The belief in white supremacy is a real thing that kills people every day. White supremacy is one notch goofier than vanilla racism, because to get there you have to believe both that there are races, and that “white” is one. (If “white” is a race, it should be capitalized, so I tip my hand when I write in lower-case or, in Cherokee, yonega, and still lower-case.) “Race” as a meaningful category of human beings and defining race by color are two notches up the crazy tree you have to climb before you even get near the topmost crazy that is both white and supreme.
Race used to be a big part of the mainstream scientific narrative about how human existence was ordered. Physical anthropology in particular engaged in such arguments from the time the discipline stood apart from cultural anthropology. How many races are there? How did they come to be? Most important, if there are races, is there racial superiority?
Science and logic are perpetually at war with religious orthodoxy because reality described by science is a moving target and the reality described by religion is fixed in place forever. After generations of dispute about the number of “races” and how to describe them, mainstream physical anthropology now punts the question to cultural anthropology, which is where the study of myth finds a home.
A statement published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1996 that goes into the issue at length concludes, “Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past.”
That statement by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, like the consensus it represents, was a long time coming, partially because of the societal implications. If races exist, it follows that one must be superior to another. “Superiority,” though, is incomprehensible except in reference to some task or some function. Even white supremacists easily understand that two like things are seldom exactly equal—if not the part about equal in reference to what?—so the controversy over the existence of “race” is still very much alive in popular culture.
Another controversy related to humans and race in the professional literature right now is whether the so-called Neanderthals were a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis, or a subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Neanderthals used tools and produced symbolic art, things thought to be the sine qua non of human beings until they were observed in other primates. While there was interbreeding with these creatures pop culture interprets as “cavemen” (after the location of most of their artifacts) and the progenitors of modern humans, there is evidence that it was difficult and often produced sterile offspring. Whether our Neanderthal relatives disappeared through extinction or assimilation is speculation, but the former is more current speculation.
The separateness of Neanderthals from H. sapiens is easily established because mitochondrial DNA, inherited solely from mothers, allows the tracing of ancestry over great spans of time. That tracing, along with fossil evidence, supports the “out of Africa” theory about the origin of H. sapiens. That same tracing tells us that Neanderthals evolved separately but from a common ancestor, with breeding populations in Europe and Asia that never migrated beyond the very northern edge of Africa. Neanderthals and modern humans were separate breeding populations for hundreds of thousands of years before they met again with the human migration out of Africa. That’s why modern Europeans and Asians carry Neanderthal DNA markers, and Sub-Saharan Africans do not.
What does all that have to do with the alleged superiority of the “white race”? A couple of things.
It is part of the folklore of white supremacy that “white” represents modernity, intelligence and virtue. The crucial corollary: color represents the primitive, dull and dangerous. One manifestation of this folklore is the representation of Neanderthals—inferior because they are extinct—as hairy and dark.
Science says otherwise. Working backwards through the genetic repertoire of modern humans tells us that while Neanderthals were hirsute, they also brought to the genetic table red hair, blonde hair and fair skin. Neanderthals were white people. If they were avatars of the colorless master race, then how could they have gone extinct?
Geneticist Iain Mathieson and 16 colleagues recently published results of a genome-wide scan of ancient DNA, based on 83 samples of H. sapiens DNA from Holocene Europe. They show that, among humans, fair skin was a very recent adaptation, and not just because of some admixture with Neanderthals.
While it’s easy to think in terms of one individual having a reproductive advantage (and this helps us get our heads around Charles Darwin’s “natural selection”), it takes hundreds of thousands of years and at least as many individual reproductive advantages to change entire populations. That is very hard for most of us to envision, but it explains why the pigment melanin is present in amounts that cause Africans, Asians and American Indians to appear unlike members of the “white race.”
The working theory on the reproductive advantage of white skin in Northern Europe is that the climate allows for less exposure to the sun and therefore less opportunity to absorb vitamin D, leading most obviously to rickets in children and less obviously to heart disease and certain cancers. For six months of the year, much of Western Europe (including 90 percent of the UK) lies too far north to have enough sunlight necessary to make vitamin D in the skin.
Fair skin maximizes the available vitamin D from sunlight, particularly in combination with a diet high in fish oil. Still, rickets used to be common in northern climes before developed nations began to fortify cow’s milk with vitamin D.
Ancient humans did not typically drink cow’s milk fortified with vitamin D. Even in our times, WebMD warns: “The pigment melanin reduces the skin's ability to make vitamin D in response to sunlight exposure.” For this reason, dark skin becomes as dangerous to humans where there is little sunlight as it is adaptive where there is a lot.
Depending on whether you believe Neanderthals were a subspecies of H. sapiens, it might be said that until very recently in geological time there were no white people until after the two populations got acquainted again or, perhaps, even more recently if the Neanderthal genes were trivial in comparison to the Africans adapting to the climate by natural selection.
It’s fun to get off in the genetic and evolutionary weeds and imagine what white supremacists will do with the news that an extinct population thought to be brutish and inferior developed white skin before they did and went extinct anyway. The damage white supremacists do to others is still anything but funny, and so the debunking of their worldview has to have some tether to serious science.
All the debunking is not by science, though. Some is just logic grounded in history, and it either flies right over their heads or completely explains how the KKK and other defenders of Jim Crow got joined at the hip with the American Nazi movement. This historical association between racism and National Socialism requires that I take the chance of violating Godwin’s Law.
White supremacists want to make public policies based on their racial fantasies. But sane people could spot them all their nonsense about “race” and what color has to do with it, and their conclusions still would not follow for the simple reason that individuals are not populations and the law works on individuals. The view that it’s possible to make law work on populations rather than individuals explains why so many racists believe Adolf Hitler to have been a man ahead of his times.
One of the facts that finally brought consensus about the mythical status of “race” among physical anthropologists is that, with the entire planet as the habitat of one breeding population, there is no gene that cannot find its way to any other place. In fairness to the scientists, there was no way to know this for sure until the human genome was fully sequenced, and that’s a fairly recent development.
“One breeding population” that consists of the whole world does something more than make scientists travel to Tasmania or Iceland looking for genetically homogenous populations. It also makes “going extinct” highly unlikely as applied to human beings. If “race” means color, there’s no longer any reproductive advantage to color and so we must seem, to the white supremacist eye, to be becoming more inferior as the world fills with dark-skinned white people and light-skinned black people and most people are somewhere in between, a shade of brown.
Cultural differences become attenuated as well when populations are less isolated and mass media work their magic. White skin, to those who believe it marks a superior human, is supposed to represent language, art, and more pristine customs and moral values. As any American Indian who bemoans assimilation will tell you, the 21st century puts all the incidents of culture up for grabs. People are more alike culturally and—just as important for the value of white skin—color has lost significance as an external manifestation of culture, assuming it ever had any. Since H. sapiens could always produce fertile offspring with other H. sapiens, we knew we are all one species, and sequencing of the human genome has showed those who care to look how alike we are even under an electron microscope.
While virtually identical genetic heritage common to all colors of people is bad news for political hucksters trading on mythical differences, it makes the markers for persons indigenous to the Americas stand out. Genetic material did pass, according to some studies, across the Pacific, across the Bering Sea, and from the Norse colonists crossing the North Atlantic. Since 1492, of course, the trickle of genetic material has become a tsunami, but indigenous origins can still be identified to a very high degree of certainty. Being able to identify geographical origins with high probability opens up markets for a less deadly kind of huckster.
The outfits that sell a “genetic profile” for a fee you can afford are offering, if they are honest, no more than reasonable mathematical probabilities of the geographical origins of your ancestors based on a tiny part of the genome. Those probabilities can be increased, but not for any sum a hobbyist would want to pay. The genetic hucksters who are not honest claim they can place your ancestry, not just as American Indian, but also with a particular tribe. This reading of culture into DNA is a fantastical view of “race” that can part you from your money.
White supremacists live by an even more fantastical view of “race.” If they really believed in the superiority of their genes, they could relax – natural selection would do the work they want to do with firearms. Their need to fight a race war to prove adaptive superiority bespeaks a stubborn racial fantasy unlikely to be budged by a scientific explanation of the origins of white skin.
White supremacy is a view from the top of the crazy tree, with a panoramic vision of plucky outnumbered white people cutting a swath through disorganized mobs of inferior mongrels. It’s a set of racial myths about as real as the Cthulu Mythos, twice as scary, and much more dangerous. If your skin displays too much melanin, all it takes is being in the wrong place at the wrong time for racial fantasies to cost you your life.