Race and identity in many ways define who we think we are, while modern genetics can challenge those notions. To delve into these issues, I am involved with a communications studies project at West Chester University in Pennsylvania that explores narratives at the intersection of race and identity.
For the last decade, I have invited hundreds of people to be part of ancestry DNA tests. But first I ask people how they identify themselves racially. It has been very interesting to explore their feelings about the differences between how they define themselves and what their DNA makeup shows when the test results come in.
Biologically, our ancestral differences reflect only a 0.1 percent difference in DNA. Yet we often cling to those differences — both in unity with our fellow people of origin and, at times, in divisiveness.
Over all, the experiment has provided a special opportunity to explore the lines of race. I found that as human beings, our strategies for survival are the same, and our similarities far outweigh our differences.
Not surprising, some volunteers came up with stereotypes like “I thought my biological father might be black; I heard he liked basketball,” or “Wow, a little Asian; that’s why my son is good at math!” Some had hoped the DNA tests would allow them to challenge prejudices in their own families.
But inside each comment was a longing to find out more. And a long-term, ever-deepening conversation began.
What started out as a curiosity turned into a study. My colleague Bessie Lee Lawton and I began our collaboration in 2012, and a more rigorous protocol was established. Statistical analysis was done to look for patterns not easily gleaned from individual stories.
Speaking in generalities, we found that women were more flexible about their racial identity than men; that people of color expected diversity in their backgrounds more than people of European ancestry; and that younger people were more open to diversity than older ones. People of European background tended to have more anxiety, before and after the test.
Keep in mind that analyzing a person’s ancestry through DNA, means looking back hundreds of years. People receive only half of their DNA from each parent, and therefore the race or identity of either parent may be too diluted to show up in these tests.
As a black girl growing up in the 1960s, I often felt race undermined me. I was expected to love Motown, but not ballet. I was praised for speaking standard English, but my interest in the sciences was never appreciated and certainly not cultivated. Random doors opened; others closed.
It took me 10 years before I tested myself. What I found both confirmed and shook my perspective. My background included African heritage from the Gold Coast, including Nigeria and Ghana, intermingled with British and Scandinavian. I suspect this reflects the impact of the brutal Viking Age and later the English in the slave trade.
I have a smattering of Asian genes, most likely from indigenous Americans crossing the Bering Strait. For Americans, about 4 percent of our ancestry traced to Asia may actually reflect Native American roots.
However, my grandfather shared with me years ago that in his birthplace of Mobile, Ala., his earliest memories were of Chinese merchants living alongside poor black folks like him. So who knows?
Today I look at faces, even my own, with new recognition. I see that people regularly share narratives that miss something their physical features suggest, and sometimes we find ancestry that we would not have imagined. It is a new twist on an old narrative made possible by cutting-edge science.
The conversation is complicated and jagged, and it mercifully undermines neat, simplistic stories.
Over the last 11 years, more than 2,000 people have taken part in our DNA ancestry project. Below are the stories from a handful of them.
In 2006, author Alon Ziv published the first edition of Breeding Between the Lines, a haphazard exploration of the idea that mixed-race people are inherently “healthier and more attractive” than people of non-mixed backgrounds.“The biology of race is a sensitive topic with an ugly history, butBreeding Between the Lines approaches it responsibly,” the book’s website reads. “Ziv presents evidence from academic journals, world history, census counts, and pop culture to explain why interracial individuals have measurable physical and mental advantages.”
Traditionally, when we think about eugenics, we’re thinking about the problematic theories that were once used to justify anti-miscegenation laws, segregation, and the forced sterilization of minorities. For decades here in the U.S., social norms and policies rooted in eugenic ideology played a major role in the disenfranchisement of and discrimination against people of color who were considered genetically inferior to white people.
Though the book’s a decade old, it recently went into its second edition with a brand new cover photo and a vastly different social media landscape full of people who couldn’t understand why Barricade, the book’s publisher, would deign to put the book out again. Author Daniel José Older took to Twitter (which wasn’t really a thing back in 2006) in disbelief.
View image on TwitterOlder wasn’t alone in his criticism of Ziv’s newly-republished book. Others felt that while feigning to be in favor of the well-being of people of color, Breeding Between the Lines was, in fact, inexorably tied to racist ideology.
Breeding Between the Lines‘s thesis stands on the other end of the traditional eugenic spectrum with its assertion that multiracial people are inherently superior. From his perspective, the fact that mixed race people are also people of color means that there’s nothing wrong with saying that someone of mixed race is “better” than their peers. What Ziv seemingly fails to recognize, though, is that that the ideas he’s advocating have a lot to do with the long history of valuing minorities with genetic connections to white people over those who don’t.
In many cases, fawning over a mixed person’s “good hair” or theirpretty blue eyes, can be interpreted as saying those physical traits somehow make them a more acceptable (or superior) version of other people from their ethnic backgrounds.
This book hides behind cherry-picked studies to substantiate arguments. One of Ziv’s points about multiracial people being more attractive is built upon the idea that humans objectively find symmetry to be aesthetically pleasing.
A 2002 study conducted by UCLA Assistant Adjunct Professor of Biology Jay Phelan attempted to scientifically “prove” that biracial people were more prone to being symmetrical and, subsequently, more attractive. After splitting a group of 99 students into groups according to whether or not they were biracial or “uniracial,” 30 people rated their attractiveness .
While the experiment proved his hypothesis, it failed to account for a number of important factors influencing the study’s findings. The idea of a “uniracial” person is absurd. Though people may identify as black, white, latino, or Asian, each of those racial groups are comprised of people with genetic connections to multiple ethnic groups from various regions. The experiment treated subjects as racial monoliths that could all be grouped together by particular physical traits.
What’s more, unless the study’s participants were explicitly told to gauge a person’s attractiveness based solely on the symmetry of their faces (and given the tools to measure said symmetry), there’s no way to account for the many other things that influenced how participants judged the photos.
“Right wing, left wing—everyone’s going to hate my idea,” Phelan toldElle in 2003. “But I think the movie Bulworth put it best: ‘Everybody’s just got to keep f—ing everybody ’til they’re all the same color.”
This glibness says a lot about how to interpret this type of pop science. More than anything else, Breeding Between the Lines is meant to be provocative and get people riled up over its not-so-subtextual racism. In an attempt to legitimize his opinions, Ziv takes a jab at Rachel Dolezal, saying that claiming black identity “did not work out well for her.”
Here’s to hoping that clinging to eugenics doesn’t work out too well for him.
The Pew Research Center is the premier group that gathers and analyzes data in America. Many of us trust Pew. They have been good to the multiracial community. For example, they came out recently with a big report called “Multiracial in America.” Good times. We gave them big thumbs up.
Last week Pew came out with a report called “Who is Multiracial? Depends on How you Ask: A Comparison of Six Survey Methods to Capture Racial Identity.”
So far so good; but then they go into their six methods.
Method 1: Standard two-question Measure. Per the Census Bureau, Pew asks respondent to select one or more races, with a separate question measuring Hispanic identity. Nothing new there and the response was “3.7% of Americans are mixed race.” What happened to the wording “Multiracial”? OK, so they were establishing a baseline of sorts. Result was 3.7% of American adults were “mixed race.”
Method 2: Census Alternative Measure. Pew tested a question being considered for the 2020 census in which the Hispanic origin response is included with the racial categories in a “mark one or more” format. Not good. It lends itself to the Census Bureau calling us “MOOMs” (Mark One Or More). Result 4.8%
Method 3: Census Measure with Parents’ Races. Oh come on, Pewsters!?! This was brought up in the ‘90s. Multiracial identity is complex. The answer does not lie in the race of the parents because parents may differ from their parents in their identities completely. This is why self-identification is so important. Get it? Result 10.8%
Method 4: Census Measure with Parents’ and Grandparents’ races. See Method 3 plus what about people who were adopted and know nothing of their grandparents’ races. Result 16.6%.
Method 5: Point Allocation Measure. Multiracial adults were given 10 “identity points” to allocate themselves across racial or ethnic categories. What? Are we back to octoroons and quadroons of past slavery days? Let’s not forget that a fraction by any other name is still a fraction. I would call this an ineffective method that is an affront to the multiracial community despite the resulting 12%.
Method 6: Attitudinal Measure. They asked people directly “do you consider yourself to be mixed race: that is, belonging to more than one racial group?” We would change “mixed race” to multiracial,” because it is a more acceptable and respectable terminology. Results: 12%
We like Method 6 best, with our slight alteration, even though it doesn’t result in the highest number of multiracial responses it’s clear, simple, and probably the most accurate.
This is very interesting, considering that the Governor of ALABAMA has joined us by issuing a proclamation for the state to celebrate Multiracial Heritage Week! -Susan
Census shows Alabama growing older, producing fewer babies
Alabama is growing slightly more diverse, while also producing fewer babies, according to a U.S. Census report released this week.
The new figures on age and race within states and counties show that half of Alabamians were older than 37.9 years of age in 2010. That median — or middle mark — is now up to 38.6-years-old as of 2014.
That’s because Alabama saw about 10,000 fewer young children from 2010 to 2014. The Census shows 305,000 children under the age of 5 in 2010. That was down to 295,000 in 2014.
The new report is broken down by race, and the decline can be seen across racial and ethnic groups. White and black, Hispanic and Native American, all saw fewer young children in Alabama in 2014.
There was a slight increase in recent births among the state’s small Asian population. But the only category to see any sizable growth among the youngest members were those reporting as “two or more races.”
That was the fastest growing category for race or ethnicity from 2010 to 2014, climbing from 64,000 Alabamians in 2010 to 75,000 in 2014. Nationwide, about 2.5 percent of Americans now answer as “two or more races.”
Meanwhile, Alabama has seen a steady year-over-year rise in the number of residents over the age of 65. For instance, Alabama had about 77,700 residents over the age of 85 in 2010. That had climbed each year to reach 83,600 residents over 85 in 2014.
The Census report this week shows Maine with the highest median age at 44.2 and Utah as the most youthful state with a median age of 30.5.
Within Alabama, the new numbers on race and ethnicity show that Pickens County saw the largest jump in Hispanic population, climbing 170 percent since 2010. But that’s still fewer than 1,000 residents in the small county. Most counties saw more modest gains.
Only Barbour, Tallapoosa, Montgomery, Jefferson and Chilton saw a drop in the Hispanic population since 2010. Jefferson County, home to the state’s largest Hispanic population, dropped about 3 percent from about 25,500 Hispanic residents to just under 24,900 in 2014.
Mobile County has the largest Native American population at about 4,000 residents. Jefferson has the state’s largest Asian population at 10,500 residents, followed by Madison County at 9,000.
There were slight changes in terms of white and black demographics.
Macon and Greene counties continue to have the highest percentage of black residents at just over 80 percent, while Winston and Cullman in north Alabama continue to have the highest percentage of white residents at just over 96 percent.
However, all four counties had grown slightly more diverse in the last four years. For instance, Macon County went from 83 to 81 percent black as the county shrank. Winston went from 97 to 96 percent white as the small black population doubled.
The Census released overall population estimates for states, counties, metro areas and cities earlier this year.
Alabama in 2014 had 4.85 million residents. The new report shows about 70 percent are white, 27 percent are black, nearly 2 percent are “two or more” races and 1 percent are Asian. Here’s the racial breakdown and median age for the state’s four most populous counties.
Two or more
Updated at 9:45 a.m. on June 28, 2015: Readers have requested data for Hispanic residents. The Census separates race and Hispanic origin. Residents are asked to identify as white and Hispanic, or white and non-Hispanic, black and Hispanic, black and non-Hispanic, etc.
Overall 4.1 percent of Alabamians in 2014 identified as Hispanic, up from 3.8 percent in 2010. Here are the five counties with the largest Hispanic population. Each sits in North Alabama and each is home to the state’s massive chicken industry.
Census considers new approach to asking about race – by not using the term at all
The Census Bureau is experimenting with new ways to ask Americans about their race or origin in the 2020 census – including not using the words “race” or “origin” at all. Instead, the questionnaire may tell people to check the “categories” that describe them.
Census officials say they want the questions they ask to be clear and easy, in order to encourage Americans to answer them, so the officials can better collect race and Hispanic data as required by law. But many people are confused by the current wording, or find it misleading orinsufficient to describe their identity.
Census forms now have two questions about race and Hispanic origin. The first asks people whether they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, and states that “Hispanic origins are not races.” A second question asks, “What is this person’s race?” and includes a list of options with checkboxes and write-in spaces. The U.S. government defines Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race.
The problem with using the word “race” is that many Americans say they don’t know what it means, and how it is different from “origin.” The agency’s focus group research found that some people think the words mean the same thing, while others see race as meaning skin color, ancestry or culture, while origin is the nation or place where they or their parents were born.
The Census Bureau’s owndefinitions of raceandHispanic origin, which follow government-wide rules from the Office of Management and Budget, sometimes appear to overlap. A white person, for example, is defined as someone “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.” Hispanic is defined as a person of “Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”
The confusion reflects a larger debate about how to define race, which used to be seen as a fixed physical characteristic and now more commonly is viewed as a fluid product of many influences. “We recognize that race and ethnicity are not quantifiable values,” the Census Bureau saidin a 2013 report. “Rather, identity is a complex mix of one’s family and social environment, historical or socio-political constructs, personal experience, context, and many other immeasurable factors.”
In test-census forms to be sent to 1.2 million respondent households later this fall, the bureau will test the impact of alternative question wording that drops all mention of “race” or “origin” and asks: “Which categories describe person 1?” People then can choose from the list of races and origins. TheNational Content Testalso will testcombining the Hispanic and race questionsinto one, in part because many Latinos believe that Hispanicity is a race and do not identify themselves as white, black or another standard racial group.
“I’m very happy that they are going to test a question which gets away from the language of race and ethnicity because frankly that is just a quagmire, that language,”said Ann Morning, an advisory committee member and New York University race scholar. “No two people seem to be able to agree on what those terms mean.”
In follow-up comments in an email, Morning said she believes “the beauty of simply referring to ‘categories’ is that it avoids that problem of people getting hung up on the terminology. So I would expect this term will allow people to answer the question more quickly, and to feel more free to check more than one box if they wish, and to lead to a lower non-response rate on that question.”
If adopted, the changes would add to the long list of revisions over time inthe way the decennial census has asked about race, which has been included in every count since the firstone in 1790. Until 1960, Americans did not choose their own race on census forms; enumerators did it for them. Racial categories have changed extensively through the decades, and question wording also has been revised.
The word “color,” not “race,” was used in census-taker instructions and some census forms in the 1800s. The word “race” appeared for the first time in 1880 enumerator instructions that talked about “color or race,” and the use of both terms continued on census forms or instructions through 1940. The term “color” was dropped from the 1950 census form, but returned on the 1970 census form.
The word “race” was not included in the 1960 census or 1980 census. Instead, the forms asked, “Is this person –” and listed the racial categories.
CDC: Cancer Incidence and Survival Improve; Racial Disparities Persist
Numerous states have achieved Healthy People 2020 goals for colorectal and cervical cancer incidence, and the proportion of persons with cancer who survive at least 5 years after diagnosis has reached 65%, but racial disparities in survival persist, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
An analysis of data from the U.S. Cancer Statistics for 2011 – the most recent data available – showed that a total of 1,532,066 invasive cancers were reported to cancer registries in the United States that year (annual incidence rate, 451 per 100,000 persons). Invasive cancers were considered all cancers except in situ cancers (excluding situ cancers in the urinary bladder) and basal and squamous cell cancers.
Incidence rates were higher for men than for women (508 vs. 410 per 100,000), and were highest among blacks (458 per 100,000). The 5-year survival rate, calculated for cases diagnosed between 2003 and 2010, was similar among men and women at 65%, but lower among blacks (60%) for every cancer site, S. Jane Henley of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC, Atlanta and her colleagues reported in the March 13 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Survival was highest among those diagnosed before age 45 years (81%) and decreased with increasing age.
The most common cancer reported was prostate cancer (128 per 100,000 men), followed by female breast cancer (122 per 100,000 women), lung and bronchus cancer (61 per 100,000 persons), and colon and rectum cancer (40 per 100,000 persons). Together these cancers accounted for half of those diagnosed in 2011, and 5-year relative survival in patients diagnosed with these cancers was highest for prostate cancer (97%) and breast cancer (88%), the investigators said (MMWR 2015;63:237-42).
Survival was intermediate for colorectal cancer (63%) and lowest for lung cancer (18%).
The cervical cancer incidence rate was 7.5 per 100,000 the authors noted.
A geographic breakdown shows that incidence ranged from 374 per 100,000 persons in New Mexico to 509 per 100,000 persons in Washington, D.C.
“Healthy People 2020 targets were reached in 37 states for incidence of colorectal cancer and in 28 states for incidence of cervical cancer,” they wrote, noting that this report is the first to include incidence rates in Puerto Rico; those rates were lower for all cancer sites, compared with the states and the District of Columbia (339 per 100,000 persons) – a finding that reflects screening practices and risk factors that may differ from in the states.
The inclusion of survival data is also a first and provides a basis for tracking progress.
“Cancer incidence and survival data can guide the planning and evaluation of cancer prevention and control programs,” the authors said, adding that such data can also assist in long-term planning for cancer diagnostic and treatment services, and help public health officials set priorities for allocating health resources.
Though limited by potential systematic misclassification of race and ethnicity, by the possibility that cancer reporting was delayed thus leading to underestimation of certain cancers, and by the fact that relative survival rates were calculated only for white and black racial groups due to lack of accurate life tables for other racial/ethnic groups, the findings are nonetheless important for helping public health officials to monitor cancer incidence, mortality, and survival and to identify populations that might benefit most from targeted prevention and control efforts, they said.
The findings can also help guide the planning of health care allocation and support services and track progress toward Healthy People 2020 goals, they added.
Dr. Lisa Richardson, the director of the CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control further stressed the value of monitoring cancer incidence and survival rates in a statement.
“These data are an important reminder that a key to surviving with cancer is making sure everyone has access to care from early diagnosis to treatment. We know, for example, that early detection of colorectal cancer has had the largest impact on long-term survival rates,” she said.
Already genetic sleuths can determine a suspect’s eye and hair color fairly accurately. It is also possible, or might soon be, to predict skin color, freckling, baldness, hair curliness, tooth shape and age.
Racial Disparities in Outcomes of Adult Heart Transplantation
Racial disparities in center performances were evaluated among patients who received orthotopic heart transplant (OHT). Blacks had elevated risk-adjusted mortality rates at centers that performed poorly and were more likely to be treated at centers with elevated mortality rates. A positive correlation was found between the observed-to-expected mortality ratios and the percentage of blacks.
Blacks were more likely to receive OHT at centers that performed poorly, although a center effect did not explain the racial disparities in mortality. OHT outcomes in minorities are unlikely to improve with referrals to better-performing centers alone.