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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Thank you for taking on this subject (these subjects), which is not only a difficult thing to do, but also courageous in these times. Your writing is always thought-provoking, which I appreciate.
I have a few thoughts to share here, and won’t go into each of them, or it would be a book. These are early responses and I’ll keep thinking:
– I believe the culture of policing in this country is the biggest cause of the outrageous and unceasing brutal murders of Black men and also some Black women. And the Black officers are indeed part of that culture. And – those officers were held immediately accountable, unusually fast and unlike almost all other cases of (white) police murder of Black men that I am aware of.
Indeed, a 6th man, white, was only included in the accountability much later.
– I think the internalized view that Black people (“Black bodies”) are less than human is indeed part of white supremacy in our country (and maybe other countries/continents) though not always conscious. It is also part of the culture of policing. Anti-Black racism is clearly a part of assessing risk, perceiving danger, and acting with violence, out of fear.
– It seems to me the common thread here is *cultural,* not biological (DNA based) even though I love the “just dog” aspect of your story. You observe that violence is in all humans, and yet “the vast majority of human beings simply manage to tame or contain it.” Exactly – the US culture is addicted to violence. Gun culture and white supremacy are inextricably linked, not everywhere, but here for sure.
– The system of white supremacy is, in my view, the reigning evil in our country, despite the beauty and kindness of many/most of the people who live here. White culture has many wonderful elements, but it is still the overriding and defining negative power in the US (unless you count unbridled capitalism.) Like you, I am hopeful that this will change someday. Actually, I think it *is* changing, and the slow shifting of power away from solely white people (mostly white men) is causing a huge backlash, consciously and unconsciously. The multicultural wave is moving forward, slowly slowly, and that will, as you also say, eventually end the brutality of white supremacy. I hope it will also blunt the sharp edge of white power, and make us white people more human and humane, enriched and maybe even saved by the huge range of cultures of color buoying us up.
– I’ve only read part of “My Grandmother’s Hands,” but I think he mentioned Europeans in this context because Europeans are the ones who came and brutally conquered this land we live on – and committed genocide to do it – not because *only* Europeans are brutal. Sadly, as you say, potential brutality is in all of us humans.
We have a long way to go, but there is progress being made, slowly. I am glad we are on that path together.
I’ll send this off before I worry about how imperfect it is.
Thank you for making me think, early on a Saturday morning.
My pleasure, Jeanette, and my thanks in return for the additional pleasure of reading your thoughts and provoking further thinking on my own part. I’ve got various Saturday things to skedaddle to so will refrain from writing the same book-length response that you held yourself back from (though I’d urge you to go for it one of these days, my friend…). But I think I’ll just limit myself to exploring one point here and then bouncing it back across the net to you.
I think we should tread very carefully when discussing white supremacy and complex, highly scientific matters such as it being in the human DNA of, if we are to believe Menakem’s claims, every other inhabitant of these shores. I do think that white supremacy is a real, pretty much self-evident phenomenon that we should take seriously and attempt to root out at every turn, but I think the left often errs in throwing it about indiscriminately, too much like Christianity has used original sin to make believers feel soiled and bad about themselves. So it often comes out sounding like whites ought to feel guilty for all their transgressions and cheesh, if it’s in their very DNA, what can they possibly do about it anyway? And yikes, it’s even in black people’s DNA, brought over the ocean by white people? Double the burden of guilt!!
The effect of this insinuation, which I also think is a real thing and not merely dreamed up by hostile or simply overly defensive white people, is that it gives ammo to the far right’s claims that ALL liberals (not just the far left) simply “hate America,” case dismissed and man the barricades…
I think liberals do a generally poor job of contextualizing the self-criticism that every good citizen should endeavor to submit his/her country to, and make crystal clear that it is because they LOVE their country that they do criticize it when appropriate. Too much of the time, it DOES sound like the self-loathing that many Christians and entire sects within their tradition have fallen into, and which is generally just not an effective goad to prompt self-reflection and change. And then, when it also seems to insinuate that Americans invented violence, slavery and racism, foisting all that on some Eden that existed before they arrived, they lose me altogether, given the well-documented history of All Peoples Everywhere being subject to the dark impulses that culture and civilization always struggle to contain.
OK, that’s all for now, cuz I gotta run, but thanks again for dropping by. I’ll be back!
Oh yeah, I do know what you mean about how the term ‘white supremacy’ is used, Andrew. I do think it exists but I don’t by any means think it is genetic. Your parallel to Christianity is helpful. >sigh< More thinking and learning to do.
More is better. Search “Kathryn Paige Harden Sept 13, 2021 New Yorker “” for genes. & this overview is worth the investment:: search “YouTube::”Yale 2022 class Timothy Snyder ‘The Making of Modern Ukraine “
Fine work. Needs to be said. I recommend reading A Short History of Humanity by Johannes Krause, and Thomas Trappe. Much there about DNA shuffling in last few thousand or so years—back to Neolithic. Curiously when Europeans came to this country and ran across humans living here they did not know, as many still do not, that these– “indians” actually had a chunk of European genes—
Because the Asians who crossed the Bering strait and became ” native Americans” had spent centuries or thousands of years mating with Europeans, among others. So the European “settlers” were unknowingly encountering their relatives! Anyhow this book is eye opening. All compatible with your comments.
Curious that ” mongrel” tends to used as a pejorative term. Separately, Your note about Putin is spot on and timely!
Dropping in again, Andrew, as this one of your always thought-prompting missives grabbed my attention. I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject, and having honest conversations with some of my Black friends these days. I was ready to write a passionate response promoting the idea that far more important than biology in explaining what happened is the overwhelming force of the warrior culture of policing throughout America – big cities and small towns. About to put fingers to keyboard when I came upon Jeanette’s clear and persuasive comments above essentially saying what I wanted to say. Thank you, Jeanette, for your clear and persuasive voice. There may well be the kind of internalized self-hatred (is it in DNA? generational memory? I don’t know!) that Menakem posits, but I believe what’s far more significant in these police-on-Black tragedies is simply the thug mentality of many (most?) police officers in America. It’s too easy for a young Black man (or woman, though probably less likely) to succumb to the intoxicating power of gun and badge and qualified immunity to kick ass and be the king of the jungle. Let’s face it. It’s an American problem as many “civilized” nations don’t have anywhere near the number of police killings as we have here. Oh, and by the way, if 99.9% of gene characteristics are shared among humans then the difference is 0.1%, not 0.01%. Sorry, I’m being a nerd.
I will keep it very short and say how much I love that Tracy Chapman song.
Problems with the genes and/or the environment of my laptop rendered me mute on Sunday, so wasn’t able to respond anymore here, but with some function restored (at least for the moment), I just wanted to briefly respond to some of this again.
Jeanette and David, I’m with you in citing the culture and training of police as a critical factor in the repeated brutality we see in these events. More critical than our cultural history of racism? Hopelessly intertwined with it? Hard questions. A complicating factor in our understanding here is that we don’t really know how much provable police violence occurs when the victims are white (or Latino or Asian, for that matter). And even more complicatedly, what the racial profiles of officers who beat white, Asian or Latino victims are. Let’s face it, “White officers beat white man senseless” doesn’t much make front page news in this world, and I really have zero idea how often it may occur, and what the differences in the rate of such events may be when race is taken into account. Does the race of either victims or perps matter at all if, as David suggests, “what’s far more significant in these police-on-Black tragedies is simply the thug mentality of many (most?) police officers in America.”? Are those thugs (of either color) more inclined to beat blacks than whites? Media reports strongly suggest that it is so, but do we know it as statistical fact? Studies on this, anyone? James Baldwin put a provocative spin on the whole matter with his quote in “Notes of a Native Son”: “In Harlem, Negro policemen are feared more than whites, for they have more to prove and fewer ways to prove it.” If true, it would certainly contextualize the black-on-black violence we saw in the Tyre Nichols murder.
And I also feel moved to add here: I’ve known plenty of police officers in my now longish life who wouldn’t get within a million miles of the brutality we see from the “thugs” in their midst. Too many bad apples? Yes. All bad apples? Decidedly not. This matter of getting enough good police officers amidst a now chronic labor shortage makes it all the more important that they be well-trained, but a must-read Substack piece by economist Noah Smith has this devastating take on that: “Do we really think a police officer needs 2000 fewer hours of training than someone who cuts hair and paints nails?” Read all about it here: https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/professionalize-the-police
Don, that genetic “shuffling” you reference is a fascinating addition to this discussion; never heard it before. And such a testament it is to humankind’s perpetual wanderlust! (And procreative urge, for that matter…)
Jim: heady, powerful and thought-provoking New Yorker piece on genetics. Many thoughts about it, quite dazzled, but what I am left with right at the moment is that the likes of Resmaa Menakem really should tread very carefully when discussing genetics and its influence on culture and individual behavior. Most people outside that discipline, myself included, have very little idea what they are talking about. Haven’t gotten to Snyder’s You Tube yet, but am familiar with him and looking forward to it, thanks.
Oh, almost forgot: David, decimals ain’t my forte, to put it mildly. Correction made, and I thank the nerd part of you for piping up; always appreciated!
Thought it would be a good addition to the conversation to share the great Sam Cooke ballad, “Change is Gonna Come”. He died under tragic and somewhat mysterious circumstances shorty thereafter. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEBlaMOmKV4
Why does police abuse of our citizenry seem to be greater now than ever before, particularly regarding race? How much of our specific, personalized traits or values are determined by our environment (nurture) versus our genetic makeup (nature)? Its answer is elusive at best. Unfortunately, it’s so controversial that too many “civilized” debates dissolve into “uncivilized” diatribes. So, where does that lead us? I guess I’ll try to give a chemical spin to the varied issues at hand. The molecular difference between carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) is a single oxygen atom; one kills life and the other is essential to it. On closer examination, however, this seemingly simple elemental differentiation is complicated when considering other pertinent properties. CO2 is found in nature, and O is man-made. CO2 is double-bonded while CO is triple-bonded. CO2 is exhaled through normal breathing, and CO is a byproduct of burning fuels. These two odorless, colorless gases, while just a single atom apart, produce distinct outcomes. 99.9% of humans have an identical genetic makeup, as you pointed out. Maybe that 0.1% is much more important than we can imagine. Who knows?
You pose the million $ question, Robert, or maybe not quite that large, but way important: >”Maybe that 0.1% is much more important than we can imagine.”< Based on the New Yorker article that Jim referenced, I'd surmise the 0.1% is indeed "much more important than we realize," but perhaps the even more critical subsequent question is: "How MUCH more important?" Which is a question I'm not sure we'll ever be able to determine. I'd urge you and everyone to read that piece, which will surely leave you with a few dozen other questions researchers will be studying for a very long time to come.
There is a simple two-word answer to the question of why police abuse seems to be greater than ever before – cell phones, along with ubiquitous video surveillance in today’s society. The abuse is no greater than before; it’s just that yesterday it went unrecorded and was largely unknown to the general public. This seems a good time to bring up the fact that modern policing in America began with the fugitive slave patrols. The dehumanizing of black and brown bodies is built into the DNA of American police forces. https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/origins-modern-day-policing
As I try and sort out the complex issues that you present,and the thoughtful responses above, I find myself drawn to David Moriah’s statement that “The dehumanizing of black and brown bodies is built into the DNA of American police forces.” My first blush response to the fundamental nature v nurture question of this issue was to align with Jeannette’s first post suggesting that police culture is at the root of the outrageous responses of police toward black and brown bodies. David’s statement, I understand, is not meant to be literal in the biological science reference to DNA influence. But it is a clever way of tying the issues together, and supports Jeannette’s position with which I agree. I am likely drawn to this position because possible solutions may exist to change the culture, and thus provides some hope. On the other hand, if the DNA is literally built into those who choose law enforcement as a profession, we are in for a dreadful and heart wrenching future.
Thanks for your response, Jay. You’re correct I was using the “DNA of American police forces” in a metaphorical and not a biological sense. I would only suggest we change your last comment about the dreadful and heart wrenching future. I propose that such a future dystopia is already here. Ask Tyre Nichols, Breanna Taylor, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, George Floyd . . .
To be sure, David, things are bad for society’s victims, and for the (partial, unfortunately) roster you cite, it has been as bad as things can get. And for everyone else still alive, things could always get a lot worse. (See: U-K-R-A-I-N-E, among scores of other current Centers of Maelstrom.) But I would argue it has been forever thus, nothing new here, really, and it is the great work of this time and every time to try to make it better in whatever small way we can—because the small ways add up. I think times are tough on any number of fronts, but geez, the Civil War? Both World Wars? Slavery, Jim Crow, illegal inter-racial marriage, closeted gays lest they be jailed, tortured and/or murdered? Meanwhile, we should not forget history playing out in astonishing ways—yes, Russia and others are relapsing, but that wall DID come down peacefully with millions of people freed, apartheid ended peacefully, a huge shift occurred in the gay marriage debate, which seemed a lost cause just years ago after CALIFORNIANS, by God, voted it down. But people kept at it, as they do in the cause of racial equity, with one small act upon another adding up years and decades later to something huge. Yes, threats abide, and we—and therefore basically the entire world—may well lose the cause of democracy in coming years if things fall a certain way. Could certainly happen, but meanwhile, despite what we see in police violence and all the rest, huge strides do continue to be made (eventually) in our task of creating a “more perfect union.” (Not perfect, just “more” so.) The outrage and revulsion the vast majority of the country feels about this police violence is a clear sign of that, especially because, as you expressed in another comment, that people cannot deny it anymore, given video proof of what has been going on for an unconscionably long time now. I’m convinced better policing will ultimately come out of all this, but no doubt it will be a slog, as everything is in the bit-by-bit lurch of history. Tough place, this world. Nothing good happens easily—even within ourselves.
(End of sermon.)
Thanks for the contributions you make here and for keeping your shoulder at the Work, as I know you do. Cheers, Brother.