Race Reflections

As far back as 2001, when Bryan Sykes wrote The Seven Daughters of Eve, science has known about mitochondrial DNA and how all of us as humans are related.  Although 2011 brings the current spin of ‘when’ we migrated out of Africa, we know by mitochondrial DNA we did actually leave Africa and spread.  Thankfully the scientists busy researching (including Craig Venter)  are completely in love with what they do and persist despite the varying political climates relating to genetics and, heaven help us, evolution (it is raining so I am waiting for the lightening bolt to reach in and zap me).

Proof  (theory, fact) is a tenuous and slippery thing to scientists – not because they don’t wish to believe, rather good scientists are always up for new data and an open discussion.  Although there is proof about mitochondrial DNA and Mr. Venter has been able to assay genes, there is room for discussion with these people and, interestingly, they look for it – so they can improve on what they know! 

 In spite of what the scientists attempt to tell the rest of the known world, there seems to be great puzzlement in what the various findings of DNA mean.  In some ways, we continue to use DNA data to practice something akin to phrenology(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology) …or  maybe something even more discerning like psychognomy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychognomy-very popular with Hitler and crew).  Examples of this include the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census questions regarding race and ethnicity – very touchy subjects (read your not too distant history to remember when Ivy League Universities did not particularly want Jews on campus

They are also using the strength in their growing numbers to affirm roots that were once portrayed as tragic or pitiable.

and you will see the issue of race/ethnicity/religion really messed up in the stew pot).   The Census, for all of the good intentions behind it, does not quite have the race/ethnicity thing down – you can be a Latino Brazilian and Black……but not on the Census apparently

It was the census enumerator who decided.

“Where will I fit in?” recalled Ms. Garcia, who is Palestinian and Salvadoran.

 (think back seven months ago to the kind people who came to the door and asked you questions which were challenging to navigate in race/ethnicity) . 

 Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”

 In addition, NAEP has a default of Latino/Hispanic, which means you have to decide if you are Latino/Hispanic or  all the other possibilities….which is wacky if you are Philipino. There is no category for middle eastern anything.

The conclusion I have made is that race/ethnicity is less indicative of ability and intelligence and more indicative of your mitochondrial DNA and so using it to interpret anything data related is a bit beyond what they teach in stats 101 for undergrads.  When our young adults (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/us/30mixed.html?hp) answer ‘all of the above’ , you have to wonder what they know compared to all the statisticians looking for data.

Second to the issue of race and ethnicity is the issue of poverty.  If you remove the race/ethnicity line entirely from a questionnaire and go straight to the meat, your parents education level and their income as well as your grandparents education level and income, you actually pull out the relevant data about which students are consistently failing in American Education.  It is irrelevant that green, blue, black, red, brown, yellow live in particular clusters – it matters whether those clusters have access to quality education and productive lives where they can earn an income. 

Long ago, the nation saw itself in more hues than black and white: the 1890 census included categories for racial mixtures such as quadroon (one-fourth black) and octoroon (one-eighth black). With the exception of one survey from 1850 to 1920, the census included a mulatto category, which was for people who had any perceptible trace of African blood.

So, I am puzzled by the questions of race/ethnicity – I would love to know what it is for when asked on job applications, Census documents, NAEP studies……how on earth do I explain that both sets of my grandparents were from the ever switching border in Russia and Poland (depended on the ruler and war in process), I was raised reform Jewish but now practice Buddhism, I look exactly like my Namibian Grandmother (Peace Corps) – including hair texture, skin color and body shape and yet I am ‘caucasian’ or white.  

“Now when people ask what I am, I say, ‘How much time do you have?’ ” she said. “Race will not automatically tell you my story.”

 All I know for certain is that my mitochondrial DNA states I am related to one of Eve’s seven daughters and so I am, in effect, related to all of you.  There is nothing in all of this which tells you my income potential (2010 was a bad earnings year for me personally), my education level (graduate degree) and/or anything which would be meaningful in determining how I  contribute  or detract from being a U.S. Citizen.


This piece was written due to the intersection of a New York Times article, reading The Seven Daughters of Eve, working for NAEP (and previously the Census Bureau), listening to Snap Judgement and all the recent pieces on NPR about people who gave up children for adoption.  Most importantly, this is for all the times I attempted to ask about race in the training for being a Census Enumerator and/or NAEP Assessment Coordinator and was shut down AND for my past principal at Wood Middle School in Alameda, CA who had the gall to ask teachers (in regards to upping our AYP and API scores) what we were going to do to help all the black and brown kids.