Tag Archives: racism

Going Rogue


Last night, I went with my family to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.   Prior to the film, there were two commercials.  The Google ad celebrated the beauty of diversity and togetherness.  The Apple ad was a clear statement that we should push past our fears of the different and take the time to help those in need who do not look like us. When we do that, we will find that we share a common humanity, no matter how different we appear.  These themes are not only appropriate to the season, but are also expressed in the film.


Prior to watching the film, I’d read some posts that noted that white supremacists were not at all happy with the film and wanted to boycott it.  Having now viewed the film, I can see why they might be ticked off.  The Empire evil-doers are all white males.  I did not see any females, white or otherwise, among the Empire leaders and rulers.

On the other hand, there were few white males among the leaders of the Rebellion.  The Rebellion displayed the actual diversity of the Galaxy, with women well-represented in the leadership.  None of the main characters of the Rebellion were white males, although white males did appear in the combat scenes.

Rogue One is clearly making the point that when white males are in sole charge, the Galaxy is at risk.  It takes diverse men and women working together to combat white male dominance and save the Galaxy.


The Empire built the Death Star to make resistance futile.  But the Rebellion shows that resistance is not futile.  Diversity that Builds Bridges can resist White Supremacy that Builds Walls.

#TheResistance  #ResistTheTroll


Last night while checking out what’s new on Netflix, I came across the Cleverman series.  Fortunately for me, the first season has only six episodes as I binge-watched the entire series and got to bed pretty late.


The series takes place in a near-future New South Wales, Australia with a cast that is of at least 50% Aboriginal ancestry.  A population of humans that is hairier and stronger suffers under the extreme ethnocentrism, racism, and bias of a large portion of the non-hairy population.  The series explores these issues along with ‘medical’ experimentation that resonated with a discussion I’d had earlier that day with my students about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.  In addition, the various subplots are connected by the spiritual practices of The Dreaming.

I strongly urge you to watch this series.  It makes you think and, for those who are not Australians, it gives you a fascinating glimpse into another culture.

Underground Airlines: Did Slavery Really End?

Sometimes a novel really hits me in the gut.  That is the case with Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.  This novel is disturbing, wrenching, powerful, and so terribly, terribly on-target.

Underground Airlines

Winters has written an alternate history that is not really alternate at all.  It is the 21st century United States of our reality thinly-disguised as from an alternate reality.

In the alternate history of Underground Airlines, Lincoln was assassinated in Indiana as he traveled East to his inauguration in 1861.  In order to prevent the Civil War, Congress agreed to the 18th Amendment which made slavery legal forever (or for as long as those states chose) in the then-current slave states.  No other states could become slave states.  Further, the Federal government, using the Federal Marshals, would be in charge of finding, capturing, and returning escaped slaves to their owners.  The Federal government would also monitor all slave operations to make sure that basic, minimum standards of care were maintained for the slaves.  Winters does an excellent job of weaving historical events in our reality of the past 150 years into the alternate reality.

In the alternate 21st century, only four states remain slave states: Carolina (North and South have joined into one state), Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  These states are fenced off from the rest of the US and have heavily-guarded entry/exit posts.  Due to pressure from abolitionists in the non-slave states, companies in the slave states cannot sell directly to non-slave states or most other countries.  However, holding companies with complex corporate structures manage to hide the ways in which they and their customers benefit from slave labor.

The One-Drop Rule has mutated into a precisely-delineated color chart with scores of skin-color shades marking an individual as “Black” and, therefore, suspected of being a slave, escaped slave, or, at best, a lesser form of human.

The protagonist in the novel is Victor, a former slave who has been coerced into working for the Marshals as a slave catcher.  His job is to hunt down escaped slaves and then notify the Marshals who will capture the individual in order to return him or her to the owner.  The story begins with Victor being given a case which feels ‘off’.  I won’t give any spoilers because I hope you will read the book.

The existence of slavery and the color chart prevents anyone who is not lightly-pigmented from being treated well and equally in the non-slave states, even if that person and his/her ancestors have been free for generations.  Those deemed Black are subject to intense scrutiny, must live in segregated neighborhoods that lack basic amenities, and must defer to the superior White individuals.  Even white abolitionists involved in the Underground Airlines view themselves as superior to non-whites.

In our own 21st century reality, many believe that slavery ended long ago, but that is only because they do not know our history of Post-Reconstruction share-cropping, which was slavery by another name.  They do not understand that the Jim Crow laws served to keep African Americans in an enforced, lower status with limited rights.  Anyone who was viewed as ‘getting uppity’ could be lynched. They do not see that racial profiling gives law enforcement and armed whites in stand-your-ground states almost unlimited freedom to treat and kill African Americans as if they were property rather than citizens with equal rights.  They are unaware of the vast number of goods sold in the U.S. that are farmed or manufactured by prison labor.  Nor that the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population; a prison population that includes a disproportionate number of African Americans, especially in the former slave states.

Underground Airlines makes it very clear that Black lives do not matter except as bodies to produce goods to enrich their owners.  How much does that alternate reality really differ from our own?  For those who wish to live in a reality where there is true equality and where Black Lives Matter as much as White lives, I suggest carefully reading this policy platform in order to consider how you can support it.


DNA and Race

I just finished reading DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America by Bryan Sykes.  This is a very odd book.  I was expecting to read a major genetic analysis of population diversity in the US.  Instead, it is more a travel log of Sykes’ tour of American landmarks with a few, essentially random, meetings with individuals where their DNA was collected for analysis. This analysis is discussed in one, relatively brief, concluding chapter. The topic of the book was more genealogical than genetic.

It seems that Sykes may have been hoping to write a book about the US similar to those Bill Bryson has written about Britain and Australia.  DNA USA somewhat resembles Bryson’s book on Australia: In a Sunburned Country, but Sykes does not have Bryson’s comedic flare nor verbal virtuosity.

Having said that, once I got past the fact that the book was not what I expected, I did enjoy reading it, perhaps because I have been to most of the places Sykes visited. In addition, I am interested in the ways in which genetics can inform, but also misinform (or, more precisely, under-inform) genealogy.

Sykes is a geneticist who uses mtDNA (passed through the maternal line) and Y chromosome (passed through the paternal line) to tie genetic information to the past. Soon after he began this research, he began to be inundated with requests from the general public to have their DNA analyzed.  Sykes made the decision to create a business, Oxford Ancestors, designed to meet this need. A similar business model, African Ancestry, was set up in the US by Rick Kittles and Gina Paige.

While some interesting genetic information can be obtained from these methods, vast amounts of information are unavailable.  To simplify this, think about a woman who has one or more sons, but no daughters.  Her mtDNA will not show up in her grandchildren since the only material passed from the sperm to the egg is the nuclear DNA (nDNA), not any mtDNA.  If her granddaughter has her mtDNA analyzed, the granddaughter will learn about her mother’s genetic line, but nothing about her paternal grandmother’s line.  The grandson can learn about his paternal grandfather’s line (along with his maternal line), but, again, nothing about his paternal grandmother’s line.  A huge chunk of genetic knowledge is unavailable by these methods. Not to mention that the actual amount of genetic information in mtDNA and the Y chromosome is extremely tiny compared to nDNA. Making broad statements about anyone’s ancestry when so much information is missing is, at the least, highly problematic.  Yet, that is exactly what genetics researchers using these two methods claim.  These claims even extend to human origins. I don’t wish to get into that topic more deeply in this blog post.  However, given what I’ve just written, I hope readers will apply great caution towards accepting claims about human origins made on such limited mtDNA and Y chromosome data.

For his American odyssey, Sykes decided to use a new, more informative genetic analysis developed by the company 23andMe. As described by Sykes, 23andMe uses nDNA and creates a colored portrait of an individual’s 22 autosomal chromosomes.  Prior nDNA researchers who analyzed the DNA of individuals from many different countries found genetic variants that are associated with particular groups.  For ease of analysis, these variants were lumped into three continental groups: Asian, European, and African.  For the purposes of analysis in the US, Asian is a proxy for Native American since genetic research has shown that these groups have a common origin. This method accesses information from both parents while also giving information on specific genes that have been identified on each chromosome.  In these respects, tying genetics to genealogy is more effective and complete than is the case with mtDNA or Y chromosome analyses. However, it is still incomplete.

The image below shows the process of genetic recombination during meiosis.  The orange and green represent one chromosome pair from the man while the pink and blue represent the same chromosome pair from the woman.  During meiosis, the chromosomes make a copy of themselves.  These copies line up close enough that chunks of DNA can be exchanged between the chromosomes.  Upon completion of meiosis, one chromosome each ends up in the sperm and egg.  These chromosomes passed on to their child represent only a small fraction of the DNA diversity in the parents.  As this process occurs in each generation, huge amounts of genetic information are lost over the generations.  If solid-color chromosomes were the ones in the egg and sperm, all genetic information for that chromosome from one paternal and one maternal grandparent would be lost in the child. Therefore, while nDNA is better for analyzing genetic history, it is by no means a complete picture of an individual’s genealogy.

Given these caveats, the method used by 23andMe does provide a great deal of useful information that is presented in the visually appealing format of chromosome painting. It is in the final chapter describing the genetic ‘portraits’ of the few individuals from whom Sykes obtained DNA that he makes observations that are particularly relevant to the subject of whether or not race is biological.  You might think that Sykes would support the idea of biological races given that these genetic methods divide the world into three groups: Asian/Native American, European, and African.  But Sykes recognizes that these are over-simplifications of actual diversity and views them more as geographical, rather than biological entities.

Americans are especially revealing in that most of them display genetic diversity rather than uniformity.  The only individuals Sykes analyzed that did not display diversity were the members of a genealogical society in Boston who could trace their ancestry in America back to the 17th and 18th centuries.  He found this quite surprising and concluded that any of their ancestors who inter-married with Native Americans became part of those cultural groups rather than the European-descent cultural group.  This is supported by the genetic analysis of individuals of Northeast Native American ancestry whose chromosome analyses show their genes to be almost entirely European derived.  European Americans with Southern ancestry showed some genetic evidence of African ancestry, while all African Americans showed European and Native American ancestry, although the percentages differed widely.  Sykes concluded that “…many whites with deep roots in the South have some black ancestors.” (p.313)  He mentions that he would like to have analyzed the DNA of a Ku Klux Klan member because he is pretty sure it would have sections indicating genes with African ancestry.  It would have been interesting to find out how that individual reacted to this knowledge.

Sykes notes that assuming because of someone’s appearance and/or culture that you can draw any conclusions about their genetics and health concerns demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the complexity of genetic inheritance.  As an example, Sykes points out that he has African ancestry for the tip of chromosome 11 while one of the African-American men he analyzed has European ancestry for that same region.  As this region includes the genes for beta-globin, Sykes states, contrary to what most physicians would conclude, that he, Sykes, could be a carrier for sickle cell anemia while the other man could not.

Another gene that showed diversity was P450 cytochromes found on chromosome 10.  This gene produces proteins which help to clear drugs and toxins from the liver.  Medical researchers have found that an African-derived form of the gene is less effective.  This led to different, lower dosing recommendations of drugs such as beta-blockers for African Americans.  However, since Americans have diverse genetic ancestry, simply assuming an individual African American should have a lower dose than an individual European American can lead to major errors.  Sykes states, “…that of my nine African American volunteers, only three have both copies of their P450 gene from African ancestors, three have one European and one African copy, and the genes of the remaining three are completely European.”  On the other hand, one of his southern European-American volunteers had the African form of the gene.  Racially categorizing these individuals would lead to medical errors.

The conclusion I draw from this book is one I have long held. Racial categories have little meaning whether they are assumed to be cultural or biological because genetics and culture have no necessary overlap.



Is racism OK if the group is extinct?

Along with some of my physical anthropology students, I attended a public lecture on the Neanderthal genome given by one of the men who worked on the genome.  An issue my students and I hoped the speaker would clarify is whether he considered Neanderthals a different species even though he admitted that EurAsians had some Neanderthal genes.

When one of my students asked about this, he stated that it was obvious they were a different species.  “Look at my graph! It’s obvious!”  However, it was not obvious.  His graph compared the DNA (presumably nDNA rather than mtDNA, but he was unclear on this) of three Neanderthal females from the site of Vindija, Croatia, to the DNA of multiple individuals from different 21st century populations.  There was a bit of a deviation of the Neanderthal lines from the non-Neanderthal lines, but the trend of the lines was the same. To further support his contention of different species, he said it was obvious from a comparison of the skulls of the two “species”.  He then showed a comparison of a La Ferrassie Neanderthal with a current European skull. This same student said that differences were not obvious when comparing skulls from around the same time period that belonged to Neanderthal and so-called moderns.  The speaker then began a jargon-dense explanation of a skull analysis technique that he felt proved his point.  I let this slide because of the type of audience present, but I did e-mail the speaker after the talk.  In that e-mail I noted that I’d been at conferences where one speaker using the technique he described ‘proved’ Neanderthals were a different species based on skull morphology, while the very next speaker, using the same technique and skulls, came to the conclusion that Neanderthals fell within modern human variation, and so were the same species as we are.  He didn’t respond to this.

Back at the talk, another of my students asked the speaker how he could be so sure of his conclusions when he had only three samples and they all came from the same site; and, further, had not been compared to ‘moderns’ from the same time period.  The speaker’s answer to this was not really clear, but seemed to be “Look at my graph! It’s obvious!”   I also asked him about this in my e-mail. He responded that he saw no point in comparing to “moderns.”  His comment: “We know that most of the DNA variation present within currently living humans dates back, on average, hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, there is little to be learned from sequencing early modern humans. Nevertheless, this is being done anyway. In fact, there was a paper in Science last week
(http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6080/466.full) with DNA from several Neolithic humans. Unsurprisingly, they differ little from currently living humans.”

I replied that Neolithic humans lived thousands of years after Neanderthals (the time period in the article was about 5000 years ago) and were in the midst of one of the most severe selection events to affect humans due to the rise of contagious infectious disease among early agricultural populations, along with impaired nutrition due to restricted diets.  As we are still living in this changed environment of infectious disease and poor nutrition, it is not too surprising that “they differ little from currently living humans.”  Nor would it be surprising if they differed somewhat from Neanderthals, although that analysis was not done. However, the article does not really appear to support his point anyway.  Four individuals were tested: three northern European hunter/gatherers and one farmer who appeared related to southern Europeans. What this article points to is that, as with the Neanderthal genome, a tiny sample is used to make huge generalizations.

To enforce his point during his talk that Neanderthals were a different species, he implied that they were stupider than ‘moderns’ by comparing Mousterian tools of 150,000 years ago to cave art of 30,000 years ago.  In my e-mail, I reminded him of that fact that Neanderthals of 40,000 years ago were using Upper Paleolithic tools, and that the 10,000 years from 40,000 to 30,000 years ago is an extremely long time.  My comments were:

“Think how much our culture has changed in the past 10,000 years.  But even if you do not like that comparison, what about the Tasmanians who were isolated from the rest of the world for 10,000 years until found by Captain Tasman in the 1600s?  When found, their material culture was hardly more complex than is true of chimpanzees.  This, of course, says nothing about the complexity of the intangibles of their culture.  Were Tasmanians less than human because they had so little?  Certainly, many Europeans thought so since they willfully destroyed them.  But I think you will agree that racism is not a good way to judge whether a group is truly human or not.”

His response to this: “I think it’s OK to be racist against Neandertals. It’s the least of the offenses we are guilty of committing against them. In seriousness, though, they are extinct.”

My response to him: “So you think it is OK to have racist views about extinct populations?  Since the Tasmanians and Taino (among many other groups) are effectively extinct in the same sense that Neanderthals are extinct (i.e. their genes live on in current individuals, but their culture is gone), were (are) racist attitudes towards them OK?  Isn’t it racism that was key to their extinction?”  He did not respond to that e-mail.  Perhaps he realized he had gone too far.  Perhaps he was annoyed that I refused to accept his “obvious” evidence.