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DNA tests show fallacy of Jim Crow

I am filming guest interviews for Season 2 of the genealogy series “Finding Your Roots,” airing on PBS this September. One of the most intriguing pieces of information shared with our guests is the “admixture” results contained in their DNA – their percentages of European, Native American and sub-Saharan African ancestors over the past 200 years or so.

The record of your ancestral past, in all of its complexity, is hidden in your autosomal DNA.

African-Americans almost always guess that they have much higher percentages of Native American ancestry and much lower percentages of European ancestry than they have. That is not surprising since African-Americans have long embraced the myth that their great-grandmother with “high cheeks and straight black hair” looked that way because of a relationship between an ancestor who was black and another one who was Native American.

But scientific results show that very few African-Americans have a significant amount of Native American ancestry: In fact, according to a study just published by 23andMe researcher Katarzyna “Kasia” Bryc, only about 5 percent of African-Americans have at least 2 percent of Native American ancestry, while the average African-American has only 0.7 percent Native American ancestry.

At the same time, Bryc’s research shows that the average African-American has a whopping 24 percent of European ancestry, which explains why great-grandma had those high cheekbones and that straight black hair.

But what about the presence of recent African ancestors in a “white” person’s family tree?

Although long suspected, what hasn’t been confirmed until now is how many self-identified “white” women and men are walking around today with recent “hidden” African ancestry in their families.

According to the old, notorious “one-drop rule” of the Jim Crow era, these people would have been considered legally “black.” How many of them don’t know it? How many might sense it but aren’t sure why? And how would they react if they did know? For Southerners, in particular, there are more than just Confederates in the Attic. And the proof and guide is their DNA.

Here’s how Scott Hadly reported Bryc’s findings at 23andme.com earlier this month: “Bryc found that about 4 percent of whites have at least 1 percent or more of African ancestry, known as ‘hidden African ancestry.’ ”

“Although it is a relatively small percentage,” Hadly continues, “the percentage indicates that an individual with at least 1 percent African ancestry had an African ancestor within the last six generations, or in the last 200 years. This data also suggests that individuals with mixed parentage at some point were absorbed into the white population.”

Which is a very polite way of saying that they “passed.”

How many ostensibly “white” Americans walking around today would be classified as “black” under the one-drop rule? Judging by the last U.S. Census: 7,872,702. To put that in context, that number is equal to roughly 20 percent, or a fifth, of the total number of people identified as African-American in the same census count!

In other words, there are a lot of white people with “hidden African ancestry,” and they don’t have to look too far back in time to find it.

While the data points are fascinating, on a larger scale, Bryc’s DNA research has the potential to round out the more common narrative we have of African-Americans (such as first lady Michelle Obama) discovering that they have white roots (and cousins) tracing back to a common slave-owning ancestor. Twenty-four percent of us do, and I’m no exception.

But, really, does any of this matter?

Yes, of course it matters, because the more we learn about the black, white and browning of our past, the more we can see how absurd, how arbitrary and grotesque the “one-drop rule” that defined the color line in America for decades and decades during its most painful chapters truly was.

I can’t help but wonder how many “hidden” blacks sat at whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counters in the South before the “visible” and brave black students of the early 1960s did so.

It’s not the historian’s job to engage in counterfactuals, of course, but I do think it’s safe to say that the pseudo-scientific underpinnings of Jim Crow, which provided so much legal justification and comfort for cruelty in the years between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, would have faced a very different challenge in court had DNA science been around.

The United States, in the Obama years, is most certainly not “postracial” but perhaps it is pan-racial. My hope is that those of our white brothers and sisters who discover that they have at least 1 percent of African DNA will be filled with as much joy and pride in their black ancestors as they would be if they found out they were related to the British royal family, or if their original American ancestor arrived on these shores on the Mayflower, rather than on a slave ship.

Gates, editor-in-chief of The Root, is a professor and founding director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

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