Open Thread, 9/09/2018

DNAGeeks is now promoting some “helix” themed polos. If you click through, you’ll see a 25% discount code.

Listened to Carl Zha and Nathan Myers‘ podcasts. About China and the Silk Road.

The podcast Two for Tea with Iona Italia and Helen Pluckrose has an interview with my friend Sarah Haider.

Zha pointed me to this report, Massive Numbers of Uyghurs & Other Ethnic Minorities Forced into Re-education Programs, which is the source for the number in articles like this: U.N. Panel Confronts China Over Reports That It Holds a Million Uighurs in Camps. It’s short, but if you don’t want to read, there are major reasons to be skeptical of the 1 million figure as being credible. I think it’s likely that the Chinese government is targeting Uyghurs for re-education, partly because there’s a long history of that sort of thing. But the Kashgar region, in particular, strikes me as extremely unrepresentative, due its particular nature (far more Uyghur and Muslim than any other area of China).

Some people have asked me about books about Central Asia. Here are some I’ve found interesting, The Silk Road: A New History, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, and Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane.

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is supposedly good, but I haven’t read it.

I don’t know the last time I linked to Salon. I subscribed to Salon premium in 2002…but I’m pretty sure I let it lapse early in my blogging. But here I go, A witch hunt or a quest for justice: An insider’s perspective on disgraced academic Avital Ronell. There’s a lot of “score settling” in this piece…the author hired Ronell, who turned on him and swallowed his department.

A certainly number of professors have, are, and will, engage in sexually inappropriate relationships with their graduate students. Ronell seems likely to be in that class, but the more interesting aspects are of the story are:

1) That prominent fashionable professors, such as Zizek and Judith Butler have defended her (Butler had a follow-up equivocation, but who knows, perhaps it’s just performative).

2) Ronell is a certain type of academic who everyone who has been in academia has heard of or experienced. The depiction in the Salon story makes her seem like a total psychopath who suborns the mission of the institution toward the service of her self-aggrandizement.  This is a certain type of professor. A certain type of business person. A certain type of middle manager. We all know of these people. It’s not surprising that they exist in the academy. But, I do wonder if the transparent fixation on style above substance in the field of scholarship, “deconstruction”, that Ronell operates within allowed her selfish and narcissistic tendencies to flourish in a manner it wouldn’t have if she was engaging in supervising laboratory work or archival research.

Alibaba’s Jack Ma, China’s Richest Man, to Retire From Company He Co-Founded.

Will Saudi Arabia Cease to Be the Center of Islam?. This piece cites The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. I think it underestimates the cultural prestige of West Asians within Islam.

Should all babies have their genomes sequenced? Moot point.

The genetic history of the Iberian Peninsula over the last 8000 years:

The Iberian Peninsula, lying on the southwestern corner of Europe, provides an excellent opportunity to assess the final impact of population movements entering the continent from the east and to study prehistoric and historic connections with North Africa. Previous studies have addressed the population history of Iberia using ancient genomes, but the final steps leading to the formation of the modern Iberian gene pool during the last 4000 years remain largely unexplored. Here we report genome-wide data from 153 ancient individuals from Iberia, more than doubling the number of available genomes from this region and providing the most comprehensive genetic transect of any region in the world during the last 8000 years. We find that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers dated to the last centuries before the arrival of farmers showed an increased genetic affinity to central European hunter-gatherers, as compared to earlier individuals. During the third millennium BCE, Iberia received newcomers from south and north. The presence of one individual with a North African origin in central Iberia demonstrates early sporadic contacts across the strait of Gibraltar. Beginning ~2500 BCE, the arrival of individuals with steppe-related ancestry had a rapid and widespread genetic impact, with Bronze Age populations deriving ~40% of their autosomal ancestry and 100% of their Y-chromosomes from these migrants. During the later Iron Age, the first genome-wide data from ancient non-Indo-European speakers showed that they were similar to contemporaneous Indo-European speakers and derived most of their ancestry from the earlier Bronze Age substratum. With the exception of Basques, who remain broadly similar to Iron Age populations, during the last 2500 years Iberian populations were affected by additional gene-flow from the Central/Eastern Mediterranean region, probably associated to the Roman conquest, and from North Africa during the Moorish conquest but also in earlier periods, probably related to the Phoenician-Punic colonization of Southern Iberia.

The Insight will be putting up a podcast on the life and science of L. L. Cavalli-Sforza. Spencer worked with Cavalli-Sforza as a postdoc at Stanford in the late 1990s.

On simulation, and genealogies.

China: is national greatness deep rooted, or proximal?

A recommendation from The Scholar’s Stage has finally pushed me to complete Imperial China 900–1800, a book which I first began reading over ten years ago. Like The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization this may be a work I read again and again. Unlike The Fall of Rome Imperial China is not tightly argued. There is no argument, just narrative and exposition. It is not a short treatise purporting to “explain,” it is a magnum opus “describing” (in this it is similar to A History of Byzantine State and Society). The author, F. W. Mole, is clearly a scholar of deep learning. He doesn’t “front” with puffy theory and lexical flourish. He knows things. Many things. Imperial China was the summation of his learning. Decades of the accretion of insights.

Because I have read a fair amount of Chinese history reading Imperial China has illuminated some phenomena that had earlier eluded me in terms of their causal roots. During the Tang dynasty, and again during the Yuan (Mongol) period, people of Central Asian provenance had a despised but critical role in Chinese society. During the Tang period, Central Asian Sogdians were renowned and reviled as money-lenders and merchants. During the Yuan period, Central Asians were administrative bureaucrats who dominated the civilian officialdom of the Chinese state (this, due to Mongol favoritism in a land where the Han were a recently conquered overwhelming majority).

This is a deviation from the norm in Chinese history. Civilian rule in China was often delegated to learned scholars, usually stepped in Confucian classics. The trend began during the Han dynasty. During the Sui-Tang dynasty, the prominence of aristocratic factions attenuated the role of gentry officials, but the arc of history bent toward meritocracy, and so it revived with much greater vigor during the Song dynasty.

Motte notes that one reason the Central Asians may have been reviled so is that they practiced a West Asian tradition of revenue extraction which was at variance with Chinese norms. Basically, the Central Asians were “tax farming.” In ancient Rome, this practice was severely criticized. The contrast here is with a long and robust tradition within orthodox Confucianism that the role of the state and the official class was to foster prosperity by minimizing tax burdens on the populace, not extract resources for their own enrichment. Obviously the Chinese have a long history of corruption, self-dealing, and the emergence of local petty tyrants. But the ideal, and a repeated trend in behavior among many scholar-officials across history is toward service to the state in the interests of the collective well-being and as well as the extolling of individual virtue. Glory did not go to god or the state, but the people.

This is why I have joked that Confucianism really pioneered Fusionism 2,000 years ago.

Though drawing straight-line inferences from history is a fool’s game, I have started to wonder if China’s timeless absorptive capacity due to its resilience and continuity can tell us something about its trajectory in the 21st century. I am well aware of the reality that demographics are not on its side (China’s working age population is shrinking). Ignoring this for a moment, let us take seriously the proposition that China is fundamentally bound together by something culturally ineffable, and deeply reflects the Confucian mores that have waxed and waned for 2,000 years. To not put too fine a point on it many perceive, correctly, an amoral rapacity in the modern quasi-Communist Chinese people. Some of my friends are not very optimistic about the Chinese, after having worked with them in a professional capacity. They find both their proximate moral character and ultimate vision lacking.

And yet for thousands of years, the Chinese maintained a cultural and civilizational identity which was extremely robust. When introduced to the foreign religion of Buddhism, China made it its own. In fact, Buddhist concepts and institutional structures reshaped religious Daoism. Cults like Christianity, Islam, and Manichaeanism have all entered China, and been transmuted, or appropriated. There is obviously a Chinese sense of self that is rooted in history, in cultural memory, but oftentimes these ethnocultural entities also transmit tacit and informal folkways.

It is certainly true that the scholar-officials of the Chinese bureaucratic class were not always well prepared for some of the exigencies which they were confronted with. Brittle, often hidebound, bureaucrats were often stuck at a “local optimum.” But over the long-term historically they have adapted, integrating some of the metaphysical insights of Buddhism into Neo-Confucianism most prominently, as well as adapting the Chinese imperial system to an explicitly and self-consciously non-Han ruling caste such as the Manchus.

Social disorder in China historically can have tragic consequences. The Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century resulted in the death of tens of millions. And yet China has persisted for 2,000 years as a unitary state, on and off. Its cultural and social fiber has roots into a deeper past, during the declining years of the Zhou during the first millennium before the birth of Christ. What Imperial China illustrates is that Chinese civilization had particular and locally contingent resources which allowed for the flourishing of a relatively well-ordered administrative state less contingent on tribal asabbiya necessary in West Asian polities.

In short, if “Confucian civilization” is a thing, I’m somewhat more optimistic about 25% of our species over the next few decades.

My interview of James F. Crow in 2006

Since the death of L. L. Cavalli-Sforza I’ve been thinking about the great scientists who have passed on. Last fall, I mentioned that Mel Green had died. There was a marginal personal connection there. I had the privilege to talk to Green at length about sundry issues, often nonscientific. He was someone who been doing science so long he had talked to Charles Davenport in the flesh (he was not complimentary of Davenport’s understanding of Mendelian principles). It was like engaging with a history book!

A few months before I emailed Cavalli-Sforza, I had sent a message on a lark to James F. Crow. It was really a rather random thing, I never thought that Crow would respond. But in fact he emailed me right back! And he answered 10 questions from me, as you can see below the fold. The truth is I probably wouldn’t have thought to try and get in touch with Cavalli-Sforza if it hadn’t been so easy with Crow.

If you are involved in population genetics you know who Crow is. No introduction needed. Some of the people he supervised, such as Joe Felsenstein, have gone on to transform evolutionary biology in their own turn.

Born in 1916, Crow’s scientific career spanned the emergence of population genetics as a mature field, to the discovery of the importance of DNA, to molecular evolution & genomics. He had a long collaboration with Motoo Kimura, the Japanese geneticist instrumental in pushing forward the development of “neutral theory.”

He died in 2012.

Below are the questions I asked 12 years ago. My interests have changed somewhat, so it’s interesting to see what I was curious about back then. And of course fascinating to read Crow’s responses.
Read More

Complementarity in the 21st century

The late Gordon R. Dickson wrote a series of books in a (mostly) future history termed The Childe Cycle. I’ve read a substantial number of the books in this series, and it’s rather uneven. On the whole, I would say that the earlier books are better than the later works. Dickson died before he could complete the series, but I don’t think that’s really that big of a deal, because the books are only loosely connected. I read the novels and short stories of the series all out of order, and it wasn’t a problem.

One of the interesting aspects of the universe is that there are separate human cultures/ethnicities that inhabit different planets and specialize in different economic tasks. If you look closely, the system doesn’t make economic sense, but that’s OK, we’re talking a setting for space opera.

Of the “splinter cultures,” two of them inhabit planets very close to each other in the same solar system, Newton and Cassida. Newton is home to pure scientists, while Cassida is a world of applied engineers. In Young Bleys it is stated that the engineers of Cassida admire and envy the scientists of Newton.

My point in posting about this is to a great extent I imagine that the United States of America will be the “Newton” of our world for a while longer. But, other nations will be will Cassida (you can guess which), and others the Friendlies. I don’t know who the Exotics or Dorsai might be, and the analogy might breakdown there.

No more “science cheerleaders”

The Guardian has a weird portion of their valedictory to their closing down of their science blogging network:

But nevertheless, the end of the science blog network comes at a time when, perhaps more than ever, there is a need for strong, critical, evidence-based science journalism. We find ourselves in a moment in history that is dominated by fake news, cherry-picked data, and a culture in which the stories we tell ourselves – the ones that tap into our own limited experiences and beliefs – trump facts and evidence. In the age of the internet search engine, everyone believes that they have become the expert – all it takes is a quick google, and your first ten hits constitute an apparently unequivocal evidence base. Somehow, we have lost the ability to take a step back, to try and be objective about the information that is presented in front of us, especially if we are faced with something that we already hold a strong opinion about.

This is why good science writing is so important. We don’t need science cheerleaders, telling us how everything is awesome, or showing us cutesy pictures of a cluster of stars with some inane motivational slogan pasted over them. We need journalists who are willing to get their hands stuck into the data, to uncover the real stories that new research tells us, and explain the motives of the scientists that are doing that research. There is good research out there, and there is poor research. There are good scientists, and there are bad ones, and we need honest and expert science writers to do the ground work in separating the signal from the noise. The science blog network here might be coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean that there is no longer a need for excellent science communication….

The author has some experience with how science blogs work, obviously. So I’m genuinely a little confused at these characterizations. A lot of people who have blogged about science do so from a critical perspective. There are some things that science journalists can do that scientists are not good at. Look at the investigation of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Calls were made, emails were read. This is what journalists do.

But the reason that the controversy blew up in the first place was that scientists on Twitter and blogs were talking about the issue. Is a blog like Neuroskeptic a “science cheerleader”?

To some extent, I think science journalism itself is more liable to be a “science cheerleader.” There are great journalists who have a particular beat and can write with deep knowledge on a topic. But these are exceptions. A lot of science journalism is simply rewriting press releases!

Open Thread, 09/02/2018

John Hawks’ write-up, The man who tried to catalog humanity: Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza chased Darwin’s dream of a tree of humankind, is worth reading in full. With some hindsight, it’s pretty clear that L. L. Cavalli-Sforza was way ahead of his time in terms of ambition and vision.

But he was also someone who paid attention to details. I have heard it said that Cavalli-Sforza could be very knowledgeable about where and from whom he obtained samples. The “Sardinians” in the HGDP dataset, for example, are not arbitrary, but “more Sardinian” than the random sample of Sardinians that you might find else.

Second, his multidisciplinary perspective allowed him to have deep and powerful insights, even if they in the details there was a lot he got wrong. In 2007 a friend of mine whose lab was collaborating with Cavalli-Sforza’s group told me how amusing and peculiar the younger researchers thought his fixation on agriculture was. But, it’s quite clear to me that the last decade has vindicated his intuition that shifts in “mode of production” have been critical to the arc of human evolution and diversification.

The Asian-American Age: At the movies and in court, a rising minority claims the spotlight. One of the problems with the idea of “Asian-American leaders” is that these leaders are very non-representative of Asian-Americans more generally. For example, Indian Americans who write and do journalism with an ethnic (but American) focus are very liberal. But the average Indian American, even if Democrat, generally don’t know what “Critical Race Theory” is and are not worked up over “intersectionalism.”

A Generation Grows Up in China Without Google, Facebook or Twitter.

New paper ignites storm over whether teens experience ‘rapid onset’ of transgender identity.

Adaptive evolution of sperm proteins depends on sperm competition in a pair of Lepidoptera.

4500-year-old DNA from Rakhigarhi reveals evidence that will unsettle Hindutva nationalists. I do wish that the Indian reaction wasn’t so ideologically polarized. There are the standard dumb Hindu nationalist responses…but a lot of the ‘secularists’ (that’s the term I see in their Twitter bios) barely understand the science either, and are selectively trumpeting the results as buttressing some ideological point.

And from me in India Today3 strands of ancestry

Pornocracy.

I don’t read many blogs. Honestly, there aren’t many blogs. The Scholar’s Stage is one I do read.

The Quran as a collective human enterprise


When people ask about my religion I usually just say I’m an atheist and I have no religion. If they continue, I usually give them what they want, and state my parents are Muslim, or I am from a Muslim background (most of the time the people asking for what it’s worth are themselves Muslims, or from a Muslim background, or, not American). I never say that I used to be a Muslim because that’s really not true.

This is a major way I’m very different from those who come from a similar background. Not only did I not believe in religion, unlike many people from a Muslim background, I never grew up in a Muslim milieu. Though my parents are moderately observant Muslims (e.g., though they don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, my mother does not wear a headscarf nor has my father ever grown a beard), they were never involved in the “Muslim community.” We went to the mosque on special holidays, and that was the extent of our participation in “organized religion.” Any religious instruction I had was from my father, who mostly did this when he felt guilty because a mutual acquaintance would comment on the religious ignorance of his children.

Both my parents come from rather religious families in a traditional sense. As my paternal grandfather was an ulem, all of his children, including my father, received extremely thorough religious educations. My mother has a brother who is an ulem, and her maternal grandfather was a very prominent ulem, whose lineage was involved in the Islamicization* of the peasantry in parts of Comilla and Noakhali in the 19th century.

When I say that my parents come from religious families in a “traditional sense,” I mean that neither of them come from families where people have to be “born again” to practice Islam. Rather, they were part of the tradition of middle and upper-class Sunni Muslims who adhered to and espoused a form of religious orthodoxy which was geographically broad, the Hanafi traditions which included the Turkic world and much of South Asia, and date back many centuries.

This personal history is relevant because unlike some people I have not taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Islam in the same way I have taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Christianity. How and why Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire is an interesting question for academic reasons. How and why Western Christianity fractured in the 16th century is an interesting question for reasons of understanding the geopolitics and history of modern European nation-states. I never believed in the Muslim religion, and matured into adulthood in a totally non-Muslim milieu, and my parents were outwardly nominal and complacent in their religiosity.

In contrast to Christianity, there is far less scholarship in English on the development of the Sunni-Shia schism, or conversion of Iran to Shia Islam in the 16th century. And of course, there is very little scholarship on the development of the religion which became Islam from a critical lens, aside from a small band of “revisionists.”

Some of this is due to fear. To be frank, many Muslims guard the sanctity of the orthodoxies which they promulgate with veiled and not so veiled threats of violence. Even if this is a minority of Muslims, it is sufficient to convince scholars who might take an interest in the topic that there is little personal profit in the enterprise.

This has curious knock-on consequences: many educated Muslims take certain orthodoxies of their religion for granted as unchallenged truths in a manner which is equivalent to the sort of insulation one only finds in ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. To give an explicit example, when I was younger, and knew people from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, they would patiently explain to me that in actuality science had long disproved the basic tenets of evolutionary biology. They were speaking out of a certain ignorance, because of subcultural norms.

To a great extent, Muslims are the same. But in this case about the truths of their religion which they presume to be unchallenged and unrefuted. Educated and relatively secular Western Muslims take the historicity of Muhammad and the literal truth of the Quran for granted in a way that educated and more Christians do not. That is due to the fact that Christianity has been subject to robust criticism in scholarship and in the public space since the 19th century.

Because of risk-aversion in academia, I think that the revolution and consciousness-raising in Muslim circles will happen from a more bottom-up approach. The latest Secular Jihadists podcast is titled, The Quran: Questioning Infallibility, Shattering Taboos. The discussion is wide-ranging, including Aisha’s requirement that her male allies breast-feed from her older sisters (there is a serious context to this practice).

Basically, the upshot is that the standard educated Muslim narrative about the nature of the Quran is trivially easy to knock down. It does not require deep scholarly knowledge, simply an awareness of facts that for obvious reasons Islamic scholars have not put in front of the mass of believers.

An interesting aspect of the discussion is that it is not highly revisionist. That is, it takes the historicity of the standard Muslim narrative of the rise of Islam under Muhammad, and its expansion under his successors, for granted. But even accepting the “standard model”, a set of simple critiques can refute the consensus of educated Muslims on topics such as the nature of the origin of the Quran.

What will the consequence of this be? I doubt it will be a great apostasy. Just as with Christianity a modernist critique will give rise to a sophisticated subculture that insulates and debunks the critique. But a large number of Muslims will engage in conscious and subconscious revisionism of what it means to be Muslim, and what Islam is, in a more “root & branch” manner than has currently been the case. I do think for various reasons that will happen in the West, and not the core Muslim world.

* Islamicization here is probably indicative of reform of the practices and customs of nominally Muslim peasants.

L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, 1922-2018

I assume many readers of this weblog have had the same experience as me, curling up with the unabridged The History and Geography of Human Genes. Twenty years ago there was really nothing much beyond this for those interested in the intersection between genes and history. Today things are much changed.

Obviously, much of this is due to the efforts of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Unfortunately, his passing is no great surprise. Over ten years ago he was already ill when he graciously answered some questions from me through email.

Below are the answers to the 10 questions I posed him 12 years ago.

Read More

The gray moral world of the Greeks

Listening to the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast on The Iliad was very interesting. As some readers know, I came across Greek mythology as a child. Though I began with Bulfinch’s Mythology, I did not stop there. Soon enough I moved beyond the juvenile material, and read darker, more violent and sexual material that to be entirely frank I was not prepared to comprehend.

Of course, Greek myths are not the only literature from the ancient world which contains adult material. Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible highlights those stories passed down from Hebrew tradition which are perhaps glossed over. The young David’s defeat of the giant Goliath is known to all schoolchildren. Less well publicized to the religiously illiterate American public is his adultery with Bathsheba (though obviously more observant people are quite aware of this aspect of his biography).

In the podcast above there is extensive discussion of the fact that the Trojans are not depicted as evil in The Iliad. As someone who came to maturity at the end of the 20th century, this struck me as somewhat strange as a child. I grew up on a diet of films about evil Nazi and Communist adversaries. The game of great powers for me was also fundamentally a moral one. We were the good guys. They were the bad guys.

In reading The Iliad it was difficult for me to understand why the Trojans were often depicted as such noble characters. And it wasn’t clear that the Greeks were good and moral. I particularly recall the vicious brutality of Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son.

This comes to mind because of late due to the popularity of George R. R. Martin’s work there has been a rise in popularity of gritty and morally gray works of speculative fiction. And when I read histories of World War I, it is also not entirely clear to me that the Central Powers were truly malevolent and dark forces. I do wonder if the second half of the 20th century was a world of exceptionally stark blacks and whites, of an almost Manichaean vision of conflict which emerged out of World War II, and continued with the rise of global Communism.

Fading to white by 2050


When our current attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, was going through hearings there was an incident where he held his Eurasian granddaughter in his lap, and some people in the media made some off-color remarks. This was to be expected since Jeff Sessions is a white southern male of a certain age. And his middle name is Beauregard.

But, what bothered me is the critiques were so 1968, not 2018. The reality is that 2018 is a year when many young men and women who grew up white segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s happen to have mixed-race grandchildren.

Which brings me to a new paper, What Majority-minority Society? A Critical Analysis of the Census Bureau’s Projections of America’s Demographic Future. In the author explicitly models the likely impact of interracial/ethnic marriage on projections of a “majority-minority” America.

Here are the essential bits:

What the example of infants demonstrates is the powerful growth of the mixed-white population in the projections. The size of this group (of all ages) rises threefold during the projections. By the 2050s, one of every three babies with white ancestry also has Hispanic or racially nonwhite ancestry; and these mixed infants are almost a fifth of all infants, of any ethnoracial background. Consequently, assumptions about the ethnoracial assignment of mixed minority-white individuals have a large impact on the projections. The Census Bureau’s assumption that they are not to be counted with whites determines the outcome of the majority-minority society by the mid-2040s.

The final point to bear in mind therefore is this: the critical role in the projections of individuals with mixed white-minority backgrounds means that our demographic future will not be exclusively determined by the usual demographic components: fertility, mortality, migration. It will also be shaped by sociological forces that influence the social locations of individuals who are situated by family background in between the major ethnoracial blocs of American society.

The paper highlights two critical, if not exhaustive, parameters: legal and social definitions of whiteness. Though connected, they are not identical.

It is now fashionable today to assert that white ethnic groups such as Irish, Italians, and Jews “became white” through assimilation. There is some clear truth in this. But, to the American government, they were always considered white, because they were allowed to be naturalized. The 1790 Naturalization Act limited the acquisition of citizenship to free whites. This was later expanded to people of African descent after the Civil War. But Asians were excluded.

In the early 20th century on the whole, though not exclusively, Arabs, mostly Christian, were allowed to be naturalized as white. But they were clearly a liminal case, and they were not always given citizenship. People from the Indian subcontinent were just on the other side of the line between white and nonwhite. Usually, they were not given citizenship, and when they were given citizenship, that was sometimes taken away due to the fact that the authorities determined they were Asian nonwhites.

As a contrast people from the south and east of Europe, and European Jews, were naturalized as white people. But, they were given citizenship somewhat begrudgingly and triggered a racial panic which helped to lead to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924.

Which brings me to the social aspect of whiteness. By using the term “white” I think we’re eliding and masking the complexity of the dynamic at work. At different points in history the white American mainstream has had different perceptions of those white Americans who deviated from “typicality.” The migration of Irish and German Catholics in the decades before the 1850s triggered a very strong reaction. Similarly, the massive migrations around the turn of the 20th century also triggered a wave of nativism. At other points and periods deviation from “typicality” didn’t matter as much. For example, in the 19th century before the major wave of Jewish migration from the Russian Empire, there were three Senators of Jewish background, all from the South.

Though physically Irish, German and Polish Catholics were no more swarthy than Old Stock white Americans, their Catholicism was a major deviation from American norms. The early American Catholic Church in the 19th century was dominated by French priests and was relatively well integrated into the denominational landscape. The arrival of Irish Catholics, and the reformist Irish hierarchy, in the 1830s, transformed the demographics and cultural assertiveness of Roman Catholics. As a large religious minority in a normatively Protestant country, many leaders of the nascent Catholic community demanded some measure of corporate recognition, as had occurred in European lands. This triggered a massive backlash, leading to violent religious conflicts. Among the Catholics themselves, the Germans were leaders in an attempt to resist Anglicization, and maintain a separate German-speaking school system (the English-speaking Irish hierarchy quashed this separatism to mixed success).

Over the 20th century, the religious trajectory of both Jews and Roman Catholics was to adhere to Protestant norms. Ethnographic research on late 20th century Roman Catholics shows that many of them have internalized a “Protestant” conception of Christian identity and affiliation, being confessional, congregational, and individual in their beliefs. The social assimilation into the mainstream whiteness of “white ethnics” was to a great extent due to their accommodation to the broad outlines of American public religion.

But what has been made can be unmade. Though American Jews are predominantly secular, there been a level of exoteric de-Christianization of the Reform movement, as well as an ideological reaffirmation of Jewish nationhood. In American Catholicism, the consensus of the mid-20th century has flung apart, with wholesale secularization and quasi-Protestantization on one hand, the emergence of highly sectarian counter-cultural traditionalists and integralists on the other hand.

Ironically, with the collapse of a narrow set of cultural mores defining typical white Americans, white American identity has become more racialized. Ethnic and historical differences between various Old Stock groups, such as Southerners and Yankees, become collapsed and bracketed into the catchall of “white privilege.” Clear class differences between rural Appalachian whites and Yankee Brahmins get papered over due to the overwhelming presence of systemic white supremacy. The aristocracy of skin which began to emerge in the early 19th century as a siren call of white racial democratic populism ironically reemerges in the rhetoric of 21st century, as all non-whites, of all class and ethnic backgrounds, are a subject people crushed underneath the behemoth of white supremacy.

But let’s take a step back. Earlier I alluded to the distinction between legal and social norms. Today we need to also acknowledge that social and ideological norms differ, and are diverse. The ideological framework is that systemic white supremacy oppresses marginalized “people of color.” The latter category is highly inclusive, ranging from well educated Asian Americans to working-class Latino immigrants, as well as highly assimilated “white presenting” people of various ethnicities who “identify” as “people of color.” The ideological framework treats them as interchangeable elements in the algebra of oppression, but socially and culturally this is bullshit and totally unrealistic.

One of the reasons that certain quarters of academia have made it their job to debunk the “Asian American model minority myth” is that Asian Americans in various ways are not oppressed and marginalized by systemic white supremacy. The emphasis on a catchall Latino/Hispanic identity in the United States runs up against the fact that this group runs the gamut from people who are no different physically from Africans Americans to those who look totally white, and others who have various degrees of indigenous ancestry. Like the African American/black category there’s a logic to inclusion, capturing all possible individuals that might fit into the class to maximize numbers. But the Latino/Hispanic category is arguably much more culturally diverse than that which encompasses American blacks. The same is obviously true in a more clear way for “Asian Americans,” which includes people from Pakistan to Japan. But the logic of political, social, and cultural mobilization requires the creation of these meta-ethnic identities which bind people together.

But when you leave the political and ideological realm, social realities are very different. A dark-skinned Latino is treated very different than a white Latino in many situations. Though South and East Asians are both “Asian American,” socially and culturally they are very distinct, and South Asians are perceived in the American context to be atypical Asian Americans. There is a high level of social and cultural segregation among various Asian ethnicities, though some level of sub-regional pan-Asian identity does emerge among American born Asian Americans (e.g., East Asians and South Asians may create broader social communities where traditional ethnic boundaries break down).

And the way these various ethnicities relate to the mainstream, that is, white America, differs. The paper above asserts that one of the major issues is the binary framework of white vs. non-white in social, political, and legal discussions is not realistic. For the purposes of the Census people of mixed background, racial and ethnic (Hispanic/non-Hispanic) are coded as “minority.”  For all practical purposes, this is a legal fiction. The fact is that people of non-Hispanic white background, and part Asian or Latino/Hispanic background, do not unambiguously identify as minorities, nor does society treat them as such. That being said, they are still somewhat atypical, as evidenced in the literature review in the paper above.

The main exception to the ambiguity is the case of black Americans and people with black ancestry. In the United States today individuals with visible African ancestry tend to be coded as black, irrespective of blood quantum, in accordance with the rule of hypodescent. Originally a way to maintain racial hierarchy and purity, hypodescent has been tacitly accepted as a method by which black Americans maintain their demographic numbers in the face of possible erosion. This is not an abstract matter. In much of Latin America, some African ancestry does not entail a black identity necessarily.

A growing proportion of mixed-race Americans should transform our understanding of racial dynamics that might emerge in the middle of the 21st century. As it is, many of the frameworks operational in both a legal and ideological sense derive from a mid-20th-century milieu, when the United States was a biracial nation. The black American struggle for legal equality in the 1960s was relatively successful, and ethnic activists in other minority groups saw in it a model to emulate.

But to not put too fine a point on it, 2018 is not 1968. About 30% of white Americans claim that a close relative is in a relationship with a person of another race of Latino/Hispanic ethnicity, while 8% of white Americans are in a relationship with a person of another race or of Latino/Hispanic ethnicity. A substantial number of “white presenting” mixed-race people have matured in a mostly white environment but have close relatives who are clearly non-white. To give an explicit example, a person who is 1/4th Chinese and has blonde hair and blue eyes can both identify and be seen as white, but also feel a very strong and visceral connection to their Asian ancestry and heritage. This is something new in the American context, as to become white in the past was to “pass” and disavow and disengage the contamination of non-white heritage.*

As the decades pass many more people will have complex and multi-valent identities. To some extent, this is tacitly understood. But elite ideological discourse and legal frameworks have not caught up. They probably should. Our conception of political and ideological alignments predicated on theories of demography-as-destiny may need to take into account details of demography which are not imagined in our current models….

* Perhaps with the exception of Native American ancestry. Neither Will Rogers nor Charles Curtis disavowed their native ancestry.