How do we know? Scientists mapped the human genome.
[UPDATE: For an engaging presentation of the points in this earlier post, please see the episode “Decoding Our Past through DNA” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s television series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. : http://www.pbs.org/weta/finding-your-roots/decoding-past-dna-full-episode/12882/ ]
Scientists have also traced humankind’s migration history over the last 67,000 years by studying mutations called “markers” in our mitochondrial DNA (the DNA that powers our cells) and in the Y chromosome.
I recently received my results from the National Geographic Society’s genographic project, which studies the deep history of our species. This example may help to clarify why “race” is a false biological concept.
Here’s what my report stated: “The common direct maternal ancestor to all women alive today was born in East Africa around 180,000 years ago….[This] L branch is shared by all women alive today, both in Africa and around the world. The [later] L3 branch is the major maternal branch from which all mitochondrial DNA lineages outside of Africa arose.”
In other words, we are all genetically African. Those ancestors who left Africa to populate the rest of the world all descend from a later shared L3 ancestor. Our ancestors who went on to populate Europe and Asia also mated with Neanderthals and Denisovans, two archaic human species. Neanderthal genes make up between 1-4% of people of European descent. A few have a trace of Denisovan genes, which are also found in Asian populations.
My students were often shocked to learn that there is no genetic basis to “race” as defined in the United States and tracked in our census. What of skin color? It’s an adaptation to protect us from radiation and is found near the equator and at high elevations around the world…not just Africa. What of nappy hair? It’s found in diverse populations around the world too. The Nazis could not accurately define the “Jewish race” by facial features such as one’s nose size and shape.
And African Americans in the US? Thanks to slavery and the right of white masters to rape slaves, African Americans today usually have between 20% and 40% of their genome from Europeans. Some of Jefferson’s descendants by slave Sally Hemings passed as white for generations and forgot their history in the process.
If you dig into American history, it’s obvious that our concept “race” was rooted in British colonial practices regarding migration, then changed over time. To Americans, “race” has come to refer to the continent from which people migrated, with all of the power imbalances caught up in these migrations.
As countries in Europe began to develop into modern nation-states, they began to homogenize diverse ethnicities, languages, and cultural practices within their borders. Each nation-state came to see itself as a single people with a single language, culture, and history: the German “race,” the French “race,” etc. Then there were the inferior colonized peoples.
Ben Franklin disparaged what he saw as the inferior German race in the USA because it was too blond, for one thing.
So, what do geneticists say about modern populations?
When scientists map an individual’s genome, and not just the special DNA that reveals our ancient origins, that genome is compared to average genomes from 18 regions of the world. So, for example, the “average” Italian genome has 59% from southern Europe, 33% from Central, Eastern, and Western Europe, and a dash of genes from regions outside of Europe. We all likely diverge from a statistical average. Each person’s history is unique.
So, what does this say about “race” as a category at all?
In societies around the world, “race” is defined in a variety of ways– if at all–and relates to a society’s own particular history and power relations.
In the end, we are all biologically African at the root. Our varied appearances are a result of physical adaptations to the particular environments our ancestors experienced. But no one trait such as hair or skin types (or nose size and shape, as in the Nazi handbooks) can serve to identify a single group of people as separate from all others.
“Race” is only real as a social category, i.e. one that a society creates for itself; and it’s a powerful one. In the United States, “race” has been used to disempower certain migrant groups in order to reinforce the power of dominant migrant communities. (Even the Daughters of the Mayflower are immigrants!) It isn’t just about slavery. It’s also about the anti-miscegenation laws and refusal of citizenship to Asian Americans; it’s the genocide of native Americans; it’s the use of IQ tests in the early 20th century to brand German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrant children as biologically inferior in order to argue against their access to public education.
As a result of the recent presidential election, white nationalists are once again espousing an indefensible position of superiority and inciting fear. There is no biological “white” race. Let’s move on as a civilization. It’s well past time.