In the early part of the 19th Century, a prominent scientist named Samuel Morton deduced from his limited and unverified collection of skulls that the larger supposedly European skulls denoted greater influence and therefore superiority. This early quackery, published prior to Darwin’s theories on evolution, and long before the discovery of DNA, was heralded early on by Southern slavers in the US. These ideas became the scientific basis to justify white supremacy and black inferiority as the ominous clouds of the US Civil War loomed over their lucrative exploitation of Black slaves. Morton’s “Crainiometry” which classified humans based on the size of their cranium cavity, conveniently tied to his theory of a divinely determined hierarchy, gained him the infamous title of the Father of Scientific Racism.
Scientific advances in DNA research and the more recent sequencing of the Human Genome have determined the close relationship among humans at the genetic level; effectively disproving all the misconceptions posited by Morton some 200 years ago. Nonetheless his legacy lives on.
A few months ago I enrolled in 23&me and confirmed what I always knew, that despite the outward appearance, my dominant ancestry is not European, i.e, white. As it turns out, I am 46% Central and South Asian (India), 22% Sub-Saharan African, and only 20% European.
When I lived in the United States, I always “passed” for white, or Latino, or for any fair-skinned ethnicity for that matter. Growing up in Belize, though, always gave me an awareness that no matter how much I was accepted at parties, for jobs, or even at various fraternities and peer groups at my pedigreed Southern university in Louisiana, that I would never quite feel comforted or could I share in the privileges reserved for those that grew up white in white America.
See, from my recollection growing up in our little Belize being white was never a function of skin color, but more of economic power. I grew up in a lower middle-class family, where my darker skinned siblings often made mirth of my genetic throw-back to the (now I know) recessive genes of my European ancestry, calling me names like White Cheese and Limey pickney. None of this, however was meant in a disparaging way, and in fact, though I silently longed for a darker complexion just to fit in, I never felt handicapped for looking different. If fact, growing up in a household that hosted Peace Corps volunteers, influenced my view of a white American as that of a kindly, gentle, larger than life soul, whose goal in life is to assist the less fortunate and who had not a mean bone in his/her body.
In the US, though, I got a rude awakening on what it was to be non-white. Not by any overt racism aimed at me, but by the treatment that I observed of my black friends at school in the 1980s, and the behavior I observed among my white peers.
There was my friend Arlene, the daughter (orphan) of scientist parents who perished in a car accident, leaving her a small fortune. Not even her BMW gave her the pass beyond her dark skin to be considered an equal much less an elite. Then there was Garth. Tall, muscular and good looking, the president of the black fraternity whose members are branded with a hot iron in reminiscent defiance to the history of that famous slave trading post in which we lived. Both taught me from different perspectives, that though the removal of divisions among racial lines may have been enshrined in law through civil rights actions a mere two decades before, in practice, and in the hearts and minds of many whites, the beacons of racism never dimmed.
As fate would have it I met and for several years I dated the daughter of a white elite in New Orleans. A well-known politician who, on Monday nights would host fellow white elite politicians at his home. I had, at times, the opportunity to listen to the banters of the inheritors of Huey P Long. Politicians like Harry Lee, the former Jefferson Parrish sheriff who publicly advised his officers that any black person seen in a white neighbourhood would be detained and others like Harry Connick Sr. the then District Attorney and the disgraced former Governor Edwin Edwards. These conversations clearly demonstrated to me the concept of white privilege, though at the time such a term was not yet coined. White privilege in 1980s Louisiana was accepted and expected, and politicians and law enforcers knew this and acted accordingly.
As I watch the video of the murder of George Floyd, and the aftermath of protests nationwide, I am saddened and appalled. Appalled that the segregation and racism I observed in 1980s Louisiana; the racism that prevailed in the deep south, is still pervasive in the hearts and minds of so many whites in so many cities throughout the US. The assumption by those entrusted to protect, that a black man is deserving of what can only be described as a public lynching, is appalling and makes for a sad day in the history of that nation.
I cannot for the life of me understand how it can be that select members of those genetic versions equals to 20% of my DNA who look like me, can ever believe that they are entitled to the superiority of race to the point at where they can take the life of those that share the rest of my genetic makeup.
Ironically, more recent genetic research has revealed two deep truths about people. First, that all humans are closely related—more closely related than all chimps, even though there are many more humans around today. Everyone has the same collection of genes, but with the exception of identical twins, everyone has slightly different versions of some of them. Studies of this genetic diversity have allowed scientists to reconstruct a kind of family tree of human populations.
This widely available data has revealed the second deep truth: In a very real sense, all people alive today are Africans.