Scientists have told us we share somewhere between 44-60% of our genes with fruit flies, 92% with mice and 98+% with chimpanzees. As for the 8 billion humans currently trodding the earth wearing skins identified as various shades of white, black, brown and more, speaking a dizzying array of languages with customs, clothes, mores and cultures vastly different from one another, the genetics tell a very different story than all those surface differences might suggest.
According to the National Human Genome Institute, “All human beings are 99.9% identical in their genetic makeup.”
But oh, the woes and travails that 0.1% has visited upon us for the past couple of hundred thousand years!
These musings have come to mind repeatedly when reading the voluminous commentary on yet another heartless and brutal killing of a black man at the hands of police last week.
He’d rescued the mutt from the streets of Mexico, did a DNA analysis on it when he came back stateside and discovered the dog was 100% mongrel, with not a scintilla of identifiable breed characteristics in its genetic makeup.
It is but one more sign of the continuing hypertension in our racial relations that we could almost hear the entire nation holding its collective breath as the first news of the slain Tyre Nichols came across the wires. In that frozen moment, we couldn’t bring ourselves to exhale until we got the answer to the question on everyone’s lips: What race were the perps?
In this case, it turned out the five officers directly involved in the attack are all black themselves, which vastly complicates the narrative of white-on-black violence that has so roiled the nation for hundreds of years.
An innocent man dead at the hands of police is awful no matter what the race of the offenders and victim, but drained of the dismal and now almost cliched specter of white-on-black, it poses yet more troubling questions we do well to ask of ourselves.
Was this outcome “better,” however strange and twisted that may sound, in at least lightening another heavy dose of anger and despair that has descended upon the black population in the wake of this latest atrocity, and which may have been far worse if the perpetrators had been white?
Did whites at least breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t from among “them” that the fatal blows rained down upon a helpless black man, thus perhaps tamping down the worst of the recriminations, outrage and violence that have often followed such painful encounters in the past?
And what to make of the even larger, trans-racial question of America’s seeming love affair for settling resentments and grievances with violence, in a week that followed multiple mass shootings in California that involved perpetrators of Asian descent slaughtering their own?
And what’s with even using that phrase, “their own?”
Are we to be forever identified chiefly as members of a particular tribe, with the presumption of common characteristics that bind each tribe together in contrast to all the other tribes with whom we share the 99.9% of DNA mentioned above?
Sitting outside a coffee shop the other morn, my friend greeted an acquaintance who, after the opening hellos, wound up showing us a picture of his recently acquired dog romping on the beach the previous day. He’d rescued the mutt (all too apt term, please read on…) from the streets of Mexico, did a DNA analysis on it when he came back stateside and discovered the dog was 100% mongrel, with not a scintilla of identifiable breed characteristics in its genetic makeup.
It was simply a “dog.”
I’d never heard of such a thing before, but with this topic of race bouncing around inside my head these past weeks, I was immediately struck with two thoughts: 1) “How wonderful!” 2): “Such a loss!”
It also reminded me that one of the marked characteristics of the United States as melting pot, with whites marrying Latinos whose kids marry blacks and Asians, etc., is that we, too, are becoming increasingly mongrelized, a new kind of hybrid human representing the world at large rather than any particular tribe within it.
And with great diasporas around the world proceeding apace, it’s not like other countries aren’t experiencing a similar version of our mongrelization.
Immigrants keep lapping up onto almost every shore on earth, some desperate and hungry, some simply ready for a new life, all of them pining to make a fresh start in a strange land their children and grandchildren will soon enough come to call and feel as their own.
The (eventual) wonder of that: the potential reduction or elimination of racial and ethnic hostility because people will no longer harbor a strong identity with a group separate from other humans, with all its temptations to associate that separateness with superiority.
The (eventual) loss of that: the delight we often find in discovering other cultures, languages, idioms, cuisines, radically different than our own. Racial and ethnic “pride” often does, after all, carry with it a healthy form of belonging not linked to superiority, fear or non-acceptance of the “other.”
Will our progeny all work this out in due time, in the probably long term, finding other forms of identity, perhaps even linked with racial, ethnic and national identities that more resemble what we do today with genealogy? So that it becomes a matter of curiosity and wonder rather than breast-beating exclusivity, shorn of the toxic undertones of tribalism that still infect too much of the world today?
Here’s Vladmimir Putin a couple of days ago, holding on for dear life to the toxic as he oversees yet another round of missile attacks against the brave people of Ukraine:
“The legacy of generations, values and traditions—this is all what makes Russia different, what makes us strong and confident in ourselves, in our righteousness and in our victory.”
Ergo: All other countries, from which Russia is “different,” lack “generations, values and traditions.”
Beware that word “righteousness,” whether from an autocrat, a mullah, or a fiery pastor denouncing the latest scapegoat in his culture war.
The matter of genetic variations and what is “baked” into human DNA took a curious turn in the wake of the Tyre Nichols murder.
NPR’s daytime “Here and Now” radio broadcast ran a segment with Resmaa Menakem, an author and psychotherapist who in his 2017 book, “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies,” advanced a novel theory that a history of “white body supremacy” around the world has now become literally encoded within the very DNA of the population, and thus lies at the root of our enduring racial conflicts.
Here’s an extraordinary exchange he had with host Robin Young after he posits that white body supremacy is the underlying cause of the Tyre Nichols murder.
Young: “So I’m gonna ask: These officers were black.”
Menakem (laughing): “So let me dispel this right quick. The fact of the matter is we all live in a white body surpemacy society where the white body is seen as the standard of humanness, and every other body is the deviant from that standard. And so black bodies, Asian bodies, indigenous bodies, all bodies…And that the white body is the correct way to do things, and so what ends up happening is that the culture of policing is founded on the idea that whiteness is the standard, and so black bodies end up going along with the culture of policing, and that culture of policing is not to say that the black body is human, but that the black body is inhuman and dangerous. Black people ingest that, too. That is not to say that black officers and black people get the same vertical and power that white folks do, but in a structure like policing they can do a lot of the same damage that white people do.”
These assertions are questionable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it seems to completely rob the five black officers who participated in the Nichols murder of any human agency. These grown, intelligent, trained professional police officers are reduced to being passive victims of a genetic endowment that programmed them to so disdain the very “black body” that they themselves inhabit that they reflexively beat Nichols to death and then were heard joking about it in the aftermath.
If this were so, what are we to say of the many millions of black people who, right along with millions of whites and every other race, recoiled in horror from what they read and saw about the Nichols murder, just as they do from every atrocity and injustice, wherever it occurs?
Menakem seems to view white supremacy as an albatross that lives in the genes of all white people, programming them to disdain, dominate and even kill blacks with impunity. But even more monstrously, the Nichols murder shows that it inhabits the genes of blacks, too, so that they join in reflexively and helplessly to destroy their own.
In an essay on medium.com, he writes:
“During the Middle Ages in Europe, torture, mutilation, and other forms of savagery particularly on women were seen as normal aspects of life. Public executions were literally a spectator sport. As a result, when European ‘settlers’ first came to this country centuries ago, they brought a millennium of inter-generational and historical trauma with them, possibly stored in the cells of their bodies. Today, much of this trauma continues to live on in the bodies of most Americans.”
We hear more than a hint in that passage of Menakem suggesting the violence he describes was unique to white people in Europe, who internalized the trauma they experienced and then brought it over and foisted it upon, via genetic incursion, all the inhabitants of the new land in America.
This strains credulity on one huge count: Violence, subjugation and tribal conflict have characterized virtually every period, across every continent and people, of human history. To portray it as a strictly European phenomenon spreading to the new world simply does not square with what we know of history.
Violence and murderousness lies coiled in the human heart, a part of all of us, there in potentia. Certainly it is stronger and more given to expression (and explosion) in some than others (males of all races, most pointedly). But no bodies are immune from it—not white, not black, nobody. It is trans-racial, trans-tribal, trans-everything in its potential for harm.
The vast majority of human beings simply manage to tame or contain it, which has allowed civilization and civility to flourish as it has, even as the legacy of violence maintains a grip that humanity at large is a long, long way from removing.
Surely Menakem knows this, which makes his rationalization of the Nichols murder perpetrators as genetically-driven automatons such a troubling take on genetics, reality and responsibility.
None of this is to deny that a heritage of white supremacy continues to exert its influence on American life. Slavery’s tentacles are long, and the battle for racial justice and a fair accounting of the heinous parts of our history continues on any number of fronts today, from the dog whistles and dining companions of Donald Trump to the whitewashing of history textbooks that Governor Ron DeSantis seems so intent on accomplishing in Florida.
But Americans, like all other humans, are subject to all manner of legacies, many of them competing directly and forcefully with notions of tribal, racial, ethnic and national supremacy.
Legacies of love and self-sacrifice, decency and generosity, for starters.
Surely that is also “baked into” our DNA, yes? Veritable oceans of it, from what I see and experience daily, among all races and peoples.
Ultimately, those five officers must face the darkness in their own hearts as their days of reckoning arrive. They have violated a sacred trust, as police officers, as black men, but over-archingly, simply as human beings who have done horrid violence to another human being within our human family and its 99.9% shared genetic pool, most all of us family members rightfully outraged and offended at what those officers have done to one of our own.
How bad, how good does it need to get?/But how many losses? How much regret?/What chain reaction would cause an effect?
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Flower by Don Komarechka, Barrie, Ontario, Canada https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkom/