Black and white case against old racist stereotypes

John B. Judis; 17/4/10

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

When asked about his race on the US census form, Barack Obama, the child of a white Kansan and black Kenyan, did not take the option of checking both “white” and “black” or “some other race”. Instead, he checked “black, African American or Negro”. By doing that, Obama probably did what was expected of him, but he also confirmed an enduring legacy of US racism.

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According to the US Census Bureau, a little more than 12 per cent of Americans are black, African American or Negro. According to geneticist Mark Shriver, “the level of European ancestry in African-Americans averages about 20 per cent”. Many notable blacks have been 50 per cent or more white.
These have included many notable Americans who were publicly identified as black, coloured or as negroes, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People president Walter White (who was one-sixty-fourth black), union leader A. Phillip Randolph and Harvard don Henry Louis Gates.
The obvious question is why, if someone’s ancestry is predominantly white, they are not identified as white rather than black.
It’s not because of the way they look. Walter White was widely “mistaken” as a white person.
As a tudent at Colgate University, former New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell was initially believed to be white.
But once it became known they had black ancestry, they became black.
And US law backed this conclusion. In the south, the idea that any black ancestry would qualify someone as black, negro or coloured was called the “one-drop rule”.
In New Orleans in 1982, Susie Guillory Phipps went to court to have herself, her parents and her blond, blue-eyed siblings declared white.
When 48-year-old, pale, raven-haired Phipps, who had married a white man and had always been known as white, had obtained her birth certificate to get a passport, she discovered she
was designated coloured.
The reason, she found out, was she was the great- great- great- great-granddaughter of a slave, Margarita, who had had a child in 1770 by a white French planter.
The state’s lawyers challenged her claim to be white on the grounds she was three-thirtyseconds black, and they won.
I learned of the Phipps case from Harry Chang, a South Korean immigrant who in the 70s organised a racism research project in the San Francisco Bay area dedicated to developing a Marxist theory of race.
Chang, a computer programmer by day, was not your usual dogmatic leftist. He disdained the prevailing black nationalism and the revival of old left theories of a black nation.
He drew a sharp distinction between race as a social and as a natural category.
Blackness, he argued, had nothing to do with nature. It was a social creation.
In its American incarnation, blackness emerged as a social category in the 17th century as part of southern whites’ attempt to justify the subordination of Africans who had been brought to the colonies in bondage.
The legal interpretation of blackness was accompanied by laws barring miscegenation between whites and blacks. The one- drop rule endured after the US Civil War and after emancipation as a justification of racial segregation and of the tiered economy of the sharecroppers.
Today, the laws against miscegenation have been thrown out, and a Louisianan with Phipps’s ancestry might win her case for being classified white, but the one-drop rule persists in the way Americans, including me in this piece itself, think about race.
To the extent these mutually exclusive categories of white and black endure, they perpetuate stereotypes and pseudo-scientific nonsense, such as American Enterprise Institute fellow Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve.
The US Census Bureau has tiptoed around this problem for two centuries. After the Civil War, it allowed respondents to check “mulatto”, which includes “quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible race of African blood”. In 1900, the designation mulatto disappeared and people were asked to write W for white; B for black (negro or negro descent); Ch for Chinese; Jp for Japanese; and In for Indian.
Leading up to the 2000 US census, the bureau acknowledged race was a social category and allowed respondents to check multiple races or “some other race”. The bureau left it up to respondents to figure out what to say.
African-Americans have not necessarily welcomed this change.
Writing in the American Journal of Public Health in November 2000, David R. Williams and James S. Jackson acknowledge that “race is a socially constructed category”, but worry that allowing options to the designation black would lead to ignoring or underestimating the problems black Americans face.
They write: “As long as being black remains consequential for every aspect of life, and as long as racial status continues to reflect differences in power and desirable resources in society, it is important to assess race.” It’s hard to disagree.
By denying the existence of race, one denies the existence of racial inequality.
Yet by using the constructed language of race, one perpetuates invidious racial distinctions
Obama faced this dilemma when he chose how to designate himself on the census. And he may have done the right thing, but only in the short run.
If racism is finally to disappear, so must the peculiar logic of blackness.
Let Chang have the last word. In The Critique of the Black Nation Thesis, he wrote that “the overthrow of racism will involve the abolition of racial categories. What is meant by the abolition of racial categories is simply that human genetical variation or genealogical diversity would not be pushed into the Procrustean bed of racial distinction.
“Instead, the genetic and genealogical richness of mankind will probably remain, but with this crucial proviso: truly democratic spirit would be completely indifferent to it and assign to skin colour the same kind of social significance as weight, height or hair colour.”