Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004  

Reviewer's biases may distort Dickerson's views

A reviewer of Debra Dickerson's second book, a reflection on race in America at the turn of the century, dismisses it with prejudice, undeservedly I suspect. Dickerson, as longtime readers may recall, is an African-American journalist and Harvard Law School graduate who wrote a memoir that turned heads. She was on my blogroll until her blogs went on hiatus during a difficult pregnancy. Though she is more conservative than I am, I usually find her thoughts intelligent and insightful. Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (pictured left) a history professor, analyzed Color Blind: A manifesto against the stifling politics of racial identity, for the Washington Post.

In her new book, journalist Debra Dickerson offers the welcome declaration that "blackness is collapsing under the weight of its contradictions, just as overt racism did." By way of illustration, she cites "black camps," where "affluent black parents pay to have their children spend time in the 'hood' " to get in touch with their blackness and be exposed to "African American vernacular and cultural references" they might have lost out on in their pursuit of such "generic" interests as classical music. This line of argument is not entirely new. Shelby Steele and others have argued that adherence to a black identity is, in part, a response of an uneasy black middle class to its own remarkable success in the post-civil rights era. Dickerson's take on the subject, although offering some food for thought, ends up collapsing under the weight of a few contradictions of its own.

Hold it right there. I've been following the exploration of the idea of imposed identity in another book, Richard Power's National Book Critics Circle Award best novel nominee, The Time of Our Singing. The novel chronicles the lives of an interracial couple wed in 1939 and their three children. The parents decide to rear their children "outside of race." But from the neighborhood playground on, race, other people's interpretation of it, shapes the lives of all three young Stroms. It seems to me that we can exhort and hope all we want to, but the imposition of blackness, brownness, yellowness or redness is not something an individual controls. For the foreseeable future, white America will continue to define people of color as 'other.'

The reviewer continues.

A particular notion of black identity -- one that associates blackness with failure and inadequacy -- originated in white racism but has found a new lease on life in the ministrations of black politicians. Dickerson thinks most black leaders, unwilling to accept the reality of the civil rights movement's revolutionary accomplishments, are wedded to hopelessly outdated platforms. These leaders continue to see white oppression as the primary obstacle to the well-being of blacks and thus aim their complaints at whites rather than focusing on black self-betterment.

Dickerson grants that blacks still suffer from innumerable problems -- among them poor scholastic achievement, crime, family breakdown and infant mortality -- but she argues that these problems need to be considered in their own right and not simply in comparison with those of whites. For one thing, whites have their share of social problems and so should not necessarily be held up as the norm. For another, the appeal to whites to help solve black problems is based on outmoded assumptions. The idea that black behavior always -- and only -- implicates the racist past stands in the way of individual and group progress, she maintains: In the hands of many of its advocates, this racism-first analysis denies blacks' individual agency, choice and responsibility.

I could not agree more with Dickerson's reported assertion that white America should not be held up as a norm, or worse yet, a role model. (However, it seems to me that black conservatives are more likely to do that than the liberal civil rights establishment.) As James Baldwin put it, why should one want to be integrated into a burning house? Instead, the task for progressive people of all complexions should be to improve ourselves as human beings and rehabilitate our national house simultaneously.

Whether to blame institutional racism for the problems of people of color turns on the circumstances, I believe. Individuals definitely should do what they can to improve their lives. But, the societal framework one operates in determines how well those efforts work out much of the time. A black child in Mississippi with an IQ of 150 is probably still more likely to find herself stymied by resentful whites than helped. If her potential isn't met, a society that deems her inferior even when she surpasses its measures of merit is at fault. To try to shift the responsibiliy from society's shoulders to hers is unfair.

But, I am wary of crediting such a position to Dickerson. The review is marred by the reviewer's very conservative perspective on race. It is sometimes difficult to determine whether Lasch-Quinn is describing Dickerson's views or inserting her own. The criticism in the following passage makes no sense.

Dickerson's entire argument -- that blacks need to let go of old notions of black identity and the forms of identity politics and racial grievance at their core -- is subverted early in the book by a surprising chapter on "white intransigence" in which she presents a litany of complaints against whites. Here she lumps all whites together -- just the thing she opposes in the case of blacks -- and casts them as still in denial about the nation's racial crimes. Taking the occasional bigoted remark -- the kind usually vilified and exposed in the press today -- as indicative of late-20th-century white opinion, she undermines her own argument in the previous chapter that the civil rights movement brought revolutionary change. After urging blacks to forsake old patterns of complaint and redress for a newly courageous civic participation, dedication to the common good and individual flourishing, she invokes the usual culprit -- white supremacy -- as if it were an unmitigated and eternal force. Earlier faulting blacks for wrongly feeling excluded from America, she later says that blacks "find themselves defined out of America." Well, which is it?

The truth is that an ugly experience with racism is never more than a trip out of the door of their homes for most African-Americans. It is not at all reaching to speak of the intransigence of whites in regard to racism. The blogosphere is as good an example as any. References to a black or brown person in this largely Rightist venue are often patronizing, insulting or both. Bloggers such as Glenn Reynolds, Dean Esmay and the pseudo-Klansmen at Silfray Hraka have posted material that reads like it was written in 1903, not 2003. (A recent example I recall is Esmay's ridiculous claim Strom Thurmond treated his mixed-race daughter well.) More telling, some 'liberal' bloggers do not hesitate to join them in their racism at the drop of a hat. Apparently, Lasch-Quinn is living in some alternate universe where racism is dead. The rest of us are not. If Dickerson said progress was made as a result of the civil rights movement and that white people's stubborness about their racism is still a crushing problem, she isn't being contradictory. She is just telling it like it is.

Not surprisingly, the reviewer commends Right Wing African-American pundits such as Shelby Steele and Orlando Patterson while she damns Dickerson with faint praise. My understanding of her review a day after reading it is that I learned enough about Dickerson's book to buy it, but more than I cared to in regard to Lasch-Quinn's biases. I may or may not agree with most of what Dickerson says, but I would have appreciated a more balanced treatment of her work.

posted by J. | 11:49 PM

Monday, January 26, 2004  

'Ancestry' tests don't tell full story

Sometimes scientific information can be more misleading than useful. That is the situation with businesses that offer to analyze people's genetic makeup. Some of them even claim they can locate relatives of customers merely from examining their DNA. But, it isn't true.

I researched the topic after reading about a man of creole (people considered black were referred to with a small 'c' to distinguish them from white Creoles) background from Louisiana.

"Wayne Joseph is a 51-year-old high school principal in Chino whose family emigrated from the segregated parishes of Louisiana to central Los Angeles in the 1950s, as did mine. Like me, he is of Creole stock and is therefore on the lighter end of the black color spectrum, a common enough circumstance in the South that predates the multicultural movement by centuries. And like most other black folk, Joseph grew up with an unequivocal sense of his heritage and of himself; he tends toward black advocacy and has published thoughtful opinion pieces on racial issues in magazines like Newsweek. When Joseph decided on a whim to take a new ethnic DNA test he saw described on a 60 Minutes segment last year, it was only to indulge a casual curiosity about the exact percentage of black blood; virtually all black Americans are mixed with something, he knew, but he figured it would be interesting to make himself a guinea pig for this new testing process, which is offered by a Florida-based company called DNA Print Genomics Inc. The experience would at least be fodder for another essay for Newsweek. He got his kit in the mail, swabbed his mouth per the instructions and sent off the DNA samples for analysis.

. . .But when the results of his DNA test came back, he found himself staggered by the idea that though he still qualified as a person of color, it was not the color he was raised to think he was, one with a distinct culture and definitive place in the American struggle for social equality that he'd taken for granted. Here was the unexpected and rather unwelcome truth: Joseph was 57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian - and zero percent African. After a lifetime of assuming blackness, he was now being told that he lacked even a single drop of black blood to qualify."

However, Joseph has likely surrendered his African ancestry too soon. It is not possible for DNA tests to say conclusively, or even convincingly, that someone is or isn't partly of a given 'race.' Rebecca Skloot, a journalist of mixed ancestry, learned why.

When I told my grandfather about our family's results, I asked if he was disappointed to see no trace of African blood. "No," he said, after sitting silently for a long moment. "It doesn't make me feel anything special, except that I think there was something wrong with that test."

Was there? "She might have been within the range for the test to pick her up," said Mark Shriver, a consultant for DNA Print and assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State, when I asked him how to interpret the results in light of family lore. "Unless she was a light-skinned African. If she was 100 percent African, that would give your grandfather 6.25 percent; if she was light-skinned, that would decrease his number, but he should still have some. It could be that by chance he didn't inherit her African genes, or maybe she's right outside the detectable range."

It can get even more complex than that. My family, which is Lumbee, is believed by some to have absorbed the lost English colony at Jamestown. However, it is uncertain whether the mystery can be solved. Any genes that may have been identifiable as from those Brits may be too attenuated to turn up on a DNA test. Subsequent intermixture may make it impossible to say when even identifiable European genes originated.

Those are not the only kind of complications that can occur.

Or maybe it's a result of limitations in DNA Print's database. "It's possible to learn something about a person's ancestry with autosomal (nuclear) DNA testing," says Noah Rosenberg, a genetic anthropologist at the University of Southern California. "But you have to be very careful. When they say you're 90 percent European and 10 percent Native American - that's based on samples they collected from people they decided were representative of Europeans and Native Americans. So really what they've told you isn't what ethnicity you are, but how similar you are to the people in that database." If you change the database, you change the results.

DNA Print built its database from 3,000 SNPs. To ensure purity, they didn't use, say, African-Americans, they used native Africans. But, as Mark Shriver says, there's no way to know for sure who's purely African, European or anything else. "You just try to collect the best samples you can," he says. "It is important to realize that we're not measuring anything essential or absolute about the DNA, we're just referencing it to samples that we know more about."

Skloot, who isn't giving up her belief in a great-grandmother of African descent, sums it up.

Ultimately, every expert I talked to - even those affiliated with the ancestral DNA companies - agreed that no DNA test can make definitive statements about ancestry (such as "Rebecca Skloot is 90 percent European and 10 percent Native American"). But nuclear DNA testing can tell me I have some genes that are more likely to be Native American than something else. That information may be worth a few hundred dollars to some people, because it just might help scale a few brick walls. "Beliefs tend to drive traditional genealogy research," says DNA Print's founder, Tony Frudakis. "If you think your ancestors were European, you'll only look in European archives. These tests can open new paths to follow in genealogy research."

That is a very limited use. However, the DNA tests are marketed as answering the broad question of: What am I? That is something they can't do.

While researching this entry, I read a piece by A.D. Powell, a mixed-race woman who has a virulent hatred of black people, at another weblog. She clasped the story about Joseph to her bosom because it fit in with her claim African-Americans 'kidnap' non-blacks into the race to disguise their inherent inferiority. Racist sites have embraced a book based on a mangled understanding of DNA testing, The Seven Daughters of Eve, though I think their participants, deeply invested in white supremacy, would avoid the tests. On this thread, from an 'anthropology' blog, several bigots supposedly address the issue, but it is mainly an explication of their racist beliefs. Among the participants is 'scientific racist' Newamul Khan (Razib), who along with fellow-traveler, and boss one suspects, Paul Wickre, (Godless Capitalist) fronts the Gene Expression blog. Some people's agendas notwithstanding, these DNA tests are not the key to understanding 'race.'

Joseph's erroneous conclusion has been disseminated fairly widely. Unfortunately, accurate information about 'ancestry testing' has not. It needs to be.

Addendum: The original story accepting Joseph's interpretation of the DNA test results has been removed from Alternet.

posted by J. | 7:37 PM