The Roots of All Racism

By Wendy Kaminer

         Racism in its most virulent and violent form relies in part on an obsession with bloodlines.  Think of the 1935 Nuremberg laws that codified the de-naturalization and de-humanization of Jews, in the interests of maintaining “the purity of the German blood,” which was “the basis for survival of the German people.”  These laws “for the protection of German blood and German honor,” included prohibitions on marriage or extra-marital sex between Jews and “citizens of German or related blood.”  Jews were defined according to their bloodlines and included anyone with 3 or 4 Jewish grandparents.

        You’d be hard-pressed to find any sane person today willing to defend the Nazi’s belief in racial purity and the importance of bloodlines, but it’s easy to find people who seek pride in their own distant ancestry.  The American genealogy industry is thriving, measuring racial purity with an exactitude of which Nazi’s could only dream.  In a country originally defined partly by its opposition to inherited nobility, people are so invested in tracing their family trees that they surrender their DNA to private for-profit testing companies as thoughtlessly as they give up their social security numbers for department store charge cards.
        It’s a sad, understandable irony that African-Americans have a particular fascination with discovering their roots.  The Washington Post’s new online magazine aimed at a black audience,, devotes a section to genealogy, offering “A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing Your Roots.” It directs readers to a DNA testing company partly owned by Henry Louis Gates, the talented, entrepreneurial academic who happens to be the editor-in chief of  (Gates told the New York Times that he did not “see a conflict of interest” in this arrangement.)

        PBS is also helping Gates promote the search for “roots.”  This week, you can watch the first installment of his new 4-part series, “African-American Lives 2,” which, the New York Times gushes, combines “the poetry of history, the magic of science and the allure of the family trees of Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Tina Turner, Don Cheadle, Tom Joyner, and Maya Angelou.  It is the latest incarnation of the highly rated, critically successful star genealogy program” that Gates hosted two years ago.   
        Last year, he teamed up with Oprah Winfrey in a PBS special entitled -- what else --  “Oprah’s Roots," which revealed the accomplishments of her 19th century forbears and offered “many new insights into how one of the world's most famous people emerged from an exceptional family.”  Looking way back, the program highlighted “the dramatic results of Winfrey's genetic analysis, which locate(d) her matrilineal ancestors among the Kpelle people of Liberia on the western coast of Africa.”  Oprah herself seemed stirred by the investigation into her distant past: In a visit to South Africa, she declared that she felt “at home” there because "I went in search of my roots and had my DNA tested, and I am a Zulu.”

        How irrational is all this?  None of us have any reason to be proud or ashamed, take credit or blame, for the character or conduct of generations that preceded us.  Personally, I feel no more connected to my distant ancestors than to yours.  But the genealogy industry plays on our emotions, and what you might consider our basest instincts.  Its mystical appeal to the importance of bloodlines helps fuel feudalism, slavery, tribalism, and ethnic cleansing, among other horrors.  I like Oprah so much better when she markets self-invention.

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