White supremacist finds out he is 14 percent black – what that tells us

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It’s one of those moments that just brings a smile to your face.  A white supremacist who finds out that he is part black.

Craig Cobb, 62, who wanted to form a neo-Nazi town in North Dakota, had the surprise of his racist life when he received the results of his DNA test on The Trisha Goddard Show.  Cobb learned that his genetic makeup is 14 percent Sub-Saharan African. Now, we’re not even talking single-digit percentages here, but double-digit.  You can’t even dismiss that as a technicality.  And yet, Cobb called the eye-opening results “statistical noise.”

Rather, this is statistically significant, and begs the question, how many other Craig Cobbs are out there? And what does all of this tell us about race and its place in America?

I found all of this amusing, but I also admit that part of me feels sorry for Mr. Cobb. After all, he bought into the lie that has been perpetuated over the past few centuries, which is the myth of race and racial superiority. Think of all the pseudo-scientific experiments, the human guinea pigs, the measurements of skulls to prove that one group was superior to another.  Think of all the people who have been enslaved, oppressed, annihilated, or otherwise held back based on the presupposition that one ‘race’ is superior and the “other” inferior, and the poisonous ideology which legitimized the conditions under which the former group subjected the latter.

The reality is that race is a social construct, rather than a biological one. People have a sense of ethnic identity and other aspects which, in addition to their physical characteristics and experiences, make them who they are. There is no black gene, brown gene or white gene, and all human beings share 99.99 percent of the same genes. Only one piece of genetic code led to “white” skin in people, and remember that originally, we all came from Africa anyway. But in any case…

There is no such thing as a pure “race,” whatever that means. History is all about admixture, and since colonial times, blacks and whites have intermingled—whether through consensual interracial relationships, or through the legacy of slavery.

The one-drop rule was a political power play to cement white rule in Jim Crow America.  Under the rule, society rendered as black anyone with even the smallest degree of African ancestry.  Practically, under the anti-miscegenation laws, anyone who was visibly black could not marry a white person.  Thankfully, those laws were struck down by the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967. Yet, who decides on the cutoff point, and why should there be one at all?  Those who own the measuring stick control the society.

The legacy of slavery and segregation meant that African-Americans maintained a broad, inclusive definition of family. We claimed our family members in all of their hues.  And yet, back in the day, if one branch of a black family could pass for white, they had the option of leaving the family and going off on their own to live a white existence. If some black families have a white branch they did not know existed, it stands to reason that white families have black subsidiaries previously unknown or long forgotten.

In other words, Craig Cobb is not alone.

Looking at a variety of sources, the average African-American is anywhere between 65 and 80 percent sub-Saharan African, 19 and 29 percent European, and up to 2 percent Native American. According to BlackDemographics.com, there is a broad spectrum, with the Gullah of South Carolina Low Country being 3 or 4 percent Caucasian, and black people in New Orleans and the West Coast averaging 23 to 26 percent white ancestry. And 10 percent of African-Americans are more than 50 percent white.

According to a study from Penn State molecular anthropologist Mark Shriver—a white man who learned 22 percent of his recent ancestors were African— 30 percent of white Americans have at least one black ancestor, with an African admixture of about 2.3 percent, or 3 African ancestors out of 128. Other sources say 3 to 4 percent of whites have African ancestry.

Either way, millions of white Americans such as Craig Cobb have black in their family.  In this so-called post-racial America that never was, this is significant.

President Obama exemplifies the complexities of race, ethnicity and identity in the U.S.  He was born to a Kenyan father and a white mother, and yet is descended from African-American slaves—but through his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Obama and his mother are descendants of John Punch, one of the first documented African slaves in the American colonies. Meanwhile, the president’s half-sister is Asian-American. Family is what you make of it, or what your ancestors made of it, and to some extent you might be surprised to know who your family really is.

A black and biracial president provides ample proof of significant changes in society when it comes to race. Yet, the visceral angry reactions by some extreme right-wing whites to this reality, not to mention the browning of America, show us that racism is an intractable problem in this nation. The tragic potency of racism has been its ability to scapegoat the “other”— put people down and divide them based on perceived differences. Historically, the name of the game in this country was to distance yourself as far as possible from blackness.

These days, DNA testing is widely accessible. What happens when millions of other white Americans out there begin to learn that some of their own people come from Africa, and were enslaved here? Surely, hopefully, it will force them to rethink themselves and others, accentuate the commonalities, respect and embrace the differences, but not to hold it against anyone.

In the meantime, Craig Cobb, welcome to the family, bruh!

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove