It’s Not as Easy as Black or White: Genetics and Race

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

In the last post in this series, I described how Joel Augustus Rogers focused his books on Black people who were the world’s great leaders, including people whom society typically regards as “White.” Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas are examples. This post explores why many Americans are surprised to discover that these men have Black roots, while without hesitation, they label Meghan Markle as the first Black princess. (She was not; Queen Charlotte was.) The answer lies in America’s unique and lingering attitude toward Black people, a position that has its roots in slavery.

Geneticists have traced the dispersion of humans eons ago, out of Africa, across the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia, Europe, and beyond. The Out-of-Africa, single-origin theory posits that nine of the ten human species became extinct, leaving homo sapiens, which originated in Africa, to win the human race. Between 180,000 and 300,000 B.C., this species moved out of Africa and scattered throughout the rest of the world.

As the species moved from tropical latitudes and mated with people from temperate and polar climes, the genetic markers that dictate skin, hair, and eye coloration mutated. Over the last 70,000 years, African descent became diluted.

The final destination of these African descendants determined the government’s treatment of them.

America’s colonists, who desired a cheap workforce for their plantations, created a divide between black and white people to justify enslaving Africans. In the 1660s, colonial legislators enacted laws that defined the status of children born of female slaves raped by white men. Rather than adopting English common law, which granted children the legal status of their fathers, the Virginia legislators gave them the status of their black mothers. This law ensured that the children of slaves would remain the property of the slave owner. This concept—also known as the one-drop-of blood rule—decreed that persons with as little as one black great-grandparent (one-quarter black or a quadroon) were “Black.” Thomas F. Dixon, the author of The Clansman, described the rule as follows: “One drop of Negro blood makes a Negro. It kinks the hair, flattens the nose, thickens the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions.” Pushkin and Dumas were both quadroons and proud of their Black heritage. Once when confronted about his race, Dumas replied: “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.”

The final destination of these African slaves determined the government’s treatment of them.

In 1691, legislators enacted a law forbidding miscegenation—a distinctly American term describing interracial sexual relations—fining the mother fifteen pounds and requiring the child to work in servitude for thirty years. The law protected the investment and property rights of slave owners and ensured a steady supply of labor. In southern states, these laws lasted for over 250 years until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.

In contrast, Latin American countries encouraged racial mixing. This ideology, called mestizaje, focuses on the inclusion of indigenous and black people and is founded on two principles. First, that “race mixture is good for the nation,” and second, that interracial marriage is the “ultimate marker of racial and ethnic integration.” Governments adopted mestizaje in the 1900s to “whiten” the population during an era when scientific racism “proved” that nonwhite people were biologically inferior to whites. By whitening the community, governments hoped to facilitate national development. Some nations encouraged European immigration to whiten society. Later, during a post-revisionist stage, the concept of mestizaje was rebranded as the racial democracy, a myth.

The different attitudes toward race mixing—with the United States’ history of segregation and Latin America’s attempts at whitening—are evident in genetic studies. A recently published study of the DNA of 50,281 people from both sides of the Atlantic shows that the African population is five times lower in Latin American countries than in the United States, even though 90% of slaves were sent to Latin America and 6% to North America.

In 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro (2017), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes that “the average African American is 73.2 percent sub-Saharan African, 24 percent European, and only 0.8 percent Native American.” And “a whopping 35 percent of all African-American men descended from a White male ancestor [of European ancestry] who fathered a mulatto child sometime in the slavery era, probably from rape or a coerced sexual act.” This is called “hidden African ancestry.” Southern states are home to the majority of these “hidden Black people.” For example, 13 percent of “Whites” in South Carolina have more than one percent African ancestry.

13 percent of “Whites” in South Carolina have more than one percent African ancestry.

Gates wondered how many White Americans would be classified as Black today under the one-drop rule, interpreted literally. The answer: 7,872,702. The census counts 44 million Americans as Black and another 48 million as mixed race. If these people with “hidden African ancestry” were counted as mixed race, there would be an extra 8 million mixed-race Americans. That is, 13% of Americans would be Black and an additional 17% as mixed-race under the literal one-drop rule.

Gates concludes: “The bottom line, judging from these DNA test results, is that Black and White Americans are inextricably interconnected at the level of their genomes, and African Americans are a profoundly mixed people, far more so than anyone thought possible before these tests were invented.” It proves that race is a social construct.

Does this matter? Gates replies: “Of course it matters, because the more we learn about the black, white, and browning of our past, the more we can see how absurd, arbitrary, and grotesque the one-drop rule—which defined the color line in America for decades and decades during its most painful chapters—truly was.”

Fifty years ago, one percent of babies born were multiracial. Today, the rate is fourteen percent. Nour Kteily, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University researched how Black people and White people view multi-racial people. She discovered that both groups consider biracial people as “more Black than white,” a direct result of the “one drop of blood” rule or hypodescent. Kteily and her colleagues asked 200 White people and 200 Black people about hypodescent. On a scale of 1 (“relatively White”) to 7 (“relatively Black”), respondents tended to rate a biracial child about the same (4.25 for White participants compared with 4.42 for Black respondents, both well above the scale’s midpoint of 3.5. The researchers concluded that Black people are more apt to label a biracial child as Black if they believe the child will grow up in a discriminatory environment. This result is consistent with the view that a collectively-shared negative experience encourages solidarity and inclusiveness.

In contrast, some people who regard themselves as Black are treated as White by society. Hind Makki, a Sudanese who immigrated to the United States as a child, recalls: “I always knew I was black.” When her father registered Hind for school, he had to fill out a form that indicated her race. Hind’s father wondered aloud why this was required. The administrator suggested that he tick off the White box since the family spoke Arabic at home. Her father patted his Afro and announced, “We may speak Arabic at home, but you can clearly see that we are black.” (Even today, the U.S. Census Bureau classifies Arabic-speaking persons as White because the earliest immigrants were White Levantine Christians of French or Italian descent.) Because no one at her school seemed to consider her to be black, Hind wondered: “As an Afro-Arab, am I Black enough to be considered racially Black in America?” This is a common challenge for Sudanese Americans, whose “racial identities are often erased. Though many identify as black, proximity to the Arabic language negates their claim to blackness in the eyes of others.” This experience is called “intersectional invisibility,” a phrase coined by Professor Valerie Purdie Vaughns “to describe the phenomenon that occurs within a subordinate group in which individuals with intersecting identities (Black and Muslim, for example—embodying racial and religious minority identities) are not perceived to be typical members of that group and often erased from the collective imagination.” People with more than one subordinate identity “tend to be marginal members within marginalized groups.”

So is Meghan Markle, White, Black, or biracial? Like Hind, when Meghan was in school, a teacher told her to check the White box on a school census form. Meghan refused. When she heard her mother called the N-word, she was mortified. “My skin rushed with fear. I shared my mother’s heartache.”

When Meghan was in school, a teacher told her to check the White box on a school census form.

The question of Meghan’s racial identity is so confusing that a reader wrote the Chicago Tribune to ask for clarification: “Perhaps you can answer a question for me. In Britain, it seems, Meghan Markle is referred to as biracial. In the U.S., the press refers to her race as black. It was the same with Barack Obama. It strikes me that biracial is more accurate but wonder what you think? Or if you could explain it to me?”

The reporter explained: “African Americans are an embracing culture. If you have some of our blood running through your veins, we consider you one of us. I can only surmise that [the people who call Meghan and Obama “biracial”] feel like black people are trying to lay false claim to successful people who don’t really belong on our side of the aisle. It’s as if we want to hog all the credit for their success, without acknowledging the role the white side of them played. Or maybe they are desperate to preserve America’s white majority, which is quickly being overtaken by people of color. Whatever the reason, it seems silly.”

Why should biracial people have to choose a side?

Other Posts in this Series:

The Beer Summit: America’s Hesitancy to Talk About Race

Lies and Incivility in Congress Before the Age of Twitter

A Fearless and Penetrating Discussion of America’s Greatest Problem: Race

Synopsis of From Superman to Man

It’s Not Easy as Black or White

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