Race in America

Official photographic portrait of US President...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the United States professes that all men are created equal and there has been talk of a post-racial America, race is still a significant factor. To use but one example, the 2012 Presidential election involved considerable focus on race. Some, like Bill O’Reilly, lamented what they seem to have taken as the end of the dominance of the white establishment. Others merely focus on the demographic lines drawn in accord with race and hope to appeal to those groups when election time comes.

Despite this unfortunate obsession with race, the concept is incredibly vague. There have been various attempts to sort out clear definitions of the races. For example, the “one drop rule” was an attempt to distinguish whites from blacks, primarily for the purposes of slavery. More recently, there have been attempts to sort out race based on genetics. This has had some interesting results, including some people finding out that the race they identified with is not the same as their genetic “race.”

In many ways, of course, these sorts of findings illustrate that the concept of race is also a matter of perception. That is, being white (or black or whatever) is often a matter of being perceived (or perceiving oneself) as being white (or black or whatever). In many ways, race is clearly a social construct with little correlation to genetics.

Getting back to genetics, many Americans are mixed rather than “pure.” This, of course, creates the problem of sorting people into those allegedly important racial demographics. After all, if a person has a mixed ancestry, they would not seem to fall clearly into a category (other than mixed). To “solve” this “problem” the tendency is to go with how the person is perceived. To use one example, consider President Obama. While his mother was white and his father black, he is considered black (after all, his place in history is as America’s first black president). The fact that he is considered black is thus a matter of perception. After all, he is just as white as he is black—although, of course, he looks black. As might be imagined, appearance is often taken as the major determining factor in regards to race. So, Obama looks more black than white, so he is black. Or so it might be claimed.

There is, of course, a problem in regards to people who are “mixed” but look “pure.” Interestingly enough, in the United States it is typically the case that a “mixed” person who looks “pure” means that they look white enough. After all, people who are “mixed” but do not look clearly white are typically classified as belonging to the “other” race. Like, for example, President Obama.  People who look white enough are typically classified as white, despite their actual ancestry.

I can use myself as an example in this case. While my mother’s side is documented “white” all the way back to the Mayflower, my father’s side is mixed. While my grandfather’s ancestry is French and some Native American, we really have no idea about the specific mix. My grandmother, however, was at least 50% “pure” Mohawk. As such, I am mixed. However, I look rather white and I have consistently been treated as white. Since many official forms and job applications require that a person identify by race, I always pause and look through the categories—especially when there is supposed to be consequences for not being honest. When a form allows multiple selections, I go with “white” and “Native American” since that is true. If I can only pick one, I usually go with “other” and if that is not an option, “white.” After all, no one would doubt that I am white simply by looking at me. As such, I might “really” be white—at least in the way that matters most in society (namely appearance). However, the race categories continue to annoy me and I always worry a tiny bit that I will be busted someday for putting down the wrong race.


My Amazon Author Page

Enhanced by Zemanta
  1. Racism will always be here, and by focusing on race on government forms, the stereotypes are perpetuated.

    I suggest using a form that lists sex, whether the person is of majority age, and a citizen.

    Nothing else is really even the government’s(or anyone else’s business).

    The worst example of racism for me personally are the comedy programs on TV where black entertainers use the “N” word, followed by the pawn shop in Detroit that focuses on the social problems of blacks. I am not saying take them off the boob tube, I just shut off the programs, and I choose not to use products that support or advertise these springer-like programs.

    You cannot legislate racism away, but you can change the thinking of people by addressing teaching. And I don’t care what the president’s racial composition is.

    I grew up in the 50’s and recall separate water fountains and bathrooms for different races. In those days, you did not see whites with minorities, now it is commonplace. It took time, and painful realizations about the equality of men (generic).

    I don’t know if the one drop rule serves any good purpose, it also seems to perpetuate stereotypes.

    I guess what I would need is a good explanation of why the government officials are tracking our race. Perhaps I am missing something……

    Sometimes the unrestricted gathering of such information by companies and out government bothers me, I see no good end to this….

  2. Socrates Schultz

    For me, Ashley Montagu settled the issue philosophically in 1942 with Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Of course it takes time for the general public to catch up.

  3. Two simple points:

    1) We’re all ‘out of Africa’, and therefore ‘black’ to some degree. Hell, we’re all ‘fish’, or bacteria, depending on how far back you want to look.

    2) Every individual is unique, and each and every one of us is ‘mixed’, being from two ‘mixed’ parents. What the hell does ‘pure’ mean?

    Only by defining arbitrary boundaries can any meaning be imparted on ‘race’. There may be useful and helpful reasons for identifying genetic differences between subgroups, such as for identifying common gene related illness – but that sort of utility can apply within and across all ‘races’: the principle of recessive genes, for example.

    So, yes, other than these practical uses, race is entirely perceptual, being based on morphology. So much so that someone who appears ‘white’ and is accepted as ‘white’, but then turns out to have ‘black’ ‘blood’, will be perceived differently in some circles, and maybe by themselves.

    Like religion, one of the more divisive games we’ve played.

  4. I had a lively discussion on race in 1979 while sketching for a portrait of Donald Webb, the Welsh president of Centenary College of Louisiana. The focus of it was my mystification at the RACIAL attitudes of Irish protestants and Catholics at a time of terrible sectarian violence. As most Americans still do I perceived racial attitudes to center around clear differences in appearance, so the idea that two populations that were no more different genetically than cousins in the same family hating each other seemed bizarre.

    He reminded me of feuds in inbred American communities, such as the Hatfields and McCoys, and told me something I find remarkable to this day. Catholics and protestants in Ireland can tell each other apart a mile away. Humans, it seems, take group identity so seriously that we fine-tune our capacity to discern differences to whatever extremes we must in order to identify those whom we will reject for the purposes of self-identification.

    It should hardly surprise us that political parties will seek to benefit from this natural process by reinforcing such exclusionary instincts with proffers of favoritism and financial reward. Nor should it surprise us that one party would seek to enhance its brand identification with a figurehead it presents as one of two equally plausible racial labels.

  5. @Timrford and others.

    I’m completely with you on this. Specifying “race’ on forms does merely promote the concept – however good the intentions of the form-composers might be.

    The genetic argument has been underplayed in Mike LaBossiere’s piece. The simple fact is that for Humankind there is no useful genetic distinction that equates with the biological concept of ‘race’. The lack of reproductive isolation (despite the efforts of so many racist regimes in geologically recent history!) ensures that racial distinctiveness has not evolved in Mankind. (So Mike, all – not “many” – Americans are indubitably ‘mixed’! Actually, as I’m arguing here, they’re not ‘mixed’ either since there are no ‘races’ to be mixed). It is often noted that the degree of genetic variability between humans across the globe is less than that between the true races of chimpanzees. Despite their relatively tiny total numbers, races of chimpanzees have been completely genetically isolated for at least tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years … unlike any part of humankind.

    (Yes, there are some significant correlations of certain disease traits and other physiological features with certain ‘racial’ groupings, but these are decidedly detected at the ‘statistical’ level rather than being defining attributes that would be consistent with a true biological race).

    This is not a sterile ‘technical’ point of molecular biology. The reality about ‘race’ that modern genetics has revealed should be providing the basis for a profound rethinking of how racism (an all too real socio-political phenomenon) is understood and tackled. Surely, it’s a vital starting point for general education to keep hammering the point that there is no basis for ascribing racial distinctions. This allows us to attack racism for the nonsense it is. But this aspiration is fundamentally undermined if we persist in cataloguing people’s ‘racial’ details. We must simply legislate against discrimination (again, on the grounds that there is no biological – or other logical – basis for it) and then see those provisions powerfully enacted until people’s behaviour comes into line with our state of knowledge and ethics.

    For me, just as Mike LaB expressed it, the cause is put back 150 years by the widespread acceptance of President Obama as being ‘black’. At last (I thought and hoped in 2008) the US now has someone in power who quintessentially cannot be represented as ‘black’ or ‘white’, but he was hailed as the first black president. Another opportunity missed.

    So an end to ‘African-American’, ‘Caucasian’ or here in the UK to ‘British-Asian’, etc. There is one box on the identity form – it reads ‘Human’!

  6. .
    The racist-‘One-Drop Rule’ was created AFTER the
    chattel-SLAVERY System ENDED in the United States.
    The legal -application of the racist-‘One-Drop Rule’
    (ODR) was banned in the U.S. way back in 1967.
    Also — people really need to realize that there is no such
    thing as a so-called “Light-Skinned Black” person … but
    rather … such individuals and groups are actually people
    who are of a ‘Multi-Generational Multiracially-Mixed’
    (MGM-Mixed) Lineage that some may have been
    pressured or encouraged to ignore or downplay.
    People of Mixed-Race lineage should NOT
    feel pressured to ‘identify’ according to
    any standards other than one’s own.
    Listed below are related Links of ‘the facts’ of the histories
    of various Mixed-Race populations found within the U.S.:
    There is no proof that a ‘color-based slave hierarchy’
    (or that ‘color-based social-networks’) ever existed
    as common entities — within the continental U.S.
    It was the ‘Rule of Matriliny (ROM) — [a.k.a. ‘The
    Rule of Partus’ (ROP)] — and NOT the racist-
    ‘One-Drop Rule’ (ODR) — that was used to ‘create
    more enslaved people’ on the continental U.S.
    This is because the chattel-slavery system that was
    once found on the antebellum-era, continental U.S.
    was NOT “color-based” (i.e. “racial”) — but rather
    — it was actually “mother-based” (i.e. ‘matrilineal’).
    There were many ways (and not solely the sexual assault
    and sexual exploitation of the women-of-color) in which
    ‘white’ lineage entered the familial bloodlines of
    enslaved-people found on the continental U.S.
    An ‘Ethnic’ category is NOT the
    same thing as a “Race” category:
    Other Topics:

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>