The last time Americans experienced a genealogy revival on a scale similar to today was during the 1970s when Alex Haley published “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” Haley’s story followed the life of the mostly fictional Kunta Kinte from his capture in 18th-century Gambia to his life as a slave in the United States, and traces the lives of his descendants over two centuries and seven generations, culminating with a family connection to Haley himself.
The enormous success of the book was followed by a television adaptation in 1977 that was nothing short of a national media event. The novel spent 22 weeks at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List and an estimated 80 million people watched the television series. Perhaps most remarkable was the fact that the televised version of “Roots” contained the first widely broadcast and unvarnished representations of slavery in American media history — giving it the potential to force a long-overdue public reckoning with slavery and racial inequality.
Instead, Americans latched onto the final pages of the book in which Haley walked readers through his own experience of tracing this family history and explaining how he navigated the emotional process of genealogical inquiry. The drama of discovery and the longing to connect with ancestors touched a national nerve, sparking an explosion of interest in ancestry and family discovery. This interest was particularly meaningful for African Americans, who hoped that family research would help to heal the genealogical wounds inflicted by the Atlantic slave trade. But the popular enthusiasm for family research soon extended across all racial and ethnic boundaries.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Americans devoured resources on genealogy and ancestry, seeking new ways to understand their personal stories and ethnic identities. Organizations devoted to the genealogies of people of every imaginable ethnic descent came into being almost overnight. Libraries, archives, publishers, travel agencies and tourism councils all found opportunities to cash in on this expansive national fetish for roots, homelands and heritage. In defiance of their parents’ Cold War-era emphasis on assimilation, this new generation of genealogy researchers embraced, celebrated and advertised their outsider and immigrant histories.
The irony of the watershed cultural moment surrounding “Roots” was that a book about slavery and the African diaspora became a catalyst for a largely white ethnic revival. As the nation embraced a new passion for genealogy, the narratives of African American experiences embedded in slavery were eclipsed by a new obsession with the white ethnic European immigrant. The exploration of this heritage provided a language through which the baby boomer generation could safely distance themselves from the mandates of the Civil Rights era without sounding explicitly racist.
The most potent symbol of this narrative was the newly ascendant interest in Ellis Island as the birthplace of America’s immigrant story. As the historian Matthew Frye Jacobson explains in his work, “Roots Too,” Ellis Island became the 20th-century version of Plymouth Rock, a mythic place of pure and righteous origins that celebrated diversity and opportunity, if only selectively. Tracing immigrant ancestors to Ellis Island allowed many white ethnic Americans to feel a safe historical distance from the sins of slavery and genocide exposed by “Roots,” absolving them from blame for the racial inequality that plagued American history. After all, they claimed, their forebears had not taken part in the 19th-century horrors of chattel slavery, Indian wars or Mexican conquest.
In powerful ways, this narrative provided white ethnics with a language of historic oppression and struggle that functioned to minimize, trivialize and dismiss the contemporary demands of marginalized racial groups, like those celebrating Black Power, Chicano rights and American Indian sovereignty. While European immigrants faced significant historic struggles, their descendants mobilized such hardships to dilute the claims of historically persecuted groups that remained marginalized with their own narratives of past immigrant oppression. When Richard Nixon dedicated a new immigration museum in the mid-1970s, for example, his descriptions of immigrants who “believed in hard work” deployed a coded language that distanced white Americans from culpability for contemporary demands for social justice. European immigrants “didn’t come here for a handout,” Nixon explained, “They came here for an opportunity and they built America.”
Such tensions resonate with our modern-day genealogical revival, particularly when it comes to the advent of DNA testing. On the one hand, such technology has opened up new horizons into unknown or forgotten pasts. It has the potential to make visible the cultural memories and human connections of people displaced by migration or separated from family by legal barriers or physical borders. For historically marginalized people, access to the marketplace of family research has brought about important opportunities for reconciliation and reunion and helped remedy institutional histories of erasure and neglect. As sociologist Alondra Nelson wrote in “The Social Life of DNA,” the use of genealogical technologies can, with great care and caution, “allow us to try — or try again — to contemplate, respond to, and resolve enduring social wounds.”
But such practices can also go horribly wrong. Even as genealogy enables those who have been historically denied access to ancestral legitimacy to claim status, inclusion and belonging, it can simultaneously empower those who seek to divide, deny and disenfranchise.
Such issues exploded into national politics in 2018, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) issued the results of a DNA test to counter President Trump’s childish obsession with calling her “Pocahontas.” Warren’s test revealed “scientific” evidence of indigenous North American genetic markers. Although such evidence bears no relevance to the ways that tribes consider inclusion and enrollment, Warren’s DNA test illustrated how the “scientific” evidence of ancestry could bolster the spurious claims of nonnative people in ways that jeopardize the legitimate rights of sovereign people. While the president’s juvenile jabs remain, Warren recognized this danger and apologized for her actions.
The Warren episode is emblematic of the way that genetic science has allowed white people to claim racial privilege. Also in 2018, a white man in Washington State used the results of a genetic ancestry test to sue the state and federal governments for racial discrimination after being denied certification from a program designed for minority business owners. The man claimed that a DNA test revealed he had trace evidence of indigenous North American and sub-Saharan African genetic markers and, as such, he should be eligible for inclusion in a program designed for underrepresented minorities. In another similar lawsuit, a white Princeton graduate contended that a medical school admissions officer encouraged the use of a DNA test to claim minority status on her application.
In other words, we’re seeing a high tech version of what happened in the 1970s and 1980s: ancestry being weaponized to negate contemporary claims of racial inequality. For those seeking to undermine the institutional remedies designed to address ongoing discrimination, DNA testing provides “scientific” proof that absolves them of their whiteness. Used to such ends, genetic testing can empower white people to claim historical oppression in ways that negate and minimize the contemporary demands of people still marginalized today.
Genealogy research and DNA testing provide powerful and meaningful points of access into self-discovery. They can also, however, be exploited and misused. During a moment shaped by racial grievance, police violence, indigenous disenfranchisement, religious discrimination, child caging, border violence and anti-immigrant bigotry, ancestral claims to a selective immigrant past provide seductive narratives of “specialness” that help mitigate the culpability of whiteness in creating the conditions of our modern racial unrest. Just as they were a generation ago, ancestry and genealogy remain fraught with regressive potential against which we must remain constantly vigilant.