RACE TO THE PAST: Lawrence knows his origins well!


Part 3—In search of the 255:
Will the Census Bureau really ask that murky proposed new question?

Will each respondent who cops to a "race" then be asked to record his or her "origins?" We can't answer your thoughtful question, although we will say this:

Christine Emba got it right in her recent column! If that question appears on the upcoming census, it will surely produce some of the most "extremely messy" data in all recorded time.

Many people, like The Elimran, will have no real idea how to answer that question. Meanwhile, depending on what the Census Bureau actually wants to know, many people who may think they know their "origins" almost surely don't.

Some people seem to believe that they do know their "origins." For one example, consider what Lawrence said on last evening's Last Word.

Lawrence spoke with David Cullen, a slightly Boston-accented Boston Globe columnist who joined the herd last year, stampeding off to declare that General Kelly was The Most Honest Known Person on Earth.

Our press corps has a long, pitiful history making such declarations, which they're later forced to retract. In recent years, Paul Ryan had even been widely hailed as the planet's Most Honest! All last week, the Morning Joe gang kept shaking their heads about the deeply puzzling way The Wisconsin has recently clattered to earth.

Just this week, columnist Cullen has decided that he was wrong about Kelly. Lawrence invited him onto his program to vent.

According to Lawrence's web site, the eight-minute segment which resulted was "a special guest Rewrite." At the end of the segment, the discussion occasioned what's shown below.

To watch the segment, click this:

LAWRENCE (2/13/18): Kevin, I think it was difficult for both of us to watch the Boston Irish guy turn out like this in this situation, and we could go on and on about this.

Kevin Cullen, thank you very much for joining us tonight. Really appreciate—your column, mandatory reading.

Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe. Thank you, Kevin, very much.
This is the way our press corps reasons. Who wouldn't want to read the column by the guy who got it so totally wrong in the first place? Because of his original foolishness, Kevin Cullen's latest attempt is mandatory reading for those who watch The Last Word!

Let's place that point to the side. According to Lawrence, he and Cullen have especially suffered as they've seen Kelly, the Irish guy, fumble and flail as he has.

From that and from other such manifestations, we will draw a certain conclusion. If Lawrence is asked to report his "origins," we'll guess that he will print "Irish" where directed, possibly "Boston Irish." And by the way:

Depending on what the Census Bureau is trying to learn, he may even be right!

What exactly is the Census Bureau hoping to learn? Imaginably, they could be wondering if respondents feel some sort of cultural origin overseas, as many Americans do.

If that is the question, Lawrence seems to feel that he is some version of "Irish." If this is what the bureau is after, you could even imagine fashioning a question which might produce actual data.

On the other hand, the Census Bureau may be fumbling toward information about the respondent's genetic profile. If that is what they're trying to learn, the data this proposed new question produces won't just be "extremely messy." The data are likely to constitute a genuine gong-show.

For today, let's stick with people who say they do belong to a "race," and that their "race" is "white." Many such people, like the Elmiran, may have a widely varied genetic inheritance, one they can't hope to report in an accurate manner.

Other such people may think they know their ancestral origins, but they may be largely mistaken. Consider the way the services of Ancestry.com get sold.

At Ancestry's somewhat clownish web site, the people who want to help you "unlock the family story in your DNA" offer brief, first-person accounts from five satisfied customers. And uh-oh! At least two of these five people started out with completely bogus ideas about their "origins:"
Testimony from Kyle:
"So I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt.”

Growing up, Kyle’s family was German, no doubt about it. He even grew up wearing lederhosen in a German dance troupe. But when Kyle began building his family tree, he couldn’t actually find any German ancestors.

“So I decided to have my DNA tested, and the big surprise was we're not German at all,” he says. And soon enough, Ancestry Hints led him to generations of Scottish ancestors.

What surprises are hiding in your family tree?

Testimony from Katherine:
"I thought I had married an Italian?”

Marrying into Eric's family, Katherine was told of a rich Italian family history—"My lineage was all Vecchios and the Zuccolis," according to Eric. But when Eric's AncestryDNA results said he was only 16%, Katherine took on the search and discovered an Eastern European ancestor he never knew he had.

Katherine and Eric used both AncestryDNA and a family tree to solve their mystery—how will you begin your journey?
Let's hope the technicians at this site are better than the grammarians! At any rate, according to the scientific staff at Ancestry.com, Kyle and Eric had completely bogus ideas about their genetic "origins." Meanwhile, Katherine thought she'd married "an Italian." Just imagine how she must feel!

At any rate, these are the people the Census Bureau wants to mine for new data. Presumably, this is what Emba meant when she said the data from this ludicrous proposed new question would be "extremely messy."

How might the Census Bureau get the information it wants? Maybe we should all spit on our census forms. The Census Bureau could then send the $69 per person to Ancestry.com!

The point we're making today is this: Americans who are socially defined as "white" will routinely have no freaking idea what their genetic ancestry actually may be. That's one of the basic points of Professor Gates' occasionally slippery PBS program, Finding Your Roots. That is also the basic concept behind Ancestry.com.

Beyond that, people who think they know their ancestry frequently do not. These are the people the Census Bureau wants to shake down about "origins!"

Today, we're focusing on the apparent dumbness of that proposed new question. Tomorrow, we'll consider its pitiful throwback tendency—the way it signals a race back toward our nation's deeply unfortunate past, even toward "the world the slaveholders made."

For today, a final question: does Lawrence actually know his genetic "origins?" He seem to think that he and Cullen and Kelly are all "Irish," whether in the cultural or the genetic sense of the term.

What might Lawrence learn from an Ancestry.com frisking? We have no idea, though we suspect that, back in the day, Jack Welch likely insisted that all his hires passed that important test.

Tomorrow: Hail Marty, full of grace

The missing 255: What are our own "origins" like? We have no real idea. Consider:

Decades ago, our older, now deceased half-brother developed an interest in genealogy. He undertook a fascinating search, and produced a fascinating study.

That said, he only pursued one ancestral line. He tracked the progress back in time of the male ancestors who bore the "Somerby" name. That is, he listed our father, Al Somerby; then his father, Rufus Somerby, who has his own Wikipedia page; then his father, Andrew Somerby.

Already, we're back to a 1796 birth. Clearly, it's one of our greatest traits. The gentlemen who bear that name simply never stop reproducing! Heh heh heh heh heh!

At any rate, brother Dick traced that line all the way back to the presumably foppish Osbert de Somerby, who is said to have been alive in England in 1186. We can't say if his work is correct, but we also can't say that it's wrong.

Along the way, we get to tickle the strings of another selling-point at Ancestry.com. The salespeople there want you to know about your family's historical greatness, which will perhaps and possibly seem a bit like your own.

We've already shown you two of the five customers featured at the Ancestry site. Here's the testimony of the customer who pops up first:
Testimony from Emily:
"Holy crow! I'm related to George Washington.”

Just days after beginning her family history search, Emily discovered a truly legendary ancestor. With the help of Ancestry Hints, she traced her family all the way back to her ten-times great grandmother, who just so happened to also be George Washington’s aunt.

Emily found a presidential cousin—who could be hiding in your family tree?
Small world! Emily's ten-times great grandmother was George Washington’s aunt! Such genealogical brushes with greatness constitute the very first way Ancestry.com sells its service.

(Was she also related to Benedict Arnold? If so, would she have been told?)

The excitement built around such discoveries may be understandable, but it's also rather silly. Just consider the math.

In the case of our own "family," we can build a bit of excitement around Anthony Somerby, born in 1610, who waded ashore at Newburyport not too long before the witch trials at nearby Salem Village. Especially through his niece, Elizabeth Somerby, this brush with greatness can be sold as exciting. (After the trials were over, she married Reverend Hale.)

That said, after watching Professor Gates this year, we decided to do the math! As it turned out, Anthony Somerby is our seventh great grandfather. Rather, he's one of our seventh great grandfathers, strong emphasis on the plural.

As would be true of everyone else, we have 256 seventh great grandfathers in all, along with the corresponding number of seventh great grandmothers. Our last name tracks to Anthony Somerby, but his genetic contribution to our own obvious greatness would likely be quite small.

Watching Professor Gates' show, we're struck by the way he tends to gloss this type of mathematical fact about the distant ancestors of his celebrity guests. This is all part of the highly selective way we the people may tend to decide what our "origins" are.

We know about one of our seventh great grandfathers. We're clueless about the other 255, and about our 256 seventh great grandmothers, except for Abigail Freeman, who Anthony married Over Here, though she was from England too.

We know these tidbits and nothing else. Despite this, the Census Bureau wants to ask us about our "origins." It's the latest in our species' endless string of dumb, bad or puzzling ideas.


  1. Vanity and chasing after the wind.

    1. That sounds like a much more concise version of what Somerby is saying, actually.

    2. Except that isn't remotely what is happening in this situation. Knowing one's ancestry might be vanity and wind but using the census to inflict quotas on the US to keep us lily white is more sinister than that. Does Somerby not know what the Alt-Right is?

  2. If we do not actually know our origins, but only know what we are told or choose to believe, what will the question yield? It will tell the census bureau who Americans think they are.

    Conservatives think this is a Christian nation. They think it is a white, English-speaking nation full of people who came here predominantly from Western Europe. They believe that these are the people with an American birth right. All others are interlopers and do not belong here.

    To the extent that Americans think these things are true, it will be reflected in their answers to the census question. Those answers can then be used to write laws that protect this American heritage by keeping out people who will change the essential nature of our country.

    In other words, American delusions about origin will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This happened in 1917 when Asians were barred, and in 1924, when a national origins quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. You need to know those origins in order to impose such a quota system.

    Somerby doesn't come out and actually say what the dumb idea is that is being implemented with this change in the census. Of course, the origins data will be meaningless, in the sense of genetic accuracy, but will it be meaningless as a description of who we think we are and who we think we should be? That is an entirely different question, one that Somerby ignores, since it might actually matter to our country.

    1. "Somerby doesn't come out and actually say what the dumb idea is that is being implemented with this change in the census."
      Perhaps you are unfamiliar with "social Darwinism," and then the eugenics proponents. Sometimes "data" can be used for questionable purposes.

    2. Perhaps you didn’t read my comment. That IS my point.

    3. The folkloric data, as meaningless as it is, is still more pertinent than "genetic accuracy". There's no such thing as genetic purity; there are vectors of human migration. Some of these vectors are not so much historic, but anthropological: things that happened 20,000 or 30,000 years ago, or even further back.
      The companies rushing to tell you about your DNA are not so clear about what they are saying. What does it mean to be 100% anything? When I took my DNA test a dozen or so years ago through National Geographic, they told me that I have a certain genetic marker that originated about 10-15K years ago on the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard. This is certainly nothing that Census would be interested in. They may be interested in what percentage population still views themselves as having some ethnic roots, as opposed to just being plain American mutts.

  3. "Who wouldn't want to read the column by the guy who got it so totally wrong in the first place?"

    Yeah. Why would anyone want to read someone who is honest enough to admit he was wrong about something?

    1. Do you think there are women who are confused about whether they were raped, molested, assaulted or not? Did those black eyes look ambiguous to you?

  4. Does anyone know the cultural origin of that tsk tsk tongue clicking sound made when someone has done something wrong or shameful?

  5. "The point we're making today is this: Americans who are socially defined as "white" will routinely have no freaking idea what their genetic ancestry actually may be. That's one of the basic points of Professor Gates' occasionally slippery PBS program, Finding Your Roots. That is also the basic concept behind Ancestry.com"

    Actually, the original and still main purpose or "concept behind" Ancestry.com is the ability to do genealogical research of online digitized records.

  6. On March 17, everyone will be Irish. What impact will that have on those who take the census on that day?

  7. I am a huge fan of the DNA tests of Ancestry.com. Best $400 that I ever spent. I like to think that I help others there too, as I am always emailing DNA matches with what I have found on their ancestry. Some of which can be quite substantial.

    I hardly ever hear back though. Perhaps people are more interested in the ethnicity percentages than they are in their family tree.

    It has, however, made me aware of how little I know. For example, most of the close DNA matches are 4th to 6th cousins. For my dad's test, knowing more of his family tree, of the 128 ancestors who could produce a 6th cousin, I know the names of only 51 of them.

    Other matches are 5th to 8th cousins, and of that I have only 70 out of the 512.

    This after 30+ years of active research.

    Also, it is quite possible to get false leads, and ancestry will supply them as well. For example I have a 5th cousin from my dad's side who is a DNA match, and ancestry connects us based on that.

    The trouble is, that even though we are 5th cousins (according to available written records (which could always be wrong)) that connection is from my dad's side. But dad is not a DNA match to this person - mom is. Thus there is an unknown common ancestor who really provides the DNA match. Yet a researcher might easily think it comes from the known connection, especially if they have no other data. Without my parents tests I would not have known about this paradox.

    Also, many people who take DNA tests, either do not link them to family trees, or their trees are marked as private. Unfortunately, that limits what can be discovered.

    Again, for example. My dad, his cousin and some other more distant cousins who have taken tests all descend from Elizabeth R (among others) about whom it is only known that she was born in 1835 supposedly came to the US in 1852 from Prussia.

    Well, finding many of her descendants who connect to the Bangert family suggests that her origins are from the same place that the Bangerts are from. That gives me a place to search church records (which so far have not produced her birth record (and maybe never will - some of the towns seem to not have records).

    But without Bangert descendants sharing their family tree information, I would not be able to discover this origin. Not that most people care (or should). After all, it has nothing to do with Trump's budget.