Thursday, March 27, 2008

Six genetic degrees of separation

Honestly, people, you can’t make this up. Aaron Spelling on crack couldn’t have come up with a wilder, more seemingly improbable series of family ties than those reported Tuesday by The Associated Press, in a story that shows how interconnected Americans really are, whether we know it or not, and how politics and history make bedfellows that aren't necessarily strange, but certainly curious.

AP reported that researchers at the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered, after three years of study, that Sen. Barack Obama is a distant cousin of actor, social activist and former People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive Brad Pitt. It gets better: the Society, based in Boston, found that Sen. Hillary Clinton is related to Angelina Jolie, actress, UN ambassador and companion of ... Brad Pitt.

Had enough? Check this. "Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, can call six U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush, his cousins," The AP reported, from the study. "Clinton, who is of French-Canadian descent on her mother's side, is also a distant cousin of singers Madonna, Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette."

Jolie is ninth cousins, twice removed, to Clinton. They're connected through Jean Cusson, who died in St. Sulpice, Quebec, Canada, in 1718.

The GOP gets equal time in this genetic smorgasbord, too. Republican challenger Sen. John McCain is a sixth cousin of first lady Laura Bush, the society determined. Society genealogist Christopher Child told the AP that the ancestry for McCain, born in the Panama Canal Zone, was harder to trace because of incomplete family records.

"It shows that lots of different people can be related, people you wouldn't necessarily expect," Child said.

◊ ◊ ◊

We tend to look at familial lineage as a fortuitous sign of possible future performance in everything from thoroughbreds at the track to luxury cars on the road, from business models to business leaders to ... presidential candidates. John Quincy Adams, elected the sixth President, was the son of John Adams, the second President.

So the concerns about Obama’s experience may go by the boards when you consider some of his distant kin. The junior senator from Illinois apparently has leadership experience built into his genes.

Besides the distant relationship with Vice President Dick Cheney, which Obama has frequently used for obvious comic relief on the campaign trail, his bipartisan lineage includes former president George H.W. Bush (#41), Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry S. Truman and James Madison.

Obama and President Bush (#43) are tenth cousins, once removed, connected by Samuel Hinkley, who died in Cape Cod, Mass., in 1662.

Another Obama cousin? British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.

And there may be no need to worry overmuch about Obama’s ability to sway white Southern men to voting for him. Why? Simply put, he’s one of ‘em. Among the hit parade of Obama forebears the Society discovered was none other than — wait for it — Confederate Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Such stories of commingling in centuries past, and the descendants of same, are always reported with a winking smirk or an on-air chuckle. The novelty factor is part of the media's reaction, of course; but it's also a response to what's long been perceived as a kind of titillating historical sexual mischief.

One of America's oldest open secrets is the presence of interracial relationships throughout the nation's history. The mixed-race experience didn't spring full-blown on the national canvas ten or twenty years ago. It's always been part of the American weave; it's just a part that the nation doesn't talk about.

It goes back to the slave-holding colonies of Virginia and Maryland, the first of the eventual United States to embrace sexual segregation between the races. It continued through the years of the Civil War, when “miscegenation” was made an issue in the election campaign of 1864, with the idea of blacks and whites intermingling being used by the Democrats to discredit the Lincoln administration.

Segregationists in the post-Civil War South enshrined sexual separation of blacks and whites as law and as culture. Over time, more than half of the United States enacted so-called anti-miscegenation laws, barirng marriage of blacks and whites, and in some cases, marriage of whites with either Native Americans or Asians. The last of these laws was overturned in 1967.

But a new day has been underway in America for a long time. According to the last United States Census, there were 287,576 black-white marriages and 1.48 million Hispanic-white marriages — and that was in 2000; the number's surely climbed since then. On the basis of personal affinity alone, you can count a lot of those people pulling the lever for Obama in November.

So this news from Boston plays bigger for Obama than for Clinton, underscoring Obama’s dominant political strength today. Hillary's ancestors and distant relations all apparently hewed to the same race — no interracial surprises in her bloodlines (as far as we know). But the diversity of Obama's family tree more fully reflects the nation's myriad personal histories, its tragically but relentlessly interwoven past. When he talks about building a coalition, he can’t help but mean it: He is a coalition.

There's no way to know if it’ll help him in states like West Virginia — a demographic challenge to his campaign if there ever was one.

But the New England Historic Genealogical Society gets credit for telling us what we already know, deep down where it counts: Our differences aren't differences so much as distinctions. Everyone, it seems, may be six genetic degrees, or less, from everyone else.

Howdy, cousin!
Image credits: Brad Pitt: Airman 1st Class Tanaya M. Harms, USAF (public domain). All others: Public domain.

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