In my past, I had a business associate who was born in South Africa. His skin color was as white as mine. During one casual conversation, he informed me that he had become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and that he took delight in telling other citizens who were born in the United States that he was an African-American, just to see the look in their eyes.
Although my South African friend has straight hair, a narrow nose and whitish skin, the truth is that he is more justified in labeling himself “African-American” than any black person born in this country.
My ancestors came from Ireland, England, Germany and France. Yet, I do not self-identify as “European-American”. I identify simply as American.
Why then do certain people with various phenotypes (observable characteristics), who were born in the United States, choose to identify themselves as hyphenated Americans?
In this politically charged election year of 2016, there is a lot of discussion about race and racism. Hillary calls Trump a racist. Trump returns fire by claiming that Hillary and the Democratic Party have been promoting racist policies for the past fifty years. “Black Lives Matter” protests the racist treatment of the police against them based on publicized shootings of black men by the police.
All of this vitriol over race is disconcerting to me as I grew up in a southern town and went to a Catholic grade school for six years where white, black and Hispanic children learned and played together in harmony – in the 60’s and early 70’s! My personal and political orientation is that skin color is not a significant issue. Why then do we still wrangle and writhe over “racial” issues in this country in 2016?
Before I go any further, let me answer both of my questions with the same answer: Cultural differences. Hyphenated Americans are identifying their culture, not their race. We struggle over cultural issues, not racial issues. In the modern English vernacular, race is a social construct, with no genetic basis for distinguishing a white man from a black man, or an Asian man, or an Hispanic man. The 2012 Live Science article, “What is the Difference between Race and Ethnicity?”, very clearly explains,
“Race is associated with biology, whereas ethnicity is associated with culture.
In biology, races are genetically distinct populations within the same species; they typically have relatively minor morphological and genetic differences. Though all humans belong to the same species (Homo sapiens), and even to the same sub-species (Homo sapiens sapiens), there are small genetic variations across the globe that engender diverse physical appearances, such as variations in skin color.
Although humans are sometimes divided into races, the morphological variation between races is not indicative of major differences in DNA. For example, recent genetic studies show skin color may drastically change in as few as 100 generations, spanning 2,500 years, as a result of environmental influences. Furthermore, the DNA of two humans chosen at random generally varies by less than 0.1 percent. This is less genetic variation than other types of hominids (such as chimpanzees and orangutans), leading some scientists to describe all humans as belong to the same race — the human race.”
If we all belong to one human race, anyone who would hurl “racist” to insult another person who prejudicially discriminates against another because of skin color or other attribute, would be more precise to use the term “ethnicist”, or “phenotypist”.
This “one human race” point of view is new within our lifetime. By the 1970s, …a consensus … developed among anthropologists and geneticists that race as the previous generation had known it – as largely discrete, geographically distinct, gene pools – did not exist. The eye-opening implication here is that structure of my personal genetic makeup is almost as likely to be more similar to the genetic makeup of a man chosen randomly from India or Brazil than to my white neighbor in Dallas.
Therefore, genetics make it clear that any discussion about race and racism, apart from the human race, is based on ideology. Our ideas about race and racism have always been influenced by our beliefs and culture.
For example, in today’s culture our current president, Barack Obama, is recognized as our first “black” president, even though his mother is a white American and his father is a black Kenyan. Based on his parentage, we could also refer to him as the first “mulatto” president. This is the term used in the 1850 U.S. census when slave owners listed their slaves by age, gender and color – “B” for black and “M” for mulatto.
It’s interesting to look deeper into the history of the U.S. census. The 1900 census removed the term “mulatto”, and inquired about the “fraction of a person’s lineage that is white.”
The 1910 census used the term “mulatto” again, but the 1930 census removed it. This census no longer tried to record the fraction of white blood. Instead, anyone with at least “one drop” of black blood was listed as “Negro”. Also, this was the only census that listed “Mexican” as a race. Prior to 1930, census takers recorded Mexican Americans as white because of their European backgrounds, mainly Spanish and French.
In 1935 a federal judge ruled that three Mexican immigrants were ineligible for citizenship because they were not white, as required by federal law at that time. President Roosevelt wanted better relations with Mexico, and directed the State Department, the Census Bureau and the Labor Department to treat Mexicans uniformly as white. This is how the 1940 census recorded people from Mexico.
The Census Bureau has also flip-flopped on the use of the term “color” in questions about race. They added the term in 1920, but removed it in 1950, only to add it again in 1960, and finally remove it in 1980. In this same year, the Census Bureau added a catch-all category, “some other race”. In the 2010 census, this was the third largest category at 6.2% of respondents. Most of these people were Hispanic.
In 1997, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued new standards for the classification of federal data on race and ethnicity in order to assist multiple agencies charged with enforcing civil rights laws. These new standards were used in the 2000 U.S. census, which was also the first time people could indicate that they identified with more than one race. Nearly seven million Americans did so. Nevertheless, the federal government pursues the goal of race classification with unflagging vigilance.
In 2002, the Federal Reserve Board amended its regulations for collecting race information to conform to the OMB guidelines. In 2004, the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act informed lenders that a race designation is required. If an applicant self-identifies as Hispanic or Latino, or the applicant fails to self-identify a race, then the lender must complete the application based on visual inspection and the applicant’s surname.
By 2007, the Department of Education issued their revised standards for collected race data based on the 1997 OMB guidelines. Now not only does the federal government inquire about the racial makeup of the student body and faculty, so do accrediting associations, college guides and other data collecting entities.
From this brief history of “race” categorizing in America, I hope that you, my Reader, are starting to appreciate that the entire exercise is arbitrary and confusing. Worse than this is that significant government and private resources are dedicated to counting, and then enforcing laws intended to correct historic inequities. I want to ask this one question:
“When will this madness stop?”
The answer is when we accept and recognize that there is only one human race; that our attempt to categorize by race is futile because cultures are mixing all the time at an increasing rate due to mobility and technology. These same factors are forcing a rapid normalization of cultures around the globe. By the year 2100, nearly half of the 7,000 human languages will likely disappear. Whole communities abandon their native tongue and adopt English, Spanish or Mandarin. Look at the clothes that people wear around the globe. Hear the music that teenagers have on their I-phones. Year by year the differences among cultures are diminishing.
I don’t know when the race-counting madness will stop, but I know how to stop it. Simply repeal all laws which mandate racial and ethnic identification. Remove all attempts to categorize people by race on the U.S. census form and all other forms which collect data from citizens. If we could imagine such a change in U.S. census methods happening by 2020, it would mean that we would be only 62 years behind the French. The French 1958 constitution made it illegal to collect data on race and ethnicity.
The argument against taking this apparently radical step is that antidiscrimination laws would have no teeth. I would respond by asking how effective are such laws anyway? There are two natural, countermanding forces which undermine antidiscrimination laws anyway. The first is that members of a culture tend to group together anyway. Evidence for this includes black churches, black colleges, Hispanic or Indian food markets in certain neighborhoods and not others. In fact, these manifestations of cultural cohesion create diversity which is justifiably celebrated.
The second is demographics. Birthrates in western Europe are so low that immigrant labor will be required in order to overcome labor shortages and maintain the existing social benefits for an increasingly aging population. Japan and China are also demographic time-bombs whose populations will drop dramatically by 2100 because these countries generally do not accept immigrants. On the other hand, non-white populations are rising. Birthrates across African countries are 3 to 5 times the birthrates in Europe. Since 2013, more non-white babies have been born in the U.S. than white babies. Sometime between 2044 and 2055, non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the majority group in the U.S.
If the federal laws against “racial” discrimination are based on the history of white oppression of blacks and other minorities, then these laws will become obsolete in one generation when there is no majority ethnic group in this country. Of course, minorities can discriminate against other minorities, but how do you have affirmative action programs to promote one minority over another? Rather than remove these laws, however, I predict that we will flounder legally and socially as entrenched ethnic political groups try to preserve the status quo in order to justify their existence.
In addition to modifying the U.S. Census to eliminate race-counting, what else can the federal government do to promote ethnic harmony in this country? I think the answer is a nationwide education program based on the concept of “One human race; One American culture.” There is one human race, and one American culture, which includes many ethnicities. Regardless of your ethnic background, every American citizen has the opportunity to build and contribute to the American culture. If we start with every child in Kindergarten and reinforce the message through high school, then the next generation will be better prepared to handle the legal and social challenges of the new demographic realities.