Pondering Patterson [V]: The Reality Of Race
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Pondering Patterson Series [I ], [ II ], [ III], [ IV], [V] [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

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