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The Illogic of American Racial Categories by Paul R. Spickard
Paul R. Spickard earned his PhD from the University of California Berkeley, and is currently Director of Research at the Institute for Polynesian Studies near Honolulu. He is the author of numerous books, including Mixed Marriage (1982) and Mixed Blood (1989).
In most people's minds ... race is a fundamental organizing principle of human affairs. Everyone has a race, and only one. The races are biologically and characterologically separate one from another, and they are at least potentially in conflict with one another. Race has something to do with blood (today we might say genes), and something to do with skin color, and something to do with the geographical origins of one's ancestors. According to this way of thinking, people with more than one racial ancestry have a problem, one that can be resolved only by choosing a single racial identity.

It is my contention in this essay, however, that race, while it has some relationship to biology, is not mainly a biological matter. Race is primarily a sociopolitical construct. The sorting of people into this race or that in the modern era has generally been done by powerful groups for the purposes of maintaining and extending their own power. Not only is race something different from what many people have believed it to be, but people of mixed race are not what many people have assumed them to be. . .

Most systems of categorization divided humankind up into at least red, yellow, black, and white: Native Americans, Asians, Africans, and Europeans. Whether Australian aborigines, Bushmen, and various brown-skinned peoples--Polynesians and Malays, for example--constituted separate races depended on who was doing the categorizing.

There has been considerable argument, in the nineteenth century and since, over the nature of these "races." The most common view has been to see races as distinct types. That is, there were supposed to have been at some time in the past four or five utterly distinct and pure races, with physical features, gene pools, and character qualities that diverged entireIy one from another. Over millennia there had been some mixing at the margins, but the observer could still distinguish a Caucasian type (light of skin, blue-eyed, possessing fine sandy , hair, a high-bridged nose, thin lips, and so on), a Negroid type (dark brown of skin, brown-eyed, with tightly curled black hair, a broad flat nose, thick lips, and so on), an Asian type, and so on. There was debate as to whether these varieties of human beings all proceeded from the same first humans or there was a separate genesis for each race. The latter view tended to regard the races as virtual separate species, as far apart as house cats and cougars; the former saw them as more like breeds of dogs--spaniels, collies, and so forth. The typological view of races developed by Europeans arranged the peoples of the world hierarchically, with Caucasians at the top, Asians next, then Native Americans, and Africans at the bottom--in terms of both physical abilities and moral qualities.

...The most important thing about races was the boundaries between them. If races were pure (or had once been), and if one were a member of the race at the top, then it was essential to maintain the boundaries that defined one's superiority, to keep people from the lower categories from slipping surreptitiously upward. Hence U.S. law took pains to define just who was in which racial category. Most of the boundary drawing came on the border between White and Black. The boundaries were drawn on the basis not of biology--genotype and phenotype--but of descent. For purposes of the laws of nine southern and border states in the early part of this century, a "Negro" was defined as someone with a single Negro great-grandparent; in three other southern states, a Negro great-great-grandparent would suffice. That is, a person with 15 White ancestors four generations back and a single Negro ancestor at the same remove was reckoned a Negro in the eyes of the law (Spickard, 1989, pp. 374-375; Stephenson, 1910, pp. 12-20).

But what was a "Negro"? It turned out that, for the purposes of the court, a Negro ancestor was simply any person who was socially regarded as a Negro. That person might have been the descendant of several Caucasians along with only a single African. Thus far less than one-sixteenth actual African ancestry was required in order for an individual to be regarded as an African American. In practice--both legal and customary--anyone with any known African ancestry was deemed an African American, while only those without any trace of known African ancestry were called Whites. This was known as the "one-drop rule": One drop of Black blood made one an African American. In fact, of course, it was not about blood--or biology--at all. People with no discernible African genotype or phenotype were regarded as Black on the basis of the fact that they had grandfathers or other remote relatives who were socially regarded as Black, and they had no choice in the matter.... The boundaries were drawn in this manner to maintain an absolute wall surrounding White dominance....

Race as a Social Category

Race, then, is primarily a social construct. It has been constructed in different ways in different times and places. In 1870, the U.S. Bureau of the Census divided up the American population into races: White, Colored (Blacks), Colored (Mulattoes), Chinese, and Indian (U.S. Department of Interior, 1872, pp. 606-609). In 1950, the census categories reflected a different social understanding: White, Black, and Other. By 1980, the census categories reflected the ethnic blossoming of the previous two decades: White, Black, Hispanic, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, American Indian, Asian Indian, Hawaiian, Guamanian, Samoan, Eskimo, Aleut, and Other. In England in 1981, the categories were quite different: White, West Indian, African, Arab, Turkish, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Other--because the sociopolitical landscape in England demanded different divisions (Banton, 1983, pp. 56-57). (The fact that some of these are also nationality labels should not obscure the fact that many in the United States and Great Britain treat them as domestic racial units.) In South Africa, there are four racial categories: White, African, Coloured, and Asian (Fredrickson, 1981). In Brazil, the gradations between Black and White are many: preto, cabra, escuro, mulato escuro, mulato claro, pardo, sarará moreno, and branco de terra (Dealer, 1971, p. 103). Each of these systems of racial classification reflects a different social, economic, and political reality. Such social situations change, and so do racial categories.

...From the point of view of the dominant group, racial distinctions are a necessary tool of dominance. They serve to separate the subordinate people as Other. Putting simple, neat racial labels on dominated peoples--and creating negative myths about the moral qualities of those peoples--makes it easier for the dominators to ignore the individual humanity of their victims. It eases the guilt of oppression. Calling various African peoples all one racial group, and associating that group with evil, sin, laziness, bestiality, sexuality, and irresponsibility, made it easier for White slave owners to rationalize holding their fellow humans in bondage, whipping them, selling them, separating their families, and working them to death (Fredrickson, 1971;W. D. Jordan, 1969). The function of the one-drop rule was to solidify the barrier between Black and White, to make sure that no one who might possibly be identified as Black also became identified as White. For a mixed person, then, acceptance of the one-drop rule means internalizing the oppression of the dominant group, buying into the system of racial domination.

Race is by no means only negative, however. From the point of view of subordinate peoples, race can be a positive tool, a source of belonging, mutual help, and self-esteem. Racial categories (and ethnic categories, for they function in the same way) identify a set of people with whom to share a sense of identity and common experience. To be a Chinese American is to share with other Chinese Americans at least the possibility of free communication and a degree of trust that may not be shared with non-Chinese. It is to share access to common institutions--Chinese churches, Chinatowns, and Chinese civic associations. It is to share a sense of common history--immigration, work on the railroads and in the mines of the West, discrimination, exclusion, and a decades-long fight for respectability and equal rights. It is to share a sense of peoplehood that helps locate individuals psychologically, and also provides the basis for common political action. Race, this socially constructed identity, can be a powerful tool, either for oppression or for group self-actualization.

...What is a person of mixed race? Biologically speaking, we are all mixed. That is, we all have genetic material from a variety of populations, and we all exhibit physical characteristics that testify to mixed ancestry. Biologically speaking, there never have been any pure races - all populations are mixed.

More to the point is the question of to which socially defined category people of mixed ancestry belong. The most illogical part of all this racial categorizing is not that we imagine it is about biology. After all, there is a biological component to race, or at least we identify biological referents--physical markers--as a kind of shorthand to stand for what are essentially socially defined groups. What is most illogical is that we imagine these racial categories to be exclusive. The U.S. Census form says, "Check one box." If a person checks "Other," his or her identity and connection with any particular group is immediately erased. Yet what is a multiracial person to do?

...The salient point here is that once, before the last third of the twentieth century, multiracial individuals did not generally have the opportunity to choose identities for themselves. In the 1970s and particularly the 1980s, however, individuals began to assert their right to choose their own identities--to claim belonging to more than one group, or to create new identities.... By 1990, Mary Waters could write, "One of the most basic choices we have is whether to apply an ethnic label to ourselves" (p. 52). She was speaking of a choice of ethnic identities from among several White options, such as Italian, Irish, and Polish. Yet the concept of choice began to apply to mixed people of color as well.

...That choice is still available to mixed people, but it is no longer necessary. Today a person of mixed ancestry can choose to embrace all the parts of his or her background.

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