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What is you? Look at race through different lenses and you'll see very different pictures, Part 1

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2009 - The stage is dark. He sits alone, bent over, staring at his cell. Seth Hairston isn't nervous, not anymore.

Really, this isn't even acting for him.

The lights come up and the quiet audience watches.

Another young man walks out.

"Hey, white boy. Hello? Hey, you got a lighter?"

Hairston looks up.

"White boy," he says to the audience. "Really. White boy. See, all of this would have been completely unneeded if whoever that dimwit was would have just asked me my name. I don't even own a lighter. You wouldn't generally be OK with asking for something as personal as an address or a weight, so why are all these rules canceled out when it comes to race?"

He's standing now, stepping back and forth as he tells his story.

"First you get this face, like..." he squints a little, leaning in. His lip turns up.

"And then the question just vomits out. Bold and ugly. So instead of getting aggravated and explaining my ethnical pie chart, I start messing with people's minds."

The pie chart pops up on the screen behind him -- DJ, Actor, Rad Dude.

"But sometimes, it's just too much to deal with. I remember this one time, when I was on the bus ..."

He sits back in his chair, next to Darius Gilliam, a 15-year-old sophomore at Lindbergh High School. Gilliam taps Hairston's arm. "Hey."

"What's up," Hairston nods and looks away.

"What is you?" Gilliam asks.

Seth blinks. He turns his body toward Gilliam.

"I'm sorry?"

It's not a question, though. It's a challenge. Say it again.

And so Gilliam does.

"What. Is. You?"


The question Hairston gets nearly every day is easy to understand. People want to know his ethnicity so that they can figure him socially.

He's multiracial -- black with Peruvian and white ancestry.

But what does that really say about him? That's what he wants to know.

Four times each week, the 17-year-old Maplewood Richmond Heights grad and a group of high school students gather in the cool basement of the Missouri History Museum. In their jobs with the Teens Make History program, they study the past, write scenes and perform them.But this summer, they put history aside. In "Sticks and Stones," the group of 18 tell stories from their own lives.

"It is history," says Michael Bates, a 16-year-old junior at Cardinal Ritter High School. "Our history."

They're white, black, biracial. They live in St. Louis and St. Louis County. All were born long after the 1917 East St. Louis race riots and the 1955 desegregation of St. Louis public high schools. The St. Louis they live in now is a different one than their parents and another world from their grandparents.

Still, race is an issue in their lives -- one that divides, one that defines, and one that is very real, even if most scientists agree that the differences between humans are small on a genetic level.

But in St. Louis and the country, numbers alone say that socially, the differences are huge. For instance:

  • Unemployment: As of June, 2009, the unemployment rate for white Americans was 8.7 percent, seasonally adjusted, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For black Americans, that number was 14.7 percent. The number for Asians was not available.
  • Education: From 2006 to 2007, 72.2 percent of those earning bachelor’s degrees were white, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. Black people earned 9.6 percent of those degrees. Hispanics earned 7.5 percent, Asian/Pacific Islanders earned 6.9 percent and American Indian/Alaska Natives earned .8 percent. In that same time, whites earned 66 percent of the master’s degrees, blacks earned 10.3 percent, Hispanics earned 5.8 percent, Asian/Pacific Islanders earned 6 percent while American Indian/Alaska Natives earned .6 percent.
  • Earnings: In 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, for full-time wage and salary workers, the median weekly earnings for Asian men was $936, $788 for white men, $600 for black men and $520 for Hispanic men. For women, weekly earnings were $731 for Asian women, $626 for white women, $533 for black women and $473 for Hispanic women.
  • Health: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2007, the uninsured rate for whites in Missouri was 13.3 percent, 22.1 percent for blacks and 25.8 percent for Hispanics.

So what does race tells us? What doesn't it tell us? Like with Hairston, if the question is answered through science, it's pretty simple. If it's answered socially, it's pretty complex. But often, people use one to try and understand the other anyway.
"What. Is. You?" Gilliam asks again, slowing each word.

"What do you mean?"

"Like, what is you, your, um, ethnicity?"

"Oh, I'd rather not answer if that's all right," Hairston says.

"You'd rather not answer? Boy please, I'm black and I don't care like that. But for real, though, what is you?"

"But for real, I'm not gonna answer. You can take a guess if you want."

"Well, is you a, um, terrorist?"

"A terrorist," Hairston says, putting his hand on the other boy's shoulder, stopping the scene.

"A terrorist?"

He stands up.

"See, it's not always this bad, but you wouldn't believe how many times I have this conversation throughout the course of the day. I mean people really do get aggravated when they don't receive an answer. As if it's some sort of right of passage or something. I started to notice that people took a look at me and they knew all that they thought they needed to know.

"My question is -- why?"


First, the science. No, wait, even before the science, let's define something.

"What is a race?" asks Alan Templeton, a Washington University professor of evolutionary and population biology.

For just a moment, forget every association you might have with the word race. In scientific terms, Templeton says, there are species and subspecies. Now think of it this way -- subspecies is another word for race.

"Within the scientific community, they're used interchangeably."

Still, the word race isn't used much because of social connotations, but they mean the same thing.

"You don't have to go very far in the evolutionary tree until you find things that truly have races," Templeton says.

For instance, let's look at chimpanzees from central Africa, our closest evolutionary relatives.

There are three subspecies, or three races, because genetically they fit certain biological standards: Each species has a distinct evolutionary lineage; they have sharp genetic borders and sharp geographic borders. Basically, even though they're the same species, their genetic differences are distinct enough that they form subspecies, or races.

But apply that same criteria, and the human population provides a very different picture -- enough that while there are differences at the genome level, they don't add up to justifying the classification of subspecies, or races, Templeton says.

In chimps, again, the differences came from animals that evolved differently and had limited reproductive links, meaning there wasn't much reproduction between them.

But in humans, genetic differences came over time with the movement of people across the planet. We moved, we bred with others we met along the way, and we changed, too, picking up this gene, leaving that one behind.

Often, anthropologists identify five groups of humans -- Sub-Saharan African, Caucasian, East Asian, American Indian and Pacific.

Many other classifications are possible, Templeton says, but skin color doesn't help place people scientifically. For example, Africans and Melanesians might look similar, but genetically Europeans are closer to Africans than Melanesians are.

It's not skin color that matters, Templeton says. It's not hair texture, "just simple geography."

In a detailed genetic study that samples humans uniformly, Templeton says, you don't see distinct groups, but changes that happen gradually and reflect how we moved across the planet.

So if race doesn't pan out scientifically, do the differences in our genes tell us anything useful?

You bet.

Understanding someone at a genetic level, and thereby understanding who their ancestors were and where they came from, can help people medically. For instance, consider sickle cell disease.

While many think sickle cell is a black disease, it actually has nothing to do with the color of a person's skin, and everything to do with where they came from. Sickle cell evolved among people who lived in regions with malaria and helped those people be malaria resistant. As populations drifted across the world, they kept the genes.

While many of those people are black, not everyone of color has the genes that cause sickle cell. In Ethiopians, for instance, it's rare. At the same time, the disease is common in Arab populations who traditionally lived in marsh areas.

Some scientists have argued that human subspecies do exist, Templeton says, and they've compared small and distant populations to prove that point. But that ignores the population sprawl that's occurred over time. In other words, it looks at two islands and not the bridge between them.

Follow that sprawl, and the separations aren't so big.

It may seem that way, though, especially in the United States, and possibly for the same reasons.

"We created a very strange genetic situation in this country," Templeton says, "and then we perpetuated it with the system we inherited from the British."

That is, we brought two populations from different parts of the world into the same place where there was yet another population. There was no drift, no time for variation.

And so, here, the visible differences that amount to little on a genetic level ended up amounting to a lot on every other level.

"I started to notice that people took a look at me and they knew all that they thought they needed to know," Hairston says on stage. He's standing again, everything frozen around him.

"My question is -- why?"

Ashley Guinn walks on stage.

"Because we just want to know," says the 17-year-old senior at Rosati-Kain High School.

"Ok," Hairston says. "Why?"

"Because. The way you dress, the way you talk, you can't just ... be."

"I don't understand what you mean," he says.

"It's just that, some people are some ways, and other people are other ways, and everyone's just the way they are, you know. That's just how it is."

Click here for more info on the Teens Make History program.