How Many ‘White’ People Are Passing?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A report reveals the proportion of Americans with “hidden African ancestry.”

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Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 71: What percentage of white Americans have recent African ancestry?

I am currently filming guest interviews for Season 2 of Finding Your Roots, our genealogy series airing on PBS this September. One of the most intriguing pieces of information we share with our guests is the “admixture” results contained in their DNA—their percentages of European, Native American and sub-Saharan African ancestors over the past 200 years or so. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner once famously wrote. “It’s not even past.” The record of your ancestral past, in all of its complexity, is hidden in your autosomal DNA. And what surprises your DNA holds!

Virtually everyone we’ve tested has expressed a desire to see some diversity of ancestry reflected in their DNA results. The African Americans almost always guess that they have much higher percentages of Native American ancestry and much lower percentages of European ancestry than they actually have, which is not surprising since African Americans have long embraced the myth that their great grandmother with “high cheeks and straight black hair” looked that way because of a relationship between an ancestor who was black and another one who was Native American. But scientific results show that very few African Americans have a significant amount of Native American ancestry: In fact, according to a study just published by 23andMe researcher Katarzyna “Kasia” Bryc (also a colleague in the lab of David Reich at Harvard Medical School), only about 5 percent of African Americans have at least 2 percent of Native American ancestry, while the average African American has only 0.7 percent Native American ancestry. At the same time, Bryc’s research shows that the average African American has a whopping 24 percent of European ancestry, which explains why great-Grandma had those high cheekbones and that straight black hair.

Interestingly, my guests with Euro-American family backgrounds often guess that they have some African ancestry, since humanity first emerged in East Africa tens of thousands of years ago. But DNA inherited from ancestors, let’s say, some 50,000 years ago, is not measurable through the autosomal DNA tests we give to our guests, since these tests only accurately measure your recent ancestry, again, just over the last two or three centuries. To my surprise, many express disappointment that this distant African ancestry isn’t present in their results. 

But what about the presence of recent African ancestors in a “white” person’s family tree? Here’s where DNA becomes quite fascinating!

‘Hidden’ African Ancestry

Although long suspected, what hasn’t been confirmed until now is how many self-identified “white” women and men are walking around today with recent “hiddenAfrican ancestry in their families—you know, white people who, at least according to the old, notorious “one-drop rule” of the Jim Crow era, would have been considered legally “black.” How many of them don’t know it? How many might sense it but aren’t sure why? And how would they react if they did know? For Southerners, in particular, there are more than just Confederates in the Attic. And the proof and guide is their DNA. 

Here’s how Scott Hadly reported Kasia Bryc’s findings on the 23andme website on March 4, 2014: “Bryc found that about 4 percent of whites have at least 1 percent or more of African ancestry, known as “’hidden African ancestry.’”

“Although it is a relatively small percentage,” Hadly continues, “the percentage indicates that an individual with at least 1 percent African ancestry had an African ancestor within the last six generations, or in the last 200 years [meaning since the time of American slavery]. This data also suggests that individuals with mixed parentage at some point were absorbed into the white population,” which is a very polite way of saying that they “passed.” 

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