Chapter 7: Negro Dogs & The Rivers of Negroland

(You can read the complete pdf of this chapter here: Blumenbach Ch7vW. The first few paragraphs of this chapter, without the footnotes, is presented below.)

During my high school years, I hung out with a group of neighborhood kids that included one Korean, a Polish Catholic, tall blond Protestant me, and an African American whose Jamaican stepfather used to warn us “not to smoke ganj.” One summer night, we were playing whiffle ball in the street when we were rushed by a thick-necked neighbor who accused Jerry, the black kid, of hiding in the bushes and “jumping his son.” From what we could gather, Jerry had retrieved an errant whiffle ball from the neighbor’s yard. Somehow this man’s child had assumed he was a crook. In point of fact, the suburban street where I lived was one block away from boundary of the City of Philadelphia. There were well-organized thieves from the city, many of whom were black, who would periodically break into the houses of people in my neighborhood. Nonetheless, we all knew the angry neighbor was a paranoid hot head. If he had seen blue-eyed me, or short black-eyed Jay, the Korean, in his yard, there would have been no problem. When the neighbor accused Jerry of being a thug, none of us said anything, but we all knew what the deal was. Jerry was black; we weren’t.

As an adult, I became the victim of felony trespass. Late one night, a stoned homeless guy crawled through my open kitchen window and quietly made his way into my bedroom. We had a minor tussle, and I fled out the front door. Ultimately, I found a cop who asked me to describe the perpetrator, who was about my height, with straight black hair, tanned skin, and a big nose. I said, “He looked Mexican, but he was tall.” The cop, who was African American asked, “How did you know he was Mexican? Did he speak Spanish?” I responded, “No. I don’t know if he was Mexican, he just looked Mexican.” Both the cop and I knew what Mexicans looked like, or at least the ones from southern Mexico who work in the mushroom farms of Chester County where I lived. Later that night, the police caught the guy. He was a white with straight black hair, a hooked nose, and a dark tan. My racial description was wrong, and yet using it was effective because both the officer and I knew what Mexicans looked like, or at least what they were supposed to look like.

In 2002, the FBI and the Police Department from Baton Rouge, Louisiana were trying to capture a serial killer. An eyewitness described him as a white man, and forensic investigators had a sample of his DNA. When they compared it with DNA from more than 1,000 Caucasian males, they could not find a match. In 2003, the detectives on the case hired a molecular biologist named Tony Frudakis who said he could determine the suspect’s race by analyzing his DNA. Frudakis’s test concluded that the killer might be African-American or Afro-Caribbean, but that he was not Caucasian. Based on this, the authorities shifted their focus to a black man with a history of domestic violence. Ultimately, they found that his DNA matched the samples that were collected at multiple crime scenes. This sort of story makes many people uneasy. It seems to verify traditional racist beliefs, like those of Pinkerton and Knox, that races are biologically separate units. And it is not just DNA that can be used to identify race, or at least make a good guess. Infants can also tell blacks from whites. Furthermore, there are some dogs who for no apparent reason, act aggressive only toward people of certain races.[3] Indeed, dogs can be quite adept as distinguishing race. In the 19th century, American slave hunters used specially trained Negro Dogs to find brown-skinned runaways hiding in dense woodland brush.[4]

But then again, I once knew someone whose dog would snarl at any man with a beard. So I am not surprised that a dog could tell an Austrian like Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) from a Kenyan, like Barack Obama’s father. Kenyans and Austrians do in fact look different. Personally, I doubt it would be possible to train a dog to distinguish an Austrian like Mozart from a Czech like composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). Could a person or DNA test tell Dvorak from Bela Bartok (1881-1945), who was Hungarian? Bartok the Hungarian might be confused with a Macedonian, who might be confused with a Greek, and from there a Turk, a Syrian, a Palestinian, a Bedouin, an Egyptian, an Ethiopian, and a dark Kenyan. The change in skin color, hair, and other features gradually changes from Austria to Kenya. There is no genetic wall separating any of these populations. Even seemly impenetrable obstacles like the Sahara, the Himalayas, or the frozen islands of the Behring Straights have not stopped the flow of human migration and the racial intermixing that goes along with it. Our species is unique among land animals in that we can travel almost non-stop, all day long, in all seasons. We may not be fast, but we are unusually constant. In fact, some hunter-gatherers practice endurance hunting in which they persistently follow an animal until it is so exhausted that it can no longer run. Then they just walk up and kill it. Anthropologist Daniel Lieberman has even proposed that endurance hunting may predate hunting with spears and stones.

We are a mobile species, which is one of the reasons we exist as shades within the racial spectrum, which as Blumenbach said, flow into each other by “insensible degrees.” And yet we in the United States can easily tell who is black and who is white (or Mexican). When it comes to our perception of who is black or white, there are no shades of grey.

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