A Credit to His Races

May 1, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune considers a young man named Tiger.

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: With his explosive swing, his dead-on accuracy, and his irrepressible smile, Tiger Woods doesn’t just play golf; he upsets the game. He upsets a lot of games; like the color game, an ancient American game, Tiger is a person of colors, all colors. His mother’s ancestry is Asian. His father’s ancestry is African, European, and Native American. But like other Americans of African descent, the elder Woods is called simply “black,” and so most often is his son.

That’s how race usually works in America. It’s called the “one drop” rule, a peculiarly American paradox. It holds that if you have one drop of black blood in your family, you’re black. You would have to go back to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws to find anything quite like the one drop rule, simplistic, racist, and pernicious. In America, the one-drop rule goes back to plantation days, and it’s been with us ever since. Homer Plessey, for example, looked white but he was 1/8 black. That’s all it took in 1896 for the Supreme Court to decide in Plessey V. Ferguson but he could not ride in a railroad car reserved for whites as long as they were separate but equal facilities for blacks.

The one-drop rule was invented by slave masters because they wanted to have more slaves. Today, ironically, the one-drop rule has been embraced by black folks because we want more black folks. After all, greater numbers translate into greater political and social clout. So it’s a big deal for racial and ethnic groups when the federal government decides which races are to be measured, which boxes are to be checked on the census form. The debate has never been more fierce than it is right now. It’s even reached Capitol Hill. The number of marriages between people of different races has quadrupled since the 1960’s. It keeps going up. It is not turning back.

Perhaps it was inevitable then that a new generation of mixed race Americans now want a new mixed race category to be added. They no longer want to be forced to deny part of their parentage. Tiger realizes it. He can’t help but realize it. He often calls himself “caublinasian,” a combination of Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian. When racial questionnaires don’t offer a multi-racial box, he checks either black or Asian. “Neither bothers me,” he says, “but it doesn’t capture all of me.”

If people cannot call themselves what they want to call themselves, they cannot call themselves truly free, which raises a host of new questions. If the mix label grows in popularity, how far back will we go? Most black Americans can claim some white or Indian blood somewhere in our background. And for that matter, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of white Americans have some black blood in them, whether they realize it or not, all of which underscores the paradox and absurdity of race, how it is not a biological construct, so much as it is a social, political, and emotional construct. For Americans who believe in the ancient melting pot metaphor that’s just fine. The sooner we get rid of racial labels, they like to say, the sooner we can get rid of race and racism. But before we all melt into one race, a nice elegant shade of beige perhaps, we’ve got some unfinished business. Before we can get past race in America, we’ve got to work our way through it.

Perhaps Tiger Woods is showing us the way, upsetting the tyranny of group identity to reassert himself as an individual and to add a new twist to the American notion of freedom. Proud, jolly, and confident, he shows old masters new tricks. He also shows us Americans how much we have been prisoners of our past, even as our future is overtaking us. He’s a credit to his races–every one of them.

I’m Clarence Page.