Geneticists Just Discovered a Shocking Truth About Race in White People’s DNA
As it turns out, many white people may not be so “white” after all.
In fact, millions of Americans who consider themselves white actually have mixed-race roots. A study offers yet more evidence that race is no more than a social construct.
Our “hidden” African ancestries. Population genetics scientists from institutions including Harvard University analyzed DNA from thousands of Americans who described themselves as being part of a singular racial group. The results, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, revealed that almost 4% of participants who identify as white have “hidden” African ancestry.
“For a generation, historians have been writing books about how race is culturally constructed,” said Claudio Saunt, a University of Georgia historian, commenting on the study. “This article uses another tool, DNA analysis, to get at the same question.”
The study: Thousands of customers of 23andMe, a genotyping company, submitted saliva samples for DNA analysis and answered questionnaires about their racial and ethnic identifications. One questionnaire asked participants about geographic ancestral origins while another asked about racial affiliation. Only customers who said they identified with a single racial or ethnic group were included.
The study included 150,000 white participants and several thousand Latinos and African-Americans. They collectively hailed from 48 states. Researchers used participants’ DNA samples to render their genetic profiles and compared the results to their self-reported ancestries.
There’s a link between racial identity and geography. The frequency with which self-identified white participants had African ancestry varied significantly by region. And ancestry patterns appeared to mirror major population shifts tied to historical events in American history.
For example, researchers found white people with African ancestry at much higher rates in southern states. As much as 12% of self-described European Americans from South Carolina and Louisiana had African ancestry. And in other parts of the South, it was about 1 in 10. Researchers estimated that this interracial mixing, which geneticists call “admixture,” started about six generations ago (roughly 180 years) — before African-Americans migrated to the northern states.
Oklahoma, the study revealed, has the highest proportion of self-identified African-Americans with Native American genes. Oklahoma also happens to be where Native Americans and African-Americans first crossed paths, so to speak, when Native Americans walked the Trail of Tears in the 1830s after being forced out of the South.
How people describe themselves, it increasingly seems, has less to do with genetic makeup than the influence of social norms.
“Many Americans claim ancestry they don’t have or don’t claim ancestry that they do,” said Saunt. “In my own state of Georgia, for example, where I teach Native American history, numerous students tell me they have Cherokee ancestry, but in fact whites from Georgia have less indigenous ancestry than whites from just about any other state.”
The study is not without controversy: Personal genotyping companies like 23andMe have come under fire for cherry-picking the genes they analyze (millions out of billions) for participants’ DNA profiles. But, 23andMe codes for genes that are pretty well-established in tracing ancestry, according to a company representative.
And while there’s potentially bias in studying only 23andMe customers, both study authors and other experts in the field said it would be hard for a single research institution, or even a government agency, to perform a study of this magnitude and complexity.
“We needed many, many people,” said lead study author Kasia Bryc, “so it wasn’t possible just a short time ago. 23andMe was the first source that could offer this kind of data.”
Overall, and perhaps most importantly, the findings speak to the thorny relationship between biology and identity.
“Individuals who self-identify as white will respond in diverse ways to genetic testing showing that they have recent African ancestry,” said Saunt. “Some will embrace the findings, and others will deny them, even in the face of the evidence. The insistence on racial purity is part of a long American tradition. Even before DNA analysis, families repudiated relatives they knew were theirs. That tradition is waning, but it is, unfortunately, far from extinguished.”
Marcus Mariota is the man!! The HeisMAN, that is!!! This week the University of Oregon quarterback was awarded the Heisman Trophy, given to the very best college football player of the year. I watched him accept the award and it was pretty awesome. The award meant so much to him that he sometimes had a hard time speaking without crying. He also thanked his white mom, Alana Deppe-Mariota, and Samoan dad, Toa Mariota, who were sitting in the audience. In fact, he thanked them SEVERAL times. Marcus is multiracial, of Samoan and German descent. He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and has a little brother, Matt, who is a great high school football player.
One cool thing I learned is that Mariota was offered a full scholarship to Oregon before his senior year of high school even though he had not yet started a single varsity football game. He did start his senior year and led his team to the state title! He was also a star track athlete in high school. But it is not just his athletic skill that people admire. Marcus is a great example of humility and how to treat other people.
An article in the Daily Emerald during his freshman year at Oregon said, “And in his trademark fashion, Mariota found a way to connect to teammates without necessarily being the loudest guy in the room. Each morning, he shook hands with every player he came across, made sure to say hello. In post-practice media sessions — which became much more common for him during spring practices — his easygoing friendliness also extended to reporters, whom he’d smile at and clap on the shoulder as a form of greeting.”
Mariota became the first Oregon Duck and the first Hawaii-born athlete to ever win the Heisman Trophy. He had 788 out of 891 of the first place votes, and 90.9% of the total points. It wasn’t even close! The list of awards and records he holds is really long, but from now on the one that matters most is the Heisman Trophy. He will always be known as Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota!
As good as he is at sports, he may be just as good at being a great multiracial role model for kids like me!
The Major Demographic Shift That’s Upending How We Think About Race
By William H. Frey
The usual way that race labels are applied in the United States in everyday parlance and in government statistics fail to capture a phenomenon poised to reshape how race is actually lived in America: the increase in multiracial marriages and births, which almost certainly will lead to more blended populations in future generations. As this trend continues, it will blur the racial fault lines of the last half of the twentieth century. The nation is not there yet. But the evidence for multiracial marriages and multiracial individual identity shows an unmistakable softening of boundaries that should lead to new ways of thinking about racial populations and race-related issues.
Sociologists have viewed multiracial marriage as a benchmark for the ultimate stage of assimilation of a particular group into society. For that to occur, members of the group will already have reached other milestones: facility with a common language, similar levels of education, regular interaction in the workplace and community, and, especially, some level of residential integration. This is what we saw with European immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Russia in the last century. After decades of being kept at arm’s length by “old” European groups such as those from Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia, the newer arrivals finally began to intermarry with the more established ethnic groups as they became more upwardly mobile and geographically dispersed. Hispanics and Asians differ from white Europeans, of course—most significantly, for these purposes, Americans tend to view them as racial groups rather than ethnic groups. And race divisions, especially between whites and blacks, have historically been far less permeable. So the blending of today’s new racial minorities through multiracial marriage is breaking new ground.
Multiracial marriages have been rising dramatically. In 1960 (before federal statistics enumerated Hispanics and before the 1965 legislation that opened up immigration to more countries) multiracial marriages constituted only 0.4 percent of all U.S. marriages. That ﬁgure increased to 3.2 percent in 1980 and to 8.4 percent in 2010. More than one in seven newlywed couples are now multiracial.
Amid this overall increase, the propensity to marry out of one’s racial or ethnicity varies. Among recently married whites, 17 percent were married to someone of another race, but for Hispanics and Asians, more than four in ten recent marriages are multiracial. Among minorities,blacks continues to have the lowest prevalence of multiracial marriages, a legacy of the anti-miscegenation statutes that persisted in 16 states until 1967, when the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision. It was only after this ruling in the post–civil rights environment that black multiracial marriages began to rise noticeably, but among recent, typically younger marriages involving blacks, nearly three in ten were multiracial marriages, signaling an important breakthrough in the long history of black marital endogamy.
Especially noteworthy is the rise in white-black multiracial marriages: In 1960, white-black marriages amounted to only 1.7 percent of all black same-race marriages, but in 2010, they amounted to 12 percent. White-black relationships are even more prevalent among recent cohabiting couples.
The geographic dispersion of new minority populations to the New Sun Belt states in the South and Mountain West—and into the largely white, interior Heartland states—is dispersing multiracial marriages along with it. The highest prevalence of multiracial marriages is found in Hawaii, where three in ten marriages are multiracial, followed by Alaska and Oklahoma. These states have long-standing populations of Asians, Alaska Natives, and American Indians, respectively. Just below are a mix of states where Hispanic and Asian immigrants have maintained a long-term presence, including New Mexico, California, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado. At least one in ten marriages in these states is multiracial. Multiracial marriages are also growing in the New Sun Belt (states such as Georgia, Utah, Idaho, and North Carolina) and even several Heartland states (Minnesota, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Indiana). Although many new Hispanic migrants to these regions are less assimilated than elsewhere with regard to measures such as English language proficiency and education, they are likely to have substantial interaction with their states’ non-Hispanic populations, which may be leading to more multiracial marriages than might otherwise occur. For example, in Idaho and Utah, the prevalence of multiracial marriages among Hispanics is 43 and 44 percent, respectively. These rates stand in contrast to rates of 26 and 21 percent in the more mature Melting Pot states of California and Texas.
At the other end of the spectrum are 14 states where multiracial marriages account for less than 5 percent of all marriages. In West Virginia, only about 3 in 100 marriages are multiracial.
An obvious consequence of a rise in multiracial marriages would be an increase in multiracial children, which would lead to a greater share of the population claiming a mix of racial backgrounds. The marriage of individuals from various European immigrant backgrounds led to the melting pot that characterizes much of today’s white population. It would seem only natural to anticipate a similar boom of multiracial persons in the years ahead. Yet in the case of multiracial marriages, national and cultural boundaries are not the only lines being crossed. New ground is being broken, pushing back against long-standing social and even legal constraints that often subjugated multiracial persons—particularly those with white-black ancestry—to second-class status. In many cases, individuals who could “pass” as white tried to do so in order to become part of the mainstream.
The practice of dividing whites from blacks and other nonwhites began in the early years of nationhood, when the slave population was counted separately and the “one drop” rule stipulated that if a person had any black ancestors, they could not be classiﬁed as white. Although classiﬁcations in later censuses included Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Hindu, there was little attempt to think of these largely “racial” categories as subject to mixing. This stands in contrast to the collection of information on parental birthplace and ancestry or national origin, which was widely used to study the blending of white ethnic populations. Although multiracial populations emanating from multiracial marriages certainly existed, they were not well documented in national statistics.
Beginning with the 2000 census, federal guidelines mandated that when U.S. government statistical agencies collect information on race, they must provide options for persons who identify with more than one race. The impetus for this change came from a well-organized grassroots effort by people who thought of themselves as multiracial and wanted to be officially recognized as such.
The census permits identiﬁcation of combinations of up to six speciﬁc racial categories, including “some other race,” a catch-all category for those races not speciﬁcally identiﬁed. In 2010, those identifying as “white and black” made up the largest single group—a population that more than doubled over the preceding decade, especially among the young. For every 100 black toddlers under age ﬁve, 15 toddlers are identiﬁed as both white and black—a sharp rise since 2000. In a handful of Western, Great Plains and New England states, the population of “white and black” persons is more than 20 percent of the black-only population.
But the more vivid evidence of the erosion of the white-black divide is found in the South, the region historically most resistant to racial change. Because of past prejudices and customs, the white-black population, as a percentage of all blacks, is still considerably lower in the South than in other parts of the country. In a slew of states from Maryland to Texas, “white and black” populations amount to less than 5 percent of the black-only populations; in Mississippi and Louisiana, “white and black” populations constitute only 1 percent. Yet the South is attracting blacks in large numbers, including multiracial blacks, from all parts of the country. And when states are ranked by the growth in their “white-black” multiracial populations in the ﬁrst decade of the 2000s, rather than their current totals, the southern states lead all others. In that period, the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama more than tripled their white-black multiracial populations. Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky were not far behind. In fact, southern states as a whole accounted for 41 percent of the nation’s decade-long gain in the “white and black” multiracial population.
Overall, the share of the U.S. total population that categorizes itself as multiracial—2.9 percent—is surprisingly small in light of the pervasiveness of multiracial marriages.There are several reasons to believe that the official numbers markedly understate size. One is that the census does not include Hispanics in its count of multiracial persons because they are considered an ethnic rather than a racial group. After the 2010 census, the Census Bureau began to experiment with the implications of changing this policy. It allowed respondents to choose new multiracial categories such as “white and Hispanic” or “black and Hispanic.” This change led, in one scenario, to a rise in the multiracial share of the population to 6.8 percent, well above the 2.9 percent in the 2010 census. Moreover, earlier projections using a similar approach by non-census researchers show the U.S. multiracial population reaching 10 percent in the year 2020 and 18 percent in the year 2050.
A second reason why the multiracial population may be going undercounted is that the single racial status of children is often determined by the adult who ﬁlls out the census form. Research suggests that in identifying the race of their children, multiracial couples often select single-race identities that they believe will be more socially acceptable or will better prepare their children for success. This, of course, may change as these children come of age and begin defining themselves. President Barack Obama, the child of a multiracial marriage, announced through his spokesperson that he identiﬁed himself as “black” rather than “white and black” on his 2010 census form. It is likely, however, that younger and future generations of Americans from multiracial families will be more likely to embrace their heritage.
Source: New Republic, from Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America by William H. Frey (Brookings Press, 2014).
Neuroscientists May Have Discovered How Our Brains Can Overcome Racial Prejudice
If the public response to the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has made one thing clear, it’s that many consider the U.S. to be far from a post-racial society. America has certainly made progress since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the number of interracial marriages has surged, the education achievement gap between races has shrunk (class matters more now) and we’ve elected a black president into office twice.
Fifty years later, however, we’re still living in a world where unarmed young black men fear being slain by the police; a world in which data shows how skin color overwhelmingly affects one’s chance of getting handcuffed, arrested, convicted and sentenced to death row. It’s not hard to see why so many Americans feel that, despite all we’ve achieved, overcoming racism for good is an impossible endeavor.
Demonstrators gather in Philadelphia on Dec. 3. Image Credit: Mark Makela via Getty
But recent research from neuroscientists suggests there is indeed hope for change, and it may not be as impossible as we imagine. According to the science, being a part of a diverse group — connected by a bond that isn’t race — may help our brains perceive everyone in that group as part of “your people,” regardless of racial makeup. If we know an individual is part of our group, our brains seem to react to the individual as being part of our group first and foremost — not an “other.”
These findings may have important policy implications, from considering the demographics of our police forces, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently suggested the Ferguson Police Department should, to the way schools admit students and how we plan our cities in general.
Psychologists have long known that humans have a propensity to distinguish between people who are like us — members of our “in group” — and those who aren’t.
But the concept of a group is rather flexible. According to Lehigh University psychologist Dominic Packer, we should think of a group basically as a psychological state.
“A group exists when a set of people start to feel like a group,” he said.
So while it’s become the norm to form groups along racial, ethnic and religious lines, these distinctions aren’t special — they’re just convenient. Knowing this, a team of researchers, including Packer, and led by New York University social neuroscientist Jay Van Bavel, used neuroimaging tools to see how our brains reacted to forced changes in groups.
They examined whether people of mixed races feel closer to each other when they’re on the same team. To do this, Van Bavel’s team expanded on a basic setup that similar studies have used: Researchers assign white study participants to different teams, one of which is mixed race, and tell everyone to memorize the faces of their teammates and opponents. Researchers then measure participants’ neural activity while they perform simple tasks
In a 2008 study, participants watched photos of other participants’ faces flash across a screen for two seconds apiece. They first had to categorize the faces based on team membership and again based on race, and then rate their like and dislike of other participants on a scale of 1-6. While participants performed the identification tasks, researchers used neuroimaging tools to measure their response rates and observe activity changes in different areas of their brains.
Images showed that the amygdala, a key part of the brain for emotion, flared up in the brains of white participants when they viewed photos of their team members, regardless of race. In this context, researchers believe that amygdala activity reacted to what was most important and worthy of participants’ attention: their team members. When race isn’t relevant to group formation, Van Bavel explained, the brain seems to ignore racial differences to focus on what matters: whoever is in your group.
In a follow-up 2011 study, Van Bavel saw something surprising happen in a region of the brain called the Fusiform Face Area (FFA), which is critical for facial recognition. Shortly after getting their team assignments, participants performed a similar face-identification task and exhibited markedly heightened activity in FFA in response to members of their own team. Basically, people quickly identified their team members as people they should remember and disregarded non-team members as faceless outsiders to lump together.
In subsequent studies, Van Bavel changed up the basic group structure. For example, in a 2012 study, he made someone from each team a spy, a role that involved interacting with the opposing team. As Van Bavel suspected, the most gung-ho team members (based on a self-assessment) had the strongest recollection for in-group faces whereas the spies had heightened memories for the faces of people on other teams.
Demonstrators take over a bridge in New York to protest the decision in the Eric Garner trial. Image Credit: Associated Press
What it all means
Taken together, these conclusions suggest that once we’re part of a group, our brains tell us to think, act and feel like a member, regardless of the group’s racial makeup. Essentially, spending time in other groups creates brain-based bonds that may make people more likely to see others as distinguishable individuals, as opposed to just part of a group. This is a critical component to eliminating racial prejudice because distinguishing individuals is the first step toward connecting with another human.
“Responses to race that we think of as burned pretty deeply into the brain may be hard to override or regulate,” Van Bavel said. “But it seems that if we can see a member of another race as part of our in-group, then we can reorient how we see the world and interpret people, which may help overcome biases.”
Why this could be big
Van Bavel’s findings contradict a well-observed psychological phenomenon with real-life implications called “own-race bias,” which says people are better at remembering same-race faces than others. In terms of criminal justice, own-race bias translates to misidentifying suspects in police lineups, which leads to false convictions. In fact, as of a few years ago, around 40% of falsely convicted death-row inmates were victims of cross-race identification errors.
There’s no easy, or even identifiable, way to uproot systemic inequality. And there’s certainly a wide gap between brain activity and public conduct. But, at the very least, knowledge that we can create brain-based bonds useful for overcoming prejudicial feelings is reason enough to keep plugging away at the problem.
“It’s quite hopeful that creating minimal groups can completely trump something like racial bias,” said Emile Bruneau, an MIT neuroscientist from MIT who’s worked with Van Bavel on other research, “and that group difference can be eliminated if people focus on something else. [Van Bavel’s research] shows how flexible the brain is, and that flexibility is something we can hang hope on.”
Not all leadership in the Multiracial Community are looking out for your best interests. Be very careful. One “leader” took a position recently about a report that came out by an unofficial source, a slick report called “Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census: Improving Data to Capture a Multiethnic America.” What’s wrong with that? Plenty is wrong in the 36-page tome and who is promoting it.
First, the small collaboration that supports this report is made up of three small organizations: The Leadership Conference Educational Fund (LCEF), Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), and the National Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
Let’s look at the LCEF. Its president and CEO is Wade Henderson. Gosh that name sounds familiar! Ohhhhhh, wait, Henderson was the Washington Bureau director of the NAACP back when we were fighting for a place at the table and for multiracial people. He was adamantly against a multiracial box and/or multiple check-off boxes.
The AAJC is afraid of losing population numbers, just like the rest of us. I’m not sure they belong on this bandwagon except when it comes to adding Asian sub-identifiers.
NALEO is Arturo Vargas’ organization. Uh oh, his name is familiar, too. He’s on the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations. Arturo is a likeable guy—unless you cross him and/or the Hispanic population. They do deserve a place on the NAC Committee, and in this report, although it is just another reminder that the Census Bureau is really running the show instead of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where the decisions on race and ethnicity are really made. Arturo is the guy to do this, and we’re glad they didn’t choose somebody else like a Hispanic/Latino advocate who is pretending to represent the multiracial community.
Speaking of the Census Bureau, Terri Ann Lowenthal was the principal author of the report. Big surprise (yawn). Terri Ann was a staffer for Representative Thomas Sawyer during the 1990s. She was no friend of the multiracial community, although she shared with me once that she had a “mixed” kid. She left the government so that she could work for the government. Yes, you read that right. She became a kind of consultant to OMB, the Census Bureau. She is a good soldier and writes whatever the bureaucrats want her to write.
One more interesting thing about this report is that “the staff of the U.S. Census Bureau” helped with this report. OK, so the usual suspects are in bed together again and still. Business as usual. Just don’t get too cozy thinking this is an independent undertaking.
My job is to go through these things for you and report the truth. I have highlighted the most important parts. I do believe that anyone commenting on the report should read it thoroughly and report back to the multiracial community on those things that concern us, not only one race or ethnicity (i.e. the Hispanic question). So here we go.
First, the writers pat everyone on the back. They applaud everyone from A to Z, but that’s the custom. If you ever get a chance, listen to any Census Bureau Internet webcast and hear it for yourself. You’ll feel like a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader.
I will say that the report gives excellent background on the history of the U.S. Census until it gets to page 4, which is also the first of only a handful of times the word “multiracial” is used. The point of reading through all the text is to get to the standards that were set by the 2000 census, but then comes the BIG OMISSION: it gives the five racial categories and two ethnicity questions, and doesn’t as much as mention the big deal of checking two or more races! Trust me, it was the question leading up to the 2000 census, and they completely overlook it in an important place in the report.
So what does this all mean to us? It means that sometime between September, 2015 and April 1, 2017, revisions could (and let’s face it, will) set off an OMB review. They do this via a Federal Register notice, which will only be seen by those OMB intends for it to seen by. We are not on their list. Why? Because the one guy, Brian Harris-Kojetin, who handles these things at OMB will not answer our calls and emails. Hmmpffff, we’ve been ignored by bigger people! Like Nicholas Jones, who is the Chief of Racial and Ethnic whatever at the Census Bureau. The multiracial community is precisely the kind of stakeholder that should be notified so we can write letters.
PUT A NOTE ON YOUR CALENDER AFTER SEPTEMBER 1, 2015 TO CHECK BACK WITH PROJECT RACE ABOUT WHEN YOU WILL NEED TO WRITE A LETTER TO OMB. WE’LL TELL YOU EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW. THAT’S THE ONE CHANCE WHEN YOU WILL BE ABLE TO HELP THE MULTIRACIAL COMMUNITY WITH THE 2020 U.S. CENSUS!!!
They talk about AQE testing, which is yet another acronym for something that means testing. OK, I can share. It stands for Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment. They go into requests for new categories (i.e. MENA, which stands for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent), voting rights, redistricting, employment, education, fair housing, healthcare, poverty, and even criminal justice and how they are all affected by clarity in civil rights. They sum it up thusly: “First, for purposes of implementing and enforcing many civil rights laws—especially in the voting rights arena—data on the Hispanic or Latino population are treated on par with data on the five race groups, experts note.” Wait a minute. Where are the multiracial groups, which they refer to as “combination people”? Oh, that’s right. They don’t take our group into consideration for civil rights matters.
Stay with me now. Here it comes. Right on page 17:
“The updated Education Department categories do
not ask Hispanics to report a race; they also collapse
multiple race responses into one, unspecific category of
“Two or more races,” instead of assigning multiracial
individuals to their respective race choices.(Endnote 65) The latter
practice is especially worrisome to civil rights data users,
given the growth in the multiracial and multiethnic
populations. The percentage of the population reporting
multiple races grew by nearly a third (32 percent) between
2000 and 2010, compared to an overall 10 percent
growth in the U.S. population.(Endnote 66) Failure to capture multiple
race responses as part of specific race groups can
adversely affect the ability of educational institutions to
meet minority student enrollment thresholds under various
Do we really need to be reminded of what a mess the Department of Education (DOE) made with their interpretation of OMBs guidelines and the fact that OMB left enough loopholes land for them to do this? They don’t even mention that the Census Bureau not only collapses multiple race responses into one, unspecified category of “Two or more races,” but calls us Two or More Race (TOMR!!) people. This entire paragraph is unnecessary unless the authors are looking to follow DOEs horrible civil rights injustices like taking students who check Hispanic and anything else and making them only Hispanic. They conclude that: “Civil rights advocates note that census race and ethnicity data are the most comprehensive, objective tool for understanding the intersection of issues that can be barriers to equality of opportunity and social justice.” Oh yes! We get that, but are we included? Not so much.
We finally get to the RECOMMENDATIONS chapter. What are these folks trying to get to? What do they want to see? Let’s look at the question of whether there should be a combined format question. It’s really none of our business with the exception of whether they would retabulate the Hispanic numbers into only one category, in which case, it certainly is our business because we would lose numbers. We can play this game, too, if only we were invited to play. On the MENA question, again, not our business unless….By the way, if they decide not to add the MENA category, watch them blame us–little, insignificant in every other way, us.
There it is: our BIGGEST problem. They don’t have any recommendations about the multiracial community. They don’t address the evil retabulation. They don’t say a word about our request to be recognized respectfully as “multiracial,” and not “combination people,” “Two or More Races” (TOMR) folks, or their other name, the “Mark One or More” (MOOM) population.
My very favorite paragraph of the entire report comes on page 19:
The Census Bureau and OMB should keep civil rights
stakeholders apprised of research and testing plans and
outcomes, and establish opportunities for meaningful
and timely dialogue and consultation with civil rights
leaders, experts, and organizations, before key decisions
are made with respect to the 2020 census race and
ethnicity questions and the Standards for Classification
of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity and related
We’re civil rights stakeholders. All I could note in the space next to that paragraph is, “NO SHIT.”
There are 17 recommendations in all. But the endnotes are fun, too. For example, the report refers to a day-long roundtable in July 2014 hosted by the three organizations that ordered this report. It refers to them as “respected” civil rights yada, yada, yadas, Endnote 4 adds this tidbit:
The July 31, 2014, roundtable, “Race and Ethnicity
Data in the 2020 Census: Ensuring Useful Data
for Civil Rights Purposes,” was an invitation-only,
closed door, and off-the-record event. It took place in
OK, full disclosure, but come on! It sure sounds like they are pretty proud of their special invitation only, closed door, and off-the-record selves. I certainly understand how multiracial population leaders would not want to do the in-depth work to detangle this mess. Yes, this is still about the multiracial group. We don’t mind playing bad cop to a good cop, as long as that cop is doing the same in-depth work that we’re doing. It’s only fair.
With Ashkenazic Disorders Getting All the Attention, America’s Sephardic Jews Often Lack Specialized Screening Programs
Randall Belinfante was a bit baffled.
When he and his wife went to take blood tests in preparation for starting a family in 2003, he discovered that the screening included a panel of tests for Ashkenazic Jewish genetic disorders. But Belinfante is Sephardic.
“We told them at the time that we were not Ashkenazi, but they told us they don’t do testing for Sephardic diseases, just for Ashkenazi ones,” recalled Belinfante, who traces his ancestry to the Iberian Peninsula via the Balkans, Holland and England. “So they went ahead and did the Ashkenazi tests anyway.”
With a note of bemusement, Belinfante, who is the librarian and archivist at the New York-based American Sephardi Federation, added, “Surprisingly enough, they found we did not have any of the Ashkenazi Jewish diseases.”
Since screening for Tay-Sachs disease began close to 40 years ago, Ashkenazic Jews have dominated the scene when it comes to Jewish genetic disorders. Having been reproductively isolated for centuries — and having grown from just a handful of founders into a population of millions in a relatively short span of time — Ashkenazic Jews are a relatively homogeneous group that has inherited a host of rare genetic disorders and has proved to be a rich source of information for geneticists.
But what about the others in the Jewish community? What about Sephardic Jews? Are they also susceptible to a unique group of genetic disorders rarely shared by other groups? Does a Sephardic couple planning on having children also need to be screened for certain diseases?
“There is no disease that you can call a Sephardic genetic disease,” said Rabbi Elie Abadie, who is a physician and director of the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University. Why this would be so and what this means — as is so often the case with genetics — has as much to do with history as with biology.
“Non-Ashkenazi Jews are collectively much more diverse than Ashkenazi Jews,” explained Aviva Ben-Ur, a professor in the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who authored the new book “Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History” (NYU Press).
The term “Sephardic” itself often tends to obscure this diversity. At its root, the word refers to Jews who can trace their origins back to the Iberian Peninsula, but it is often used as a catchall label for any Jew who is simply not Ashkenazic. Although even many non-Ashkenazic Jews themselves may employ the label, it glosses over a diversity of communities stretching from the Balkans, to North Africa, to the Arab world, to the Caucasus and beyond. The genetic picture is not far behind.
“You can’t say ‘Sephardic genetic diseases,’ because most of the disorders are specific to the community of birth,” said Dr. Joël Zlotogora, a professor of human genetics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert in the field of Jewish population genetics. “Moroccan Jews are different from Tunisian Jews and so on. For non-Ashkenazi Jews you have to look by country of birth.”
In Israel today, where non-Ashkenazic Jews represent a much larger proportion of the Jewish population than they do in North America, the medical establishment is very attuned to this reality. When an Israeli Jew comes for genetic screening, if the individual is not Ashkenazic, he or she is tested for the disorders known to exist among the Jews within his or her country of origin or the country of origin of the individual’s parents or grandparents and great-grandparents.
Several years ago, Israel’s Ministry of Health put up a Web site dedicated to genetics that publishes a list of disorders. A quick review of the list reveals the distinctions and distinctiveness of which Zlotogora speaks. Separate lists exist for Ashkenazic Jews, as well as for Algerian, Libyan, Tunisian, Moroccan, Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, Yemenite, Kurdish, Bukharan, Georgian, Indian, Ethiopian, Caucasian and Karaite Jews.
There are a small number of disorders listed that are shared across several communities, in particular among Jews from North Africa. These diseases, explained Zlotogora, became common because they conferred some advantage to a person who is just a carrier — i.e. has one mutated and one healthy gene — for the disease but does not get sick. Beta-thalassemia and glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD), both blood disorders that can cause certain types of anemia, are prime examples. Being a carrier for one of these diseases provides some protection against malaria.
Like their Ashkenazic counterparts, non-Ashkenazic communities developed unique sets of genetic disorders because they were isolated reproductively from the populations around them. But they were also, for the most part, isolated geographically and thus reproductively, from each other. The acceptance of marriage between relatives, even between first cousins, also contributed to the spread of some genetic mutations, as it did in the Ashkenazic world.
According to a 2001 survey by the World Sephardi Federation, non-Ashkenazic Jews account for approximately 26% of world Jewry. In Israel today, they are about half of the Jewish population. Their sizable presence since Israel’s founding has led to a growth in the study, understanding and awareness of the genetic disorders affecting their communities. “With time we have more and more disordersamong non-Ashkenazim that we are able to test for,” Zlotogora said.
Statistics on the number of non-Ashkenazic Jews in the United States are more difficult to come by. Those that do exist, explained Ben-Ur, “are not based on any kind of systematic survey.” The World Sephardi Federation survey estimates that only 4.5% of American and Canadian Jews are not Ashkenazic. But some have claimed that this estimate may be too low.
Most of America’s non-Ashkenazic Jews arrived over the past half-century from the Middle East and Central Asia. “Because they make up a very small percentage of American Jewry, much more attention is paid to Ashkenazi Jews in all areas of society,” said Abadie, who is also the founding rabbi at Congregation Edmond J. Safra in New York. This, he said, includes the area of genetic disorders.
It was just last month that the United States got its first genetic-disease screening program tailored to a specific non-Ashkenazic Jewish community. In mid-July, the Medical Genetics Institute at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles began a population-based program to screen Iranian Jews for four genetic disorders that occur with relative frequency in that community.
Beyond the program at Cedars-Sinai, however, someone trying to find information in the United States on genetic disorders for specific non-Ashkenazic communities would be a bit hard-pressed.
The American Sephardi Federation puts out a list of four diseases under the title “Sephardic Recessive Disorders,” and several Jewish genetic screening centers around the country list the same four disorders on their Web sites. These four diseases — beta-thalassemia; G6PD; familial Mediterranean fever (FMF), which causes recurrent fevers and rashes; and glycogen storage disease type III (GSD III), a severe metabolic disorder — are shared across several non-Ashkenazic communities in the Mediterranean basin and North Africa.
Yet they, too, are “erroneously called Sephardic genetic diseases,” said Abadie, because “they are diseases that manifest themselves in Sephardic Jews also.” Beta-thalassemia, G6PD and FMF are found among many populations in North Africa and the Mediterranean. And GSD III is present in other North African groups, as well.
Dr. Harry Ostrer, director of the Human Genetics Program at New York University Medical Center and a leading scholar of Jewish genetics, called this list “incomplete.”
“There is a noticeable gap in the availability of testing for Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jews” in the United States, said Ostrer, who in 2007 initiated a mapping of the Jewish genome akin to the Human Genome Project called the Jewish HapMap Project. “We’re going to have to come to grips with it pretty soon.”
When a non-Ashkenazic Jew comes to NYU’s genetics unit for screening, the staff devises a panel based on the person’s community of origin. But for some conditions it is simply not possible to find an American lab equipped to conduct the necessary test, Ostrer noted.
An informal survey by the Forward of Jewish genetic screening centers found that although many provide counseling for the four disorders commonly listed as “Sephardic,” they cannot perform the tests themselves.
“We help them, but we can’t do the testing for the Sephardic diseases through the Victor Center,” said Faye Shapiro, a genetic counselor at the Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. The Victor Centers, of which there are three — in Philadelphia, Miami and Boston — offer screening for Jewish genetic disorders at substantially reduced rates. Their lab, however, doesn’t test for non-Ashkenazic diseases, so such tests must be sent out to commercial labs at full cost.
Shapiro went on to explain that, whereas many Ashkenazic diseases are life-threatening or very debilitating, both FMF and G6PD — so common across populations that most American hospitals screen newborns for it — can be made livable with the proper treatment and precautions. In the United States, tests for thalassemia, a disease that can become quite severe as it progresses, are also readily available, given the disease’s presence among all Mediterranean populations. GSD III is very severe, but it is extremely rare in the United States, she added.
The relative lack of attention paid to recessive disorders among non-Ashkenazic communities in the United States may be due, in part, to attitudes within the communities themselves. “They like to be private about their lives. They like to be anonymous,” Abadie commented. Abadie, who is part of the Syrian community, said that when leaders of his community were asked to participate in the Jewish HapMap Project, they declined. He added that reluctance about testing remains strong, because uncovering a carrier may stigmatize a family. “The Sephardic community is close-knit and families know each very other well,” and therefore, he added, the communities feel they know which families are carriers for certain diseases.
Ostrer, however, said that scientists would take issue with this reasoning, because since carriers do not get the disease, “you can’t rely on family history. That’s the whole point of screening.”
In speaking with Syrian, Iranian, Bukharan and other non-Ashkenazic Jewish groups for the HapMap project, Ostrer said that he and his colleagues found there to be “considerable interest” in screening.
“I think we need to be doing it,” he concluded, adding that he hopes to begin offering tailored programs soon. “We treat them as very distinct communities. I hope that others will do so in the future as well.”