Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dred Scott, Pure Blood, Race, DNA and Genealogy

A photograph of Dred Scott, taken around the time of his court case in 1857
Many of the members of the larger genealogical community are now taking or have taken DNA tests from one or more of the large online service providers targeting DNA's genealogical application. As a result of taking these DNA tests, many are surprised to learn that they have ancestry in places they never imagined.

Before the advent of genetics and DNA testing, the concept of lineage was dependent on "bloodlines." As an attorney, I was familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857). Not too long ago, I visited the building in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri where the courtroom once stood. The building has been extensively renovated and the courtroom no longer exists. The Dred Scott case is summarized by the Library of Congress as follows:
The Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford was issued on March 6, 1857. Delivered by Chief Justice Roger Taney, this opinion declared that slaves were not citizens of the United States and could not sue in Federal courts. In addition, this decision declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. The Dred Scott decision was overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.
 The decision is marked by the one genealogically interesting conclusion found on page 400 of the decision:
The defendant pleaded in abatement to the jurisdiction of the court, that the plaintiff was not a citizen of the State of Missouri, as alleged in his declaration, being a negro of African descent, whose ancestors were of pure African blood, and who were brought into this country and sold as slaves.
In light of the use of DNA by genealogists today, I was interested in the meaning and significance of the term "of pure African blood." Some genealogists, even today, refer to their "direct line ancestors" as their "bloodline." I would be facile to dismiss this whole subject as a merely linguistic reference, but the implications of using and maintaining a "pure bloodline" are seriously in question in light of DNA testing.

The Oxford Living Dictionaries define "bloodline" as "A set of ancestors or line of descent of an important person." Setting aside the now obvious conclusion that inherited characteristics come through the "blood," the real issue here is the entire concept of a line of descent as presently defined by genealogists. We also have to always remember that wars have been fought and millions of people killed because of their assumed membership in a certain "bloodline."

For a very detailed example of an analysis of a genealogical DNA test, you might want to look at "My DNA Results from 4 companies" on the Genealogy Junkie website. A Google search will reveal dozens of other similar blog posts. Essentially, there is no specific consensus in tests from different companies.  But unexpected and seemingly random results are common. What is certain is that the long-held traditions and concepts of "racial purity" or "pure bloodline" are almost entirely unsupported and illusory.

If you happen to be the recipient of an inherited "genealogy file" from some ancestor who, in the past, compiled a pedigree for your family, you have probably used that in part to establish your own personal concept of race, ethnicity and "bloodline." Even if your genealogist ancestor was extremely careful, it is almost certain that lengthy pedigree lines begin to be conjectural at some point in time.

Unfortunately, many official government actions both here in the United States and in many other countries have been based on assumptions about race. It is my opinion, sad events in our collective past such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust would have been vastly different if the people involved at the time would have had our present DNA testing abilities, in both positive and negative ways. This would have been most dramatically true in the U.S. South where the "One-drop Rule" was widely applied. Here is the discussion of the "One-drop Rule" from Wikipedia.
The one-drop rule is a social and legal principle of racial classification that was historically prominent in the United States asserting that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan-African ancestry ("one drop" of black blood)[1][2] is considered black (Negro in historical terms). This concept evolved over the course of the 19th century and became codified into law in the 20th century. It was associated with the principle of "invisible blackness" and is an example of hypodescent, the automatic assignment of children of a mixed union between different socioeconomic or ethnic groups to the group with the lower status.
Some genealogists view the ability of DNA testing to lead us to a genealogical utopia, but anytime we begin to address issues of race and ethnic origin in the United States, we are entering an area where there are strong feelings and where the same DNA test we use to provide genealogical hints could be used to classify us in ways we may not want or expect. Perhaps we need more careful consideration of the implications of widely available DNA testing.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's too late to put the genie back in the bottle now.

    Finding Eliza