HUMAN, NONE TOO HUMAN: Professor Gates asks an excellent question!


Part 1—In search of a human reply:
Last week, we had the pleasure of watching a major public figure asking an excellent question.

The public figure to whom we refer is Professor Gates. He spoke with director Ava Du Vernay as part of his PBS program, Finding Your Roots.

To watch the full program, click here.

Three cheers for Professor Gates! He not only asked an excellent question, he did so in jocular fashion. For the record, there was nothing "wrong" with DuVernay's answer to Gates' question, to the extent that she gave one. She too behaved in a jovial way.

At any rate, the question Professor Gates asked was this, and we think it was wickedly great:

"What difference does it make?"

What difference does it make! If we might borrow from Groucho Marx, it's a familiar question, a question you hear every day! But within the context of Gates' discussion, we thought the question was so strong that it deserved recording.

During the program, Gates had acquainted DuVernay with the personal histories of (a handful of) her ancestors. When he asked his excellent question, he'd just finished the second part of his presentation, in which he reported the contents of DuVernay's DNA.

Briefly, we interrupt our discussion to note a tiny semi-McGuffin:

Professor Gates, a bit of a showman, may work the tiniest sleight of hand in the part of his presentations which deal with "surprising ancestral stories."

In the current instance, Gates devoted roughly half his presentation to DuVernay's "fourth great grandfather," a man named Henry Glaudin, whose colorful history took him from Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti) to Cuba, and then on to New Orleans, where he met and married Du Vernay's "fourth great grandmother," Magdeleine Glaudin.

For the record, Henry Glaudin was socially defined as "white." Indeed, his father, also named Henry Glaudin—one of DuVermay's fifth great grandfathers—had owned slaves in Saint-Domingue, Gates' research had found. According to historical records, he had even branded these people, searing their flesh with his name.

Please note: Barring an instance of "pedigree collapse," DuVernay, and everyone else, has sixteen different "fourth great grandfathers" (great great great great grandfathers), along with 32 fifth great grandfathers. In his presentations, Gates sometimes gives the impression that he is tracing the sole family line of his subjects, when he is actually telling a few of the many stories which constitute the sprawling history of any person's ancestors.

There's nothing (necessarily) wrong with that, though we think Gates could, and ideally should, make this point more clear. But when the professor asked his excellent question, he'd moved on from the personal histories to a less selective matter:

He was reporting the makeup of DuVernay's own DNA. A small drum roll was supplied!

As Professor Gates built the suspense about what he had learned, DuVernay voiced concern that her DNA might turn out to be "more than fifty percent" European. When she finally received the actual results of her DNA test, this exchange included the professor's excellent question:
GATES: Can you read those percentages?

DUVERNAY: 57.3 percent African. (Pretending to take a bow and exult) Thank you! 41.5 percent European.

This makes me so happy.

GATES: (Chuckling) I can tell.

DUVERNAY: This makes me sooo happy.

GATES: Wait a minute! What difference does it make?
"What difference does it make?" That's the question Professor Gates asked, chuckling as he went.

We thought his question, and his attitude, were both transplendently wise.

We're not suggesting there was or wasn't anything "wrong" with DuVernay's initial reaction. We're not suggesting there was anything wrong with her brief response to Gates' question, which you can see for yourself at the 51-minute mark of the program's tape.

We're saying that Gates asked an excellent question, especially so in the context of modern progressive "identity politics." His question leads to other good questions, questions about what it means to have, or belong to, a "race."

What does it mean to belong to a "race?" If we might adapt the language of Professor Genovese, is this one of the concepts the slaveholders made?

Why do we liberals seem to believe so strongly in the concept of "race?" We'll ponder these questions all week long. They flow from the genial wisdom lodged in Gates' question.

We'll ponder such questions all this week. As we do, we'll think about the way we liberals and progressives are sometimes seen by The Others. We'll also consider the longstanding, self-flattering claim in which we residents of the west like to insist that we're "the rational animal."

Tain't necessarily so! Or at least, that what some of our idealistic young analysts have thoughtfully said.

Professor Gates asked a very good question. We'll ponder its logic all week.

Tomorrow: "What difference does it make?" We look at what DuVernay said


  1. 'Why do we liberals seem to believe so strongly in the concept of "race?"'

    Is DuVernay liberal? I haven't checked her voting record. Is it legitimate for Somerby to bring politics into this? Can't a black conservative also feel a strong sense of racial identity?
    In the US, the concept of "race" was strongly enforced by the dominant group, whites. The tiniest drop of black blood branded a person as black and subjected them to all of the evils that blacks had to face. If there is a strong sense of racial "identity" amongst blacks today, it's a reaction to this history. A group that has been systematically abused and violently oppressed, including being legally treated as property, will naturally form strong bonds as a group. It's a coping mechanism. In many cases, a black person's history can't be traced in any detail because of this. How do you think that might affect one's psyche?
    Was the civil rights struggle of the 60's about "identity politics?" It did focus on the civil rights of black people, after all. And it's only been 50 years since these laws were passed, and slavery in North America dates back to 1619, one year BEFORE the Pilgrims. That's almost 400 years ago. Do you think it might take a little more time for blacks to feel fully integrated into American society?
    Those who systematically and violently oppressed blacks defined blacks almost solely by their race; they also opposed civil rights legislation; once this legislation was passed, they then wonder why blacks worry about race so much. That's a vicious tactic used by reactionaries the world over. And those who care about justice for all groups, including the social outcasts, get slammed for "identity politics."
    Ultimately, slavery and racism are an open wound. And wounds don't heal overnight.

    1. You jump to an erroneous conclusion when you ask "Is DuVernay liberal?" Bob did not suggest that anywhere in this piece.
      The reading comprehension of so many commenters here is appallingly poor.

    2. Speaking of reading comprehension, Anon 12:08, where did I suggest that Somerby says DuVernay was liberal? Did Somerby bring politics into his discussion?

    3. DuVernay isn't a liberal but definitely dentifies as a progressive judging from the manifest dumbness of her behavior and remarks.

    4. @Anon 12:28:
      You'd better help Somerby by explaining the difference between liberal and progressive.

    5. Everyone believes in the concept of race because of Darwin. The mapping of physical characteristics onto people living in various parts of the world and the speculation about the survival advantage provided by those characteristics supported the belief in distinct races. Hitler then took that a step further, assigning good and bad traits to the so-called races.

      Back around the turn of the 20th century, what we consider to be nationalities or ethnic groups were called races. So, the Irish were a race and so were Italians and Hungarians and so forth. People have been divided up and called races in places where there was not institutionalized slavery, as in the USA.

      The slaveholders considered the ignorance and lack of technology, non-Christian religion, lack of written language/literature, and lack of cultural accomplishment to be a sign that people were less capable of taking care of themselves and thus better off as slaves. The same standard was applied to indigenous people as to African slaves. The British looked down on Irish, Indians and Africans as equally beknighted and worthy of enslaving.

      Teaching people that it is slavery that created the concept of race is just plain inaccurate and ignores the histories of people beyond the USA. WWII and the racism of Hitler's Germany didn't originate with American slavery, for example. The ongoing racism against Roma didn't either.

  2. DuVernay doesn't belong to a race, she belongs to an American subculture. It would be distressing to have to change that identity in midlife, but there is no reason why she should have to. Culture is 100% learned, acquired after birth, constructed out of human understandings not biology. She can identify with whatever subculture she wishes.

    There are white people who self-identified as black (going back through history) and people who married into the African American subculture and adopted its understandings. There are people who were more than 50% African by DNA who joined the mainstream white culture and people who are identifiably black who were adopted by white families and grew up in the mainstream culture for all intents and purposes. Obama is an example of someone who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia but chose to join the African American subculture as an adult, I suspect for political purposes, since it might be difficult to explain his biracial identifications to the public and simpler to gain the support of the existing African American subculture. He could have gone either way but chose to be black.

    When Somerby makes a big deal out of the question "What difference does it make?" he is being obtuse again. One's identity is enormously important. We all form an identity because we organize our egos, our selves around who we are, which simplifies all subsequent thinking and decision making in life. That identity changes throughout life, but there is always one in a healthy individual. People without a firm identity are generally considered mentally disordered.

    Being white has different consequences in life than being black. That should be obvious to anyone who has grown up in America. There are both advantages and disadvantages to whatever identity one assumes. But the choice does have consequences and Gates is being coy and Somerby is being an idiot to think it doesn't matter.

    Not only are we not blind to skin color in this country, but we are certainly not blind to cultural differences. Try gaining acceptance in any small town that you haven't grown up in. The importance of local culture will be made very clear.

    These DNA testing kits are pernicious because most people don't understand their basis. A woman once claimed she was 90% European (British) and 10% Moroccan. Did that mean there was ever Moroccan intermarriage? No. 10% of the people who live in Morocco are British or of British descent (just as 10% of those in the US are of African descent). She matches that 10% in Morocco. She most likely has no match with the 90% of Moroccans who have no connection with Britain. But we see these ads of surprised people going out and buying caftans and a fez. It is a silly misunderstanding of what the tests are based on.

    DuVernay is heavily invested in exploring African American culture via film. She styles herself as the new Spike Lee. She couldn't be that if she were white. That half percentage gives her street cred.

    1. Leave it to Somerby to oversimplify an important issue and spout conservative talking points.

      Great comment, by the way. If you had a blog, I would read it.

    2. Barack Hussein Obama could have chosen to identify as white, and he would have been accepted as white? You're joking, right?

    3. No. He would have been accepted as biracial and without any explanation, some people might have assumed he was Hispanic or Italian or Middle Eastern or not been sure what he was. Many people who look like him have passed for white and been accepted on the basis of their self-identification and adherence to white norms. It is after all very rude to ask someone what they are or where they "came from". Maybe he would have had more trouble in the South but he would have been accepted as whatever he wanted to be without problems in Los Angeles, even before the civil rights movement.

    4. Right. Obama looks Italian. You are joking. It's just not very funny. Develop some new material.

    5. Italian is what someone gets called when they have an "olive" complexion. No one goes around "outing" black people passing any more. Obama has light brown skin. So do a lot of people who are not African American.

      I don't want to sound like David in CA but I do have an African American aunt who passed for white in our family when she married my uncle. No one ever thought twice about her and no one ever questioned her race. She was a nice person and had many friends and was much loved by those who knew her. People pass in every day life much more frequently than anyone acknowledges -- and it goes in both directions. That's because people don't only look at shade of skin but take a person in the context of their full lives, as they present themselves. Obama could have followed his mother's side of the family but chose not to. That's his decision.

      I have a Spanish surname by marriage. I frequently have people ask me whether I am Mexican or Puerto Rican (the two main Hispanic groups in my area). They don't ask whether I am Anglo. And then there is Canelo Alvarez. Google him if you don't know what he looks like.

      Your ideas about race are outdated, in my opinion, because they ignore realities of real people's experiences.

  3. It makes a difference now. The Obama era taught Americans they should cling to their racial identity and vote accordingly. White people said OK, we will and enough were convinced to vote their racial identity to elect Trump. Now white people are noticing their racial group will become a minority soon and because of the race obsessed climate created by "progressives" they are going to be organizing around race in increasing numbers because they will have adopted BLM's terrorist us against them mentality. The country as a whole won't last under these conditions. Making white males a hated minority after they brought us to this point of power and wealth as a nation isn't the most genius idea. Good job.

    1. Good to have confirmation that Trump's victory was due to white supremacists. We always suspected it.

    2. Whites who vote against Democrats because of race are not necessarily white supremacists. If you can't figure out how that is possible you probably shouldn't be discussing important political subjects.

    3. Whites who have the same attitudes as white supremacists but don't like the label are not facing reality and probably shouldn't be discussing important political subjects with people who see them for what they are.

    4. Anon 11:48, thanks for the brief history lesson.
      The ghosts of Pizarro, Cortes, de Portola, Serra thank you for releasing them from the curse of white man’s burden. And the ghosts of Incas, Aztecs, Mayans and hundreds of other “tribes” thank you for explaining that none of that shit happened until Barack Obama ran for the job of POTUS. ‘Twas smallpox and measles that killed the autochthons, not the white man.
      Instead, they brought all the advantages of civilization. "…The weaker races who disappear before the stronger" not so much "through the effects of … our vices upon them" as "what may be called the virtues of our civilization."
      Ah, progress!

    5. Oh 7:14. That doesn't work anymore except on the dumbest voters, who are already Democrats. Exhibit A, President Trump.

  4. "Why do we liberals seem to believe so strongly in the concept of "race?"

    Because it can be pimped for votes. Sometimes that backfires.

  5. "Why do we liberals seem to believe so strongly in the concept of "race?""

    Because you're liberal zombies, whose bosses are paid and promoted for (in part) race-mongering, among other means of weakening and destroying unity of the working people.

    1. Proletariat will follow bourgeois billionaire oligarchs to worker's paradise. Workers of world, unite, on way to one-party rule of enlightened oligarchical Republican despotism under Chairman Donald "Ulyanov" Trump.

    2. What motivates someone to vote for Trump? Powerlessness. If you ain't got nuthin, you got nuthin to lose.

    3. The average Trump voter makes $50,000 per year.

    4. You can call it powerlessness, I suppose. If you feel your interests aren't represented and the political system is consistently working against you, you might as well vote for "fuck y'all".

    5. I see the Mao collective is out in all force today. Russia must be concerned about the indictments coming out !!

    6. The average Trump voter makes 0.0036% of what the average CEO makes. We live in a new Gilded Age and the powerless use Trump as a middle finger.

    7. Trump is the definition of powerlessness.

  6. Uhm, I dunno about that: look at Elizabeth Warren aka Pocahontas. Even an imaginary drop of noble non-white blood helps a lot.

  7. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
    Still pimping that phony story about Elizabeth Warner getting an advantage, I see.
    Like the old GOP saying goes, "Those rats aren't going to fuck themselves!"

  8. Michael from BaltimoreOctober 30, 2017 at 4:55 PM

    Would it be wrong to say that there is a species, homo sapiens, and that sub-species developed from that point in the same way that Darwin's finches developed different characteristics because they lived in different environments? That is certainly not equivalent to separate races, but there are differences, and those differences (from all available evidence) seem hard for many humans to see past. We are mammals related to the apes, and we perhaps should act in a more civilized manner (the ability to reason is supposed to be our strong suit) if we want our species and our "oasis in space" to survive.

    1. If you could find reliable genetic characteristics that correlated in the way finches do (because of their geographic isolation on islands), then it might make sense but my understanding is that these don't exist. The differences seem to be distributed within groups and not only between groups, and typically there is as much variability with respect to them within as between.

      Google pictures of black irish and see what you get, for example. People are used to thinking in stereotypes that accentuate the differences and obscure the variability within groups.

  9. This is not Gates' first appearance in the Daily Howler. In 2009, the controversy around his arrest was an example of class condescension. We liberals sided with the upperclass Gates against the working-class Officer Crowley.

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