Pondering Patterson [V]: The Reality Of Race

Pondering Patterson Series [
I
], [ II ], [ III
], [ IV ], [
VI
]

Considering
that the American descendents of Europeans and
sub-Saharan Africans have been interbreeding to some
degree ever since 1619, why are the government`s racial
categories of "white" and "black"
still highly useful to medical researchers, forensic
scientists, educational researchers, athletic coaches,
criminologists, and the like? Haven`t we all just
blended together so much that drawing racial lines
between people is meaningless?

Many
argue that there`s no biological reality behind calling
African-Americans "black" since most are some
shade of brown, reflecting their mixed race heritage.
The usual guesstimate over the years has been that
African-Americans average about 25% to 30% white or
Amerindian genes. Indeed, there tend to be notable
visual differences between African Americans, especially
well-educated ones, and Africans. While I was at UCLA in
1980-82, I spent a lot of time hanging out with my
Cameroonian friends. I could soon fairly reliably
distinguish UCLA`s Africans from UCLA`s
African-Americans by sight (and, interestingly enough,
sometimes by smell, although I never got to the bottom
of whether that was caused by different kinds of soap or
cologne, diet, or more permanent physical differences
between Africans and African-Americans).

The
theory of the social construction of blackness is
particularly popular among intellectuals, in part
because many famous black intellectuals are quite white
in appearance. My hero, Thomas Sowell, is quite dark,
though. Sowell, who is acutely aware of the long history
of discrimination by African Americans who could pass
the "paper
bag test
" against dark people like himself,
suggests that the reason middle class African Americans
tend to be fairer in color than lower class ones is
because much of the black middle class is descended from
the offspring of slaves and masters. Since keeping their
own children as slaves raised awkward issues and
embarrassing questions, plantation owners would often
free their mulatto kids and send them off to the big
city with enough money to set themselves up in some kind
of trade. This process gave mulattos a several
generation head start over their black slave cousins in
learning how to support themselves. Sowell`s theory
certainly sounds plausible, although you could certainly
come up with a simpler explanation. 

Recent
genetic data, however, suggests that African Americans
and whites – overall – really do form two quite
distinctly different groups, just the way everybody who
isn`t an intellectual has always figured. Indeed, the
government`s categories of "white" and
"black" appear to be, well, good enough for
government work. Although early estimates claimed that
Africans Americans were 1/4th or even 3/10th white, a
major study using sophisticated genetic tools found that
those who identify themselves as African American appear to be
only about 1/6th white. People who call themselves white
seem to average under 1% black.

A
1998 study of genetic markers
that appeared in the American Journal of Human Genetics looked at 1022 self-identified
African Americans from nine big cities. The study found
a weighted average level of European genetic admixture
of 16.4%. In other words, if this sample is
demographically representative (and it lacked rural
Southern participants, who are usually assumed to be the
blackest of African Americans), then African Americans
are about 5/6th black and 1/6th white.

Earlier
estimates of higher degrees of white admixture were
based on cruder blood type studies done before the
advent of genetic testing. The highest white mixture was
found in New Orleans African Americans (22.5%) and the
lowest in Charleston (11.6%). That New Orleans was the
most mixed is hardly surprising because for many years
it followed the Latin model of a Color Continuum rather
than a Color Line.

The
researchers didn`t find any examples of American Indian
genes within their African American sample, although if
they had looked in Florida and Oklahoma, they no doubt
would have found some.

They
also looked at 125 self-identified whites in three
locations. They found a weighted average African
admixture of 0.7%, with a large margin for error. If
that holds up, that would be consistent with, say,
nearly one/fourth of the white population having one
black great-great-great grandparent. But, the sample
size was so small that few conclusions should be drawn
yet.

This
huge statistical difference won`t convince most
intellectuals that race is reasonably real because they
suffer from Plato`s
disease
: the assumption that reality fundamentally
consists of abstract essences best described by words or
geometry. (In truth, reality is largely a probabilistic
affair best described by statistics.) Postmodernism is
the result of intellectuals being shocked to learn that
reality is not Platonic (e.g., races are only somewhat
more sharply defined than are extended families) and
thus deciding to give up believing in reality rather
than in Platonism.


NEXT: Responding To
The Reality Of Race


[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and


movie critic
for


The American Conservative
.
His website


www.iSteve.blogspot.com
features his daily
blog.]

June 11,
2001