere between 3 percent and 4 percent of those people have “hidden” African ancestry.

The percent of African ancestry is relatively low with the majority of individuals having just 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent — which suggests that those people have an African ancestor who lived about six generations, or about 200 years, ago.

This is by no means meant to represent the percent of African ancestry among those who identify themselves as being of European descent across America. It is simply a snapshot of those in our database at this time. Our researchers have also excluded those with more than 5 percent African ancestry with the assumption that it’s more likely that their ancestry is known. That doesn’t mean it is known, just as it doesn’t mean that those of European descent with 5 percent or less African ancestry are unaware of it. In addition, our database includes customers who are actually European so the actual percentage of Americans of European descent in our database who have African ancestry may be higher.

But we believe this is the first detailed look of the African ancestry among those who consider themselves white. It begs many questions for possible future study. For instance, looking at the generational distribution implied by the percentages it appears most of the mixing occurred 200 years ago or more. Was intermixing between black and white more acceptable during that time in American history? Or was the relative isolation of people then such that the societal taboos against such mixing were more lax?

At the very least these findings suggest a more nuanced picture of race relations at that time.

Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States
Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet

With this added information, three aspects of the scatter diagram suddenly jump out at you. First, there is significant overlap between White and Black Americans regarding Afro-European genetic admixture. Some so-called “Black” Americans have less DNA admixture of African ancestral origin than do some so-called “White” Americans. Second, the admixture range of Black Americans spans the entire chart. While most of the subjects who self-identify as Black (marked as circles) have strong African admixture (are found towards the right), some have little or no African admixture (are found at the left edge). Finally, although the range of genetic admixture in those who self-identify as “White” is narrower than the admixture range of Blacks, it is still significant. Many so-called “White” Americans have as much as 20 percent or more of African genetic admixture.

[ . . . ] Three points of interest present themselves upon your examining this graph. First, as in the prior chart, there is genetic admixture overlap between Americans of the Black and White endogamous groups within the range of from zero to thirty percent African genetic admixture. As in the Shriver study of skin tone, some so-called “White” Americans have over twenty percent African genetic admixture and some so-called “Black” Americans have little or none. Indeed, other studies have found that approximately 5.5 percent of members of the U.S. Black community have no detectable African genetic admixture.15

Second, the Black and White groups are not symmetrical. The mean African admixture among White Americans is low—roughly 0.7 percent African and 99.3 percent European admixture.16 To put this in perspective, this would have been the result if every member of the U.S. White endogamous group alive today had a single ancestor of one hundred percent African genetic admixture seven generations ago (around the year 1850). Of course, African alleles are not distributed evenly. Seventy percent of White Americans (like 5.5 percent of Blacks) have no detectable African genetic admixture at all. Among the thirty percent of Whites with African genetic admixture, the admixture ratio averages to about 2.3 percent, the equivalent of having a single ancestor of one hundred percent African genetic admixture from around the year 1880.17 Black Americans, on the other hand, have significant European admixture (averaging about 75 percent African and 25 percent European).

Third, the wide admixture spread of the two groups of New-World inhabitants contrasts with the narrow range of admixtures among Old-World inhabitants. A wide spread of genetic admixtures is characteristic of the Western Hemisphere. As evident in the chart, on the one hand, the U.S. White population spans a range of 15-20 percent and the U.S. Black population covers a 30-40-percent range. On the other hand, the Nigerian population covers only a 10-precent spread and the Congolese population spans only a 5-percent range.

[ . . . ] About one-third of White Americans are of between two and twenty percent recent African genetic admixture, as measured by the ancestry-informative markers in their DNA.19 This comes to about 74 million Americans. And yet, day-to-day experience teaches that virtually all White Americans look, well, White. Some may look more Mediterranean and others may look more Nordic, but very few White Americans have a distinctively African appearance.

[ . . . ] And so, why do few if any White Americans display a strongly African appearance (have a high melanin index) despite having detectable African admixture? Because those Americans who “look Black” are assigned involuntarily to the Black endogamous group, whatever their genetic admixture. The scatter diagrams of the two endogamous U.S. groups are not symmetrical because the selection process acts only upon the White group. As revealed in court records, discussed elsewhere, a person of mixed ancestry who “looks European” (like Dr. Shriver or his maternal grandfather) in practice has the option of either adopting a White self-identity, thus joining the White endogamous group or a Black self-identity, thus joining the other group. But a person of mixed ancestry who “looks African” lacks such a choice. U.S. society assigns such a person to membership in the Black endogamous group, like it or not.25

In conclusion, U.S. society has unwittingly applied selection pressure to the color line. The only American families accepted into the White endogamous group have been those whose African admixture just happened not to include the half-dozen alleles for dark skin (or the other physical traits associated with “race”). Since those particular alleles were sifted out of the portion of the White population that originated in biracial families, the relative percentage of the remaining, invisible, African alleles in this population cannot affect skin color. That skin-color does not vary with African genetic admixture among American Whites, despite their measureably recent African admixture, demonstrates and confirms that physical appearance has been an important endogamous group membership criterion throughout U.S. history. It has resulted in genetic selection of the White U.S. population for a European “racial” appearance, regardless of their underlying continent-of-ancestry admixture ratio.