TOPICS > Arts

Election Renews Focus on Definition of Race

February 26, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, essayist Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune on how to define race.

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: The Hispanic vote matters this year, the pundits and politicians say. It’s about time; it’s their turn.

We Americans usually describe ourselves in terms of black and white. As news media shorthand, that works. But it doesn’t really describe who we are.

It leaves out those among us who do not quite fit comfortably into either extreme.

Teenagers, always obsessed with fitting in, offer clues in their after-school chatter. I’ve heard today’s teens divide their peers into two distinct melting pots: those who “act black” or “act white,” even if they happen to be Hispanic or Asian-American.

Race is very real for our kids, but the conversation has changed. They have multiple melting pots. It’s not how you are born that counts in their world, but which group you choose.

We grown-ups act like that, too, even when we’re not behaving like children.

One day we ask whether Barack Obama is black enough to attract black votes. The next day, we ask whether he’s too black to attract white voters. It was not until the campaign caravan reached states like Nevada, Florida and California that we asked, which candidates are Hispanic enough?

Which raises with a new urgency some age-old questions: What is “black”? What is “white”? Is it race that counts or something else?

Hispanic is a label that defies our traditional ethnic shorthand. In the 2000 census, about half of those who called themselves Hispanic checked “other” when asked for their race. Some of those who marked “other” for race wrote in, “I am Hispanic.” Their idea of race is not like mine or the Census Bureau’s.

Labels are supposed to help us organize the world. The trouble is most labels are too precise to fit something as imprecise as race.

Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates explored the DNA roots of black celebrities for a PBS special. None of them, it turned out, was pure anything.

We all go back to Adam and Eve in Africa, of course. But along the way, the blood of slaves is forever married in African-Americans to the blood of slave-masters. Most of us black Americans have some European ancestry, and white Americans have more African cousins than they realize.

Ms. Braiard, for example, grew up thinking she was white. Her late father had passed as white to become a famous New York Times arts critic. Still, she told Professor Gates that she doesn’t think she deserves to call herself black since she never grew up with the experience.

If experience matters, it would help to explain why most African-Americans in a Pew Research Center poll see themselves as more than one race. Since the 1960s, a new black middle class has formed a world apart, closer to the white middle class than to the world of the black poor.

The world of the poor rubs more frequently with that of new immigrants, just getting their start on the American dream. Sometimes their worlds clash, generating headlines of tensions or violence in the way that earlier generations of immigrants did.

But most of us don’t like to live in the past. This is America. Where you came from isn’t supposed to matter; it’s where you want to go.

I’m Clarence Page.