Did one of your ancestors 'pass' for white?

The RootMarch 23, 2014 

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

JUSTIN IDE — Harvard University

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 past is never dead," William Faulkner once famously wrote. "It’s not even past." The record of your ancestral past, in all of its complexity, is hidden in your autosomal DNA.

The 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. Yet, paradoxically, their families were able to pass for white relatively quickly. Remember, while we live in an all-access, web-connected society today, our light-complexioned ancestors didn’t. All they needed to pass was a tank of gas and a new destination. Their jumping-off point was the color line itself.

Also fascinating is what Bryc revealed about the frequency of "hidden African ancestry" on a state-by-state basis.

"Southern states with the highest African-American populations tended to have the highest percentages of hidden African ancestry," Hadly writes. "In South Carolina at least 13 percent of self-identified whites have 1 percent or more African ancestry, while in Louisiana the number is a little more than 12 percent. In Georgia and Alabama the number is about 9 percent. The differences perhaps point to different social and cultural histories within the south."

If we apply those percentages to the last federal census, that means 487,253, "white" people in Georgia, 385,156 "white" people in South Carolina, 328,186 in Louisiana and 288,396 in Alabama are "black," according to the one-drop rule. And that is a lot of the white people in these states! (It’s also worth noting that the percentage of "hidden blacks" who self-identify as white in South Carolina — 13 percent — is the same as the percentage of people nationwide who self-identified as black in the 2010 U.S. Census.)

Turns out, Dixie isn’t just the land of cotton; it’s the land of "hidden African ancestry," too. And, for the record, the states highlighted in Hadly’s report on Bryc’s research were among the first to secede from the Union before the Civil War; they also had the highest slave populations recorded in the 1860 U.S. Census. In 1860, slaves made up 57 percent of the population in South Carolina, the highest of any state in the union. Coming in second was Mississippi at 55 percent, followed by Louisiana at 47 percent, Alabama at 45 percent, and Florida and Georgia, both at 44 percent.

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.  

Back then, a white-enough black woman or man could pass for white; now, with Bryc’s findings, we realize that all along, there was a whole other layer in the color aristocracy that no one could see. And to shop owners, hotel clerks, railroad conductors and federal judges in those times, appearances were what mattered; in our time, thankfully, it is the truth that sets us free.

As a result, 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. The same could be said for our nation’s historically white colleges and universities, its movie theaters and hotels, its water-fountains and bathrooms.

We know that in 1892, Homer Plessy could have passed for a white passenger on the Louisiana railroad that led to the constitutional doctrine of "separate but equal" in the Supreme Court. But Plessy spoke up, as did many of what were once known as "voluntary Negroes" (men and women like former NAACP leader Walter White who refused to pass).

But how many others remained silent without ever revealing who they were? Would that railroad line have stayed in business, or any business for that matter, if they had tried to enforce the "one-drop rule" down to its very letter in all cases? And were there any who might have hidden inside the white robes of the KKK, knowing they were about to lynch one of their own?

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.

I embrace the positives in these amazing DNA discoveries — further proof that America is more of a melting pot than we had even assumed, which is why my goal is and remains for every American to trace her or his roots as far back as the paper trail and DNA science will allow.

"This is a whole new social arena," Harvard professor Jennifer Hochschild told The New York Times in a June 2012 story on Michelle Obama’s family tree. "We don’t have an etiquette for this. We don’t have social norms."

While this may be true of white Americans, black Americans have long discussed and written about our mixed-race heritage — plain as the noses on our faces and the hair textures on our heads — and the vexing problem of passing, even within our own families.

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.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a professor and founding director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is editor-in-chief of The Root, an online source of commentary from a variety of black perspectives.

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