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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

What Race Is Meghan Markle? What about Sally Hemmings?

The impact of whole-genome sequencing on the reconstruction of human population history by Krishna R. Veeramah and Michael F. Hammer (https://www.nature.com/articles/nrg3625)

Should We the People classify Americans based on race other than human? To some extent that is a trick question. As it turns out there is more to the human race than meets the eye. Specifically Neanderthals and Denisovans. As scientific technology enables more and more precise DNA analysis from longer and longer ago, we find that the human race is more complicated than a simple division based on color. When homo sapiens went out of Africa to what became Eurasia they encountered related beings known today as Neanderthals and Denisovans. The result of these encounters is that Eurasians carry about 2% Neanderthal genes and East Asians carry Denisovan genes in addition to the Neanderthal. Based on the one-drop rule, many people who think of themselves as fully human beings aren’t and there are genetic differences among people beside skin color.

Putting aside the application of the one-drop rule to determining who is human, there still is the issue of the classification of people by the traditional races of black/Negroid, white/Caucasian, and yellow/Oriental. For example, recently there has been some changes in the nomenclature for third group. They seem to have become Asian-Americans.

The use of this fake term is detrimental to America. As previously reported in Did Little Syria in Lower Manhattan Consist of Asian-Americans? – Issue for the 2020 Census, the current usage in the United States represents a gross distortion of the meaning for millennia of the term “Asia.” The word was invented by the ancient Greeks to refer to people to their east like the Trojans in modern Turkey traditionally called “Asia Minor.” The term was extended to the Persians in modern Iran as the Greeks famously encountered them at the Battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. Alexander the Great pushed even further east to Afghanistan. Yet the Greeks who created the word “Asia” never encountered the people Americans call Asians today. The contact tended to be with Caucasians, the people who still populate Central Asia, South Asia, Southwest Asia, and north Asia (Russia) but not East Asia or Southeast Asia.

One should not be surprised that developments in naming black people have been equally convoluted. For example, there is an issue in Cuba with the passing from power from the Castros who were white Spanish-Cubans. In one article I read, there was some concern expressed by the black Cubans over their lack of representation in the new government. Nothing was mentioned about Hispanics, Native Peoples, or Indigenous Peoples, the terms so beloved by politically correct Americans. The issue for American demographics is not the black-white one in Cuba, but how to classify those people who become immigrants and refugees from Cuba in the United States. The whites tend to be classified as white just like whites from Spain and other European countries. The blacks are not middle-passage blacks to the United States. That may be how they arrived in Cuba centuries ago but it is not how they arrived here today. The term African American for blacks from Cuba seems bogus and absurd so how should they be classified? Are they brown people to use another term in vogue? Racially they are black, nationally they are Cuban, and perhaps culturally they are too. Since they speak Spanish they can be considered Hispanic culturally in the United States as well but not racially since Hispanic is not a race. So how should we classify them racially?

Brazil poses a similar problem. Once again there is a political issue in the country. The issue is not due to death of a president as in Cuba but corruption necessitating a presidential election. The sudden and surprising potential black presidential candidate disrupted the racial equilibrium in the country. Brazil is a country of blacks, whites, and mixed with the people in power generally being white. Discussions of the power politics in Brazil do not involve Hispanics, Natives People, or Indigenous Peoples either. Anthropologists studying human life in Neolithic times tend to be the ones most interested in the people who might be deemed indigenous. The question again for American demographics is how to classify the white, black, and mixed people who emigrate to this country. How do we make new arrivals fit into our racial classification system?  The term African American for blacks from Brazil seems bogus and absurd so how should they be classified? Are they brown people to use another term in vogue? Racially they are black, nationally they are Brazilian, and perhaps culturally they are too. Since they speak Portuguese they can be considered Hispanic culturally in the United States but not racially since Hispanic is not a race. So how should we classify them racially?

The situation in Venezuela is similar. The country prides itself on its Miss Universe contestants. Guess what race they are? I suppose the same could be said for the famed Weather Women of the region as well as for the actors in the leading roles in the telenovelas.  Because of the collapse of the economy, Venezuelans are fleeing to neighboring countries. Those countries are reaching their limits on their welcome for these people. While they have not degenerated to the level of calling such refugees murders, rapists, and animals and demanded the building of a wall, they are not simply one big happy Hispanic family either (“Venezuela’s Turmoil Is Testing Brazil’s Limits” New York Times 4/29/18 posted online as ‘Their Country Is Being Invaded’: Exodus of Venezuelans Overwhelms Northern Brazil ). Suppose they flee to the United States. How should we classify them racially?

Consider also the dilemma of Puerto Ricans who are American citizens and therefore already forced into the American racial classification system (see “Are Puerto Ricans White?” History News Network). Once again the sharp lines of black and white that have dominated the American discussion don’t seem particularly relevant. With intermarriage on the rise in the mainland, almost any racial classification system will only be valid for the moment. This trend will only accelerate among college-educated Americans. Remember when the marriage of white Irish Catholics and white Italian Catholics was an intermarriage? “Mixed” seems to be a common experience in the United States. We may wish to harken back to those homo sapiens who first encountered the Neanderthals and Denisovans and recognize that “mixed” is what we do.

Sally Hemmings was 75% white and 25% black. She had a white father and a biracial mother. She had three white grandparents and six white great-grandparents. These numbers are important because Virginia in the 18th century did not adhere to the one-drop rule. Instead it had the 7/8 or 87.5% rule. That means if seven of your eight great-grandparents were white then you were white legally. Sally Hemmings at six great-grandparents fell short of this standard. However, if she and Thomas Jefferson or any Jefferson had a child, then that child legally would be white…at least under the 18th century standards. Times would change.

75% white is whiter than Halle Barry, whiter than Mariah Carey, and whiter than Meghan Markle. Sally Hemmings who easily may have been lighter than Markle, was a white woman who resembled her deceased half-sister, the 100% white wife of Thomas Jefferson. Of course, being biracial even at 50-50% can still lead to fifty shades of black and white. Biracial Barack Obama is darker than these biracial women. One also needs to take into account that middle passage blacks in America average 20-25% white ancestry generally against the will. The result is that even people who are classified as black as the child of black parents and black grandparents probably have some white ancestry. So the black mothers of Barry, Carey, and Markle may be part white as well. As more and more people have their DNA tested by choice (and not by police), it may become more and more easy to identify the racial composition of people using the conventional racial classification system. It’s not hard to imagine a time when high yellow blacks will be asked to prove how black they are through DNA tests. So far such calls have been limited to calling for proof of authenticity. Think of the flack John Kerry got for windsurfing. Now imagine if Obama had windsurfed instead of playing basketball!

One only has to look at the people who pass for black to realize how racist we are. The reverse is also true. Think of the people who pass for white. Think of the people who genuinely believe they are white. Think of the 87.5% white people who married 100% white people. Generations may pass but still that black ancestry remains part of the person and the descendants. You never know which gene may suddenly express itself so to speak. And then you may take a DNA test seeking to find the various countries in Europe which contributed to your ancestry only to discover, whoops, there’s some black ancestry I never knew about. MOM! WHAT HAPPENED? HOW COME I AM PART BLACK? DAD! WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT WAS THAT GREAT-GRANDPARENT WE DON’T SPEAK ABOUT? The “taint” will set you free … or into denial (see “They Considered Themselves White, But DNA Tests Told a More Complex Story” Washington Post, 2/6/18).

So where does all this leave us? Let’s return to the original question. Should We the People classify people based on race other than human? The answer is yes. We know we are going to do it so why pretend otherwise. With DNA testing the answers will become even more precise. Both political parties champion identity politics and exploit identities for their own benefit although not necessarily in the same way. Given that we are going to classify people based on race other than human, what races should we use? Lumping black blacks from Africa and the Caribbean with middle passage blacks really distorts the quota system against the “400 years a slave” people. We need to do a better job classifying people and we need to do it before the 2020 census confuses the issue even more. To do so requires We the People to have an adult conversation about race. That’s even less likely than our President telling the truth.

11 thoughts on “What Race Is Meghan Markle? What about Sally Hemmings?

  1. Thank you, Peter Feinman, for addressing this subject. After DNA analysis, and after getting into the habit of writing (and reading) descriptive paragraphs instead of relying on single or hyphenated words which obscure racial identity, will it be fair to consider possible characteristics? eg: Are Denisovans better in math than Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens? If so, why?

    1. The percentages of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in us is pretty small, but in general you are right to note that as the technology improves, there will be a greater and greater understanding of the functions of the genes individually and collectively and how peoples in different environments adapted to their surroundings.

  2. Really, Peter, who cares?

    It’s the family tree of Sally Hemmings that is interesting.
    Abigail Adams was horrified when the Virginia family sent the younger Jefferson dtr, age about 9, to Paris, with Sally, about 15, as her companion.

    I guess we’ll always have Paris. She apparently picked up French as a companion to the dtrs who went to a convent school there.

    She was free in Paris. Came home with him.

    I think one of the sons, freed by Jefferson, was a chef, and committed suicide after he left Virginia.

    It’s the intelligence and personality and drive of Meghan Markle that is interesting.
    The prince chose a good partner.
    Stand by me…great wedding song.

    1. As the recent escapade with Roseanne Barr shows, classification of people by race does make a difference today. Today’s New York Times has an article about octoroons based on a Broadway play from 1859. These things still matter.

  3. The April issue of National Geographic has a great issue on race. Twins that in South Africa would have been classified =one as colored and the other as white.This magazine is finally changing There was a good article on DNA too.Also events/clashes and genocide caused by race and ethnic differences
    Outsiders always make things worse, colonialists, etc., was discussed. I
    My DNA represents 4 continents but I identify as African American. Dr. CONCHITA NDEGE

    1. Thanks for the information. The library only has online versions through March so I may have to wait a month. You last comment raises the issue of what people are racially, however we choose to define those categories, and how people self-identify culturally. The two are not always the same especially when multiple races are involved. Suppose you have one Irish and one Italian parent to use an example from intermarriage in the old days, then you have a choice to make and a sibling might make a different choice.

      Thanks for writing.

  4. I’ve met several descendants of an interesting local 19th century mixed family. Some are unquestionably white, some unquestionably black. I doubt if this is unusual.
    I feel for the Jews. They had about one generation between discrimination for college admission because they were not white and discrimination because they are white.

  5. You are absolutely right. Biracial people can look very different in general and even in the same family.
    There was an episode in Northern Exposure where the Jewish doctor in Alaska made that exact same point that he wasn’t white.

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