The New York Times recently put up a piece, Has ‘Caucasian’ Lost Its Meaning? Much of the analysis in the article has too much of a feeling of ethnographic ‘close reading’, but I still am excited that the middle-brow journal of record has started to weigh in on the ridiculousness of the whole situation. I’ve been arguing that people should stop using “Caucasian” when they mean white or European for years, because the use of the term in this manner has led to farcical but common instances of semantic muddle such as the below exchange:
****Whate race do GEORGIAN people belong to***? – well if you are georgian or armenian and you go to other country, it is very hard for people to believe that you are white, everyone thinks either you are hispanic or mix so i was wondering what is the name of the race georgians.armenian are?
[One of the answers] As more and more people move around and settle in different locations, it’s becoming more and more difficult to ‘racially’ identify people by regions. Now if it were a few hundred years ago, I would have said Caucasian…but then as time has gone by Middle Eastern seems more appropriate…
Obviously, unlike a few hundred years ago, Georgians no longer reside in the Caucasus mountains. Nor are they any longer the archetype of West Eurasian populations. I am not going to have one of those inane discussions about whether Georgians really are white, though any reader who believes such a thing is invited to start referring to Stalin as the Soviet Union’s only head of state of color in the future. My primary issue with the modern American usage of the term is two-fold:
A fascinating comment below:
In traveling across America, the Scots Irish have consistently blown my mind as far and away the most persistent and unchanging regional subculture in the country. Their family structures, religion and politics, and social lives all remain unchanged compared to the wholesale abandonment of tradition that’s occurred nearly everywhere else.
Unfortunately, this has a lot to do with a powerful and long-running strand of paranoia and xenophobia. I’ve ridden trains through the rail towns of WV and KY and been regarded with more unprovoked hatred than anywhere else on Earth. On the other hand, when I’ve been introduced to their clan-based social structures by close friends, it is a uniquely close-knit and life-affirming culture that I’ve been honored to participate in.
What stuck me about this comment is that it is the sort of statement you regularly see from Western anthropologists or adventure tourists in relation to indigenous colored peoples the world over. That is, a parochial clannish folk trying to hold onto to their traditions, albeit with the downside of being inward looking and often regressive (downside from the perspective of Westerners that is). What these people lack in cosmopolitan openness, they make up for in adherence to authentic values which can’t but help earn some admiration. Substitute “Scots-Irish” for “Pashtun”, “Hmong” or “Berber” and you will see what I mean.
I notice that the media has started reporting that scientific genealogy has now established to a great extent the likely origin of the Melungeons. You can find the original paper online. The gist is that the Melungeons seem to exhibit a large proportion of Sub-Saharan African origin Y chromosomal lineages, and European mtDNA lineages. The lack of Amerindian ancestry in the generality is also notable. But, this does not entail that the origins of the Melungeons is from the union of free black males and white women necessarily, at least on purely genetic grounds (the paper itself has a wealth of genealogical evidence pointing to this likelihood). The Melungeons are an endogamous community, and so have a low effective population. African or Amerindian mtDNA lineages may simply have been lost by chance over the past few hundred years.
But I point to the story of the Melungeons because it is a nice counter-point to that of the Hispanos of the Southwest. This is a case where historians and anthropologists who made the case for the false construction of a mythical Middle Eastern ancestry for the Melungeons as a way in which to escape the bounds of the American racial caste system were correct. In contrast, this model was not totally supported for the Hispanos, who do seem to have some grounds to argue for genuine connection to Jewishness. In other words, genetic evidence is an important complement to other methodologies.
There have been a variety of responses to my column in The Crux on race. To be fair, because the audience for The Crux does not consist of genome nerds I engaged in some first approximations which some readers have taken objection to. For example, the genetic architecture of blue vs. brown eye inheritance is ‘quasi-Mendelian,’ with ~75 percent of the variation in Europeans on this trait attributable to variation in the region of the HERC2 and OCA2 genes. But I thought, and still think, that a rough re-characterization of the trait as a recessive one with a monogenic Mendelian inheritance pattern can be justified for didactic purposes (just like one can justify the idea that whole human genomes have been sequenced, even if there are large gaps, and known errors in regions of repeats).
But the comments over at Richard Dawkins’ website have been rather amusing as a whole. Some people were patronizingly pedantic, and I don’t have time respond in detail (the real response would be: read my blog!). But some comments are easy to answer:
I’d like to hear Dawkins’ response to this, I’ve read all of his books and he’d surely disagree with the author of that article.
Easy. He discusses race in The Ancestors’ Tale (a book the commenter claims to have read):