Claims that US is a genetic melting pot appear overblown–if you’re white


Wanting to know your ancestry is a powerful motivator that many DNA testing companies such as 23andMe and have exploited for great profit. But apart from individual curiosity, genetic studies into our ancestry also offer the ability to peer into the history books, offering a DNA time machine, and a unique window into the history of civilized people.

Now in the largest study of its kind conducted so far, researchers at 23andMe and Harvard University have published the results of a genetic analysis of ancestry among the American people.

The study itself is quite impressive, conducted with 160,000 people who agreed to allow their data to be used anonymously for research purposes when they submitted their DNA for analysis with 23andMe. Such huge sample numbers, which are “an order of magnitude bigger” according to an author of the study, allows for a much more thorough analysis than ever before, helping the authors produce a detailed geographical map of ancestry in the United States. Three major population groups considered in the study: African-Americans, European Americans and Latinos.

Broadly, the genomic analysis found that on an average the African American genome was 73.2 percent African, 24 percent European and 0.8 percent Native American. Latinos as expected had significantly more Native American ancestry with the average Latino genome being 18 percent Native American, 65.1 percent European and 6.2 percent African.

With respect to European Americans, the percentages are much more different than African Americans or Latinos, with European American genomes being 98.6 percent European, 0.19 percent African and 0.18 percent Native American. In general, the numbers seem to agree with what one would expect given the history of American colonization by Europeans and their interactions with African and Native Americans.

Detailed percentages of ancestry in the various geographical regions showed relatively wide variations in the ancestry which seem to corroborate historical events.

What are the social implications of this study? The title of Carl Zimmer’s New York Times article on the research “White? Black? A Murky Distinction Grows Still Murkier,” seems to suggest that the genetic data show that racial divides have significantly blurred as populations have mixed

In the United States, there is a long tradition of trying to draw sharp lines between ethnic groups, but our ancestry is a fluid and complex matter.

“We use these terms — white, black, Indian, Latino — and they don’t really mean what we think they mean,” said Claudio Saunt, a historian at the University of Georgia who was not involved in the study.

Razib Khan at the Unz Review, has a different view however (emphasis his):

What genetics is showing is that in fact white Americans are shockingly European to an incredibly high degree for a population with roots on this continent for 400 years. If we removed all the history that we take for granted we’d be amazed that the indigenous peoples had so little demographic impact, and, that the larger numbers of people of partial African ancestry did not move into the general “white” population.

Steve Sailer, a long time writer on race and ethnicity, also writing at the Unz Review, agrees with Khan, with some quick back–of–the envelope calculations to show how…

…whiteness in modern America turns out to be not very murky at all. These findings of 0.19 percent black and 0.18 percent American Indian are tiny numbers.

Think about your family tree back nine generations ago, which would mostly be in the 1700s. You have 512 slots in your family tree nine generations ago (two to the ninth power). The 23andMe numbers suggest that for the average white American, 1 of your 512 ancestors nine generations ago was black and 1 of 512 was Native American.

Here’s another way to think of it. If the average self-identified black is 73.2 percent black and the average self-identified white is 0.19 percent black, then the average black in America is 385 times blacker than the average white. That doesn’t seem very murky to me.

It is important to note that the study has several potential biases that should be taken into account such as the socio economic status of those who might have purchased the test and as Carl Zimmer reported in his piece, the fact that people of mixed race are more likely to get the test out of curiosity. Nevertheless, the large sample size lends unique credibility and the trove of data will no doubt continue to yield very interesting results about how the ethnicity of the current American population came to be.

For now the interpretation of blurred racial divides might not be quite accurate, but as Razib Khan points out, it might be a few decades from now (emphasis his).

But, with the rise in intermarriage and a clearly mixed-race Latino population the lines between the races will become blurred genetically more and more. A substantial number of American children today are multiracial, and that fraction looks to increase. If 23andMe did a survey of American genetics 25 years from now I’d be much more amenable to the interpretation that the media is putting on this survey.

Arvind Suresh is a science communicator and a former laboratory biologist. Follow him @suresh_arvind

Additional Resources:

  • Reader
  • John

    While mixed race people may be curious about their ancestry (if it’s not already known), I’d wager that affluent whites are more likely to pay for the service. Without the demographics of the study, this information is of questionable utility. Can’t properly crunch the numbers without a breakdown of the study group.

    • I think the numbers have been adequately crunched, Mr. Anonymous Internet armchair statistician.

      • June Genis

        I agree with John. If the participants are skewed toward wealthier participants, and we know already that on average the white population is wealthier than the other groups in the study, the data is really only telling us about the ethnicity of the wealthier part of these populations. The missing variable is the socioeconomic status of each participant. This is not data which is typically collected when you request DNA testing. BTW I was tested by Ancestry and I know they did not ask me anything about my income or wealth level when I ordered the test.

    • sweet_lies

      i think that the average black person, not just “mixed race” people, would be curious about their history, because their family histories have been lost. well, i guess the average “black” person in america IS mixed race. so… nevermind lol

  • Good.

  • scott

    this is great news!

  • Doug

    I wonder how many people with say 25% African genes consider themselves “white”? The president is 50% Kenyan, but is described as “the first black president”, I wonder how many people with 1 great grand parent who was African American consider themselves black and how many white?

  • KH

    A significant part of the white American population descends from recent immigrants. Few of us with ancestors who arrived after the Civil War (and who were born before about 1970) are likely to be anything but European. “White” Americans with colonial ancestry may have non-European ancestry but little of that DNA may remain in their families.

  • HeartShaped

    So all this “Melting Pot” stuff is a load of c*&^? People stick within their own groups it seems, it’s not bad, it’s just human nature.

    • Juan Carlos Rey de Miami

      If depends on how you frame your mind. More than 50 per cent of American kids belong already to the so-called minorities. Besides, to call a person of Greek-German-Albanian-Russian-Palestian… ancestry just white, and by that implying no genetic admixture, is so naive as the non-realistic desire of the Americans to stay ¨white¨ and ¨pure¨.

      • Bob Gehrking

        White people just don’t want our countries to turn into the shit holes you black/brown savages came from
        You dumb fuck!

        • Juan Carlos Rey de Miami

          You got all back-to-front. I am from Europe and have traveled a lot. Believe me, for European standards the US nation is pretty black and brown. Even Hispanic countries like Argentina and Uruguay clearly have a larger proportion of whites, which can be corroborated walking the streets of Buenos Aires, Montevideo or any big US city. In short, I am sorry that you hate your own nation that much.

    • Thanatos

      Melting pot was made by a jew in the early 20th century

  • MarleyMarx

    It’s easy to explain these numbers: once a white person has offspring with a non-white person, the children are no longer considered white by the majority of whites. This is essentially what the white-supremacist “one-drop” ideology was all about.

    Most likely, these children will become part of another group identity, for example Black American (if the non-white parent was Black) and will marry a person of that group. You won’t find their traces among the current white population, since they were previously outcasted by whites and became part of e.g. the black community.

    That’s why on the other hand, so many people who are categorized as Black American (African-American) have significant traces of admixture with white, but such a person would not considered to be white, even if two-thirds of his/her genetic makeup would be of white European ancestry.

    • Emilia

      This might be true of people of mixed Black and White descent but less so in the case of children from White/Asian marriages. There is a tendency for people of mixed White-Asian descent to be viewed as ‘White’ (well, maybe not by the Stormfront crowd but by members of the general population) and to see themselves as White as well. I suppose that might depend as well on factors like appearance, the family’s retention of Asian cultures or languages, place of residence, etc., but I don’t think the ‘one-drop rule’ is anywhere as strong when it comes to mixed White-Asian people.

  • JP

    So how exactly does this article educate on genetics? All I see is a discussion of “social implications.”

    All this means is that we tend to define obviously biracial folks as non-white, and have done so for generations.

    Where is the URL of the study quoted here so we can look at the data and compare to other studies on the same subject?

    • Lisa Lovett


      Since we can no longer reply in the discussion we were having on tracing Jewish ancestry through genetics, I thought I would send along an article that my Uncle who is producing the film called “Children of the Inquisition”. His website is and he has websites and facebook pages on his films, “Going Blind”, “Traveling While Black”, and “Children of the Inquisition”. Have you seen the film about Deaf performers, produced and directed by Hilary Scarl (I think that’s her name.) I think it’s called “Can you see what I’m Saying”. I have bad Chemo Brain. I
      went with a friend to it’s opening in NYC in April 2010. They have a great website and are on FB.
      Children of the Inquisition

      March 16 ·

      This community is featured in Children of the inquistion!

      Jamaica hopes Jewish tourism can help fading community

      KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — It’s Saturday morning at Sha’are Shalom, but there aren’t enough Jews gathered in the dim light of Jamaica’s only synagogue to…|By DAVID McFadden

  • I’d love to see a gallery of photos of each individual person’s face along with their genomes highlighted in this article. It’d be neat to see exactly what “73.2 percent African, 24 percent European and 0.8 percent Native American” looks like compared to different genomes.

    • Thanatos

      It looks like a nig

      • I’d like to see the specific facial features and ethnic markers that carry through the human race of all percentages and mix-breeds as I’ll call it.

      • Angelica

        What is it to you? If ancient African Americans aka Hebrew Israelites (The Chosen People) were not stolen from their native land to build the New America which gave Whites and Jews economic privileges…..race mixing would not have occurred! It’s not like they volunteered to procreate with you. Stop being angry at African Americans and blame the Power structure which are the Jews for using them as a Pawn in a Dirty Chess Game!!!!! and creating racism to begin with. At the end of the day, they don’t give a damn about you either! Don’t be so concerned about facial features and different phenotypes…it’s counterproductive.

  • disqus_xEFHDaxwEP

    White means not black for the Americans.What “white” means compared to Europeans who posess some non-European mixtures of Arabs and mongoloides? Southern Europeans have sometimes not so white skin.