I recently ran across a report of a genealogical study that found that President Obama’s mother probably had at least one African ancestor, in addition to her European forebears. One of Obama’s now recognized distant cousins, who said that he has always considered himself “Caucasian,” had his DNA analyzed and found that he had sub-Saharan African genetic traits in his Y chromosome, indicating an African ancestor in his paternal line. This has not been as widely reported as Michele Obama’s descent from Irish immigrants, but I think it is just as significant. The complicated White House ancestries suggest just how wrong-headed official racial categorizations and preferences are.
Recognizing the complexity of race does not mean accepting the American Sociological Association’s official dictum that race is nothing but a “social construct” without any biological foundation. If that were true, then the DNA tracing of racial ancestry would not be possible. Work by geneticists at Stanford University, looking at large and representative samples of hundreds of sites on human DNA, has indicated not only that race has biological meaning, but that the statistical variations among genetic traits are largely consistent with popularly recognized races. The five clusters of DNA differences are linked to continents of origin: Africa, western Eurasia, East Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. (see Noah A. Rosenberg et al. (2002) “Genetic Structure of Human Populations.” Science 298: 2381-2385. A newspaper report of the results is available here). The problem is not that race has no biological status at the level of populations, but that there is no good way to categorize individuals on the basis of statistical clusters.
As the example of Michelle Obama illustrates, some European genetic background is common among those classified as African Americans. Several years ago, I taught at a university in southwestern Louisiana, where many of my students had family backgrounds that blended so many physical heritages that they could not be readily classified on the basis of appearance. The genealogy of Barack Obama gives us the other side of the story: the phenomenon of “passing” in American history means that some unknown proportion of white Americans could claim to be “black,” if only they would make use of the resources that companies such as Ancestry.com now make available. Would these newly discovered African Americans be eligible for affirmative action benefits?
In order for institutions to make decisions on the basis of categories there must ways of defining the categories and of placing people in them. If the categories are self-reported, job seekers and college applicants would be well-advised to find out what categories are desired and report themselves accordingly. If appearance is going to be the criterion, who is going to decide who looks right? Or will every applicant need to provide a cheek swab?