Exactly How 'Black' Is Black America?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Find out the percentage of African ancestry in black Americans.

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* According to National Geographic's Genographic Project, the average African American is 80 percent sub-Saharan African, 19 percent European and 1 percent Native American.

* According to AfricanDNA, in which I am a partner with Family Tree DNA, the average African American is 79 percent sub-Saharan African, 19 percent European and 2 percent Native American.

And for our African-American male guests, there has been still another astonishing fact revealed about their paternal ancestry -- their father's father's father's line -- through their y-DNA: A whopping 35 percent of all African-American men descend from a white male ancestor who fathered a mulatto child sometime in the slavery era, most probably from rape or coerced sexuality. In other words, if we tested the DNA of all of the black men in the NBA, for instance, just over one-third descend from a white second or third great-grandfather. In my own case, he was my great-great grandfather, and he was most probably of Irish descent, judging from our shared y-DNA haplogroup.

I find two things quite fascinating about these results. First of all, simply glancing at these statistics reveals that virtually none of the African Americans tested by these DNA companies is inferred to be 100 percent sub-Saharan African, although each company has analyzed Africans and African immigrants who did test 100 percent sub-Saharan in origin. Ranges, of course, vary from individual to individual. Spencer Wells, director of National Geographic's Genographic Project, explained to me that the African Americans they've tested range from 53 percent to 95 percent sub-Saharan African, 3 percent to 46 percent European and zero percent to 3 percent Native American. So there is a lot of genetic variation within our ethnic group, as is obvious to anyone even casually glancing at black people just walking down the street.

What this means is that even the most phenotypically "African" (or what used to be called "Negroid") African Americans have dramatically significant levels of European ancestry, a fact that would have astonished many of our forebears, both black and white. It is also a fact that astonishes the guests on Finding Your Roots. And this finding is important because it deconstructs the very American notion of biologically "fixed races" that our society inherited from the racist pseudoscience of the 18th century and drew upon to justify slavery and the property rights of masters who fathered children with their slaves.

And second, these findings show that the common claim that many African Americans make about their high percentage of Native American ancestry is a myth. Joanna Mountain broke down to me our low amounts of Native American ancestry in this way: "Eighty percent of African Americans have less than 1 percent Native American ancestry. Over 2.5 percent have between 2 percent and 3 percent. And of all African Americans who have at least 1 percent Native American ancestry, the average is 2 percent Native American." So much for all of those putative Cherokee roots on just about every black person's family tree, fabricated to explain why your great-grandmother had "high cheekbones and straight black hair"! Why there is such little evidence of genetic mingling between African Americans and Native Americans deserves a column of its own.

The results for Latinos, however, are quite different: "In our experience," Mountain says, "people who have both African ancestry [at least 10 percent, according to genetics] and a lot of Asian/Native American ancestry [at least 10 percent, according to genetics] are more likely to consider themselves Latino than African American."

So why did we invent, and why do we hold on to, this myth of our putative Cherokee great-grandmothers? (And, by the way, both genealogists and geneticists have told me that white Americans share the same myth, which both their family trees and their admixtures disprove.) I think that Chris Rock put his finger on the answer in African American Lives 2. He said that it was much easier to fantasize about noble ancestors we never had than to deal with the fact of rape during slavery, the heinous act that produced such high percentages of European ancestry in the black community, the component of admixture that is responsible for those high cheekbones and that straight black hair. Despite African-American genealogical mythology, it turns out that we simply do not have many Native Americans on the branches of our family trees.

Rather, it turns out that black people in this country are surprisingly "white," meaning that our genomes are composed of quite a lot of European ancestry. Judging from these test results, the bottom line is that black and white Americans are inextricably interconnected at the level of their genomes, and African Americans are a profoundly "mixed" people, far more than anyone thought possible before these DNA tests were invented. And no matter what your features are -- your shade of brown, your hair texture, the shape of your lips and nose -- if you are an African American reading this column, you are likely "mixed" as well, even if you don't think you look that way.

And what about the percentages of "black" or sub-Saharan ancestry in the white American community? That will be the subject of another column. But suffice it to say here that, according to Mountain, "The bottom line is that 3 percent to 4 percent of people likely to consider themselves as all 'white' have some African ancestry -- between 0.5 percent and 5 percent."

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