Lucky for Barack Obama that he was not born in Arkansas.
Had he been, his mother, Ann Dunham, could have been whisked away, tried and sentenced to up to a year at hard labor in the state penitentiary. In 1961, when the president-elect was born, “concubinage,”defined as “the living together or cohabitation of persons of the Caucasian and of the negro (sic) race,” was still a felony here.
The 1911 law prohibiting concubinage stipulated that, “Any woman who shall have delivered of a mulatto child, the same shall be prima facie evidence of guilt, without further proof, and shall justify a conviction of the woman.” In other words, the baby Barack himself would have been all the evidence needed to convict his mother of her crime.
Terms like “mulatto” arose by necessity from laws allowing “Negroes” to be slaves. Since slaves were property, laws were needed to define who was and was not “of the negro (sic) race.” Such designations remained essential even after the Civil War, in states where Jim Crow laws established the legal structure for the segregation and disenfranchisement of former slaves. In an effort to enact a formula for determining who would be deemed second-class citizens, Arkansas and many other states adopted what was known as the “one drop rule.”
The rule was a simple calculation that suggested a basis in science. As Langston Hughes would later complain, it was a formula that allowed discrimination against “anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins.”
Both the science and politics of the time shared an interest in the idea that race was an inherent quality that was passed on and could be measured by blood. A corresponding, though largely unspoken idea was that some people were racially pure, though their offspring could be contaminated if their blood became “mixed” with blood from another group.
Thus, laws banning concubinage and miscegenation–marriage between people of different “races”–were primarily intended to prevent the introduction of blood from inferior groups into the presumably pure blood of the presumably superior “white race.” (I am inclined to put the word “race” in quotation marks throughout this article, because the traditional understanding of the word, as a biologically identifiable group, has been disproved. Instead, I ask the reader to recognize it as a word that represents an archaic belief, similar to words like “dragons” and “spontaneous combustion.”)
The idea that any people, of any color, might be racially pure, down to their very blood, was so socially powerful that it escaped serious scrutiny, despite the obvious and prolific mixing of peoples from different parts of the world that has occurred throughout history, including in North America. In Arkansas, as in most of the south, maintenance of the social order depended on the “one drop rule.”
And for more than a century, there was no getting around it. In 1896, Homer Plessy, a Louisiana man who said he was of one-eighth Negro ancestry, an “octoroon” in the parlance of the time, complained to the United States Supreme Court because, even though he could “pass” for white, he was prevented from sitting in a railroad car reserved for people of that race. The high court, citing the “one drop rule,” declared that he was clearly “colored,” and that the train’s facilities were legal because they were “separate but equal.”
The ‘one drop rule’
The words “mulatto,” “colored,” and even “Negro,” all of which, in earlier ages, would have been applied to Obama, strike a painful note today. They are remnants of a time when perceptions of race were sharp–and when setting down legal definitions of race seemed easy. In 1911, when the Arkansas Legislature passed its concubinage law, it needed only a sentence or two to articulate who was who, racially speaking.
Echoing what was known across the nation as the “one drop rule,” Arkansas code declared that a “person of the negro (sic) race” was “any person who has in his veins any negro blood whatever.” Since the terms “negro race” and African race” were often used interchangeably, the legislators helpfully added that “persons of the African race ” were those “in whom there is a visible and distinct admixture of African blood.”
“All others,” the law declared, “shall be deemed to belong to the white race.”
The equation neatly and emphatically eliminated arguments of portion, and it did so effectively that, though the race laws have been rescinded, the mandate remains in force culturally today. Whatever ancestry Obama might claim, America has never had a moment’s doubt about what he is: the president-elect is and always has been “black.”
But, because of our drive to classify everyone by race, there was a time when the subject was not so easy for Obama. As a teenager in Hawaii, he noticed what he later called the “split second adjustments” people made when they learned that he was the son of a racially “mixed” marriage.
“Privately,” he wrote, “they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose–the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds.”
Tiger Woods is another well known figure who anguished over who he was. He knew that his father was half-black, one-quarter American Indian, and one-quarter white, and that his mother, who was from Thailand, was half-Thai and half-Chinese. That left him wrestling with questions about what, exactly, that made him.
“Growing up, I came up with this name,” he told Ophra Winfrey. “ I'm a 'Cablinasian,’ as in Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian.” But that painful contortion did not last. Now, the eternally poised Woods refuses to be classified at all. “I'm just who I am,” he says, “whoever you see in front of you.”
‘The government says you’re black’
Or consider two young people closer to home. Harry McCravey was a junior at Central High three years ago, when I interviewed him about what it’s like to be “bi-racial” in high school. McCravey told me his mother is white and his father is black.
“People always think I’m Mexican or black,” he said. “They never think I’m mixed.” When McCravey told other kids about his parents, he said “a lot of them” told him: “‘If your dad’s black, you’re black,” or, ‘The government says you’re black.’” Even now, a half-century after its repeal, they were parroting the old “one drop rule.”
McCravey continued: “I always knew I wasn’t black or white. In fact, the idea that anybody is really white or black is kind of ...” he paused, searching for the right word, then he found one that satisfied him: “crazy.”
In Arkansas, there are hundreds–thousands–of young people like McCravey, who recognize their “mixed” heritage. For them, especially, official questionnaires and standardized tests present a problem, one with which adults often can’t help.
“There are these little circles, and you have to fill in what you are,” McCravey said. “I thought, ‘Should I just put black, because that’s what everyone thinks I am?’ But then I thought, ‘That’s not appreciating my mom.’ I didn’t want to disrespect my mom. Back then, I don’t even think they had the category ‘other.’”
Rachel Bailey was about to be a senior at Mount St. Mary’s High School in 2005 when I interviewed her. Like McCravey, she said her mother was white and her father black. When she had to fill out forms that asked her race, Bailey said she usually marked “other.”
“But I remember, one time when I was in the fifth grade, I was taking some kind of standardized test, and there was nothing like ‘multi-racial’ or ‘other.’ I didn’t know what to pick, so I asked my teacher, but she had no idea. I left it blank because I don’t ever want to disregard either of my parents.”
By the time she got to high school, the constant demand for racial identification left her feeling indignant. “I shouldn’t have to put myself in a box just to fulfill some kind of requirement,” she said. “When I get one of those forms, I would prefer to say ‘human being,’ but that’s never an option. The truth is, we are all ‘others.’ We are all mixed with something.” Then she added with a laugh, “It’s just that some of us ‘others’ are more obvious than others.”
Bailey is now a junior at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she is majoring in human resources. “I’m studying a lot about diversity in the work force,” she says. “Our community is getting more diverse. I hope that race isn’t an issue.”
But it is. I know a woman who was told in childhood that she was a “Caucasian” and who has carried the term like a badge ever since, never questioning what it means. I know a “black” man who says that his race was pure, “until the white man raped our women.” It’s hard to change long held perceptions–whether of ourselves or others.
‘A visible admixture’
These perceptions are ingrained for good reason. The lawmakers of the early 20th Century were so preoccupied with who was “black” and who was “white” among us that they made no provision for recognizing those people who are today called “Native Americans,” “Asians,” or persons of “Hispanic descent.”
People from those groups have been present in Arkansas since its inception, but they were not the point. The “visible admixture” formula allowed Arkansas to be divided, for all practical purposes, into the only two groups that mattered, those being “white” and “colored.” Europe and America were infatuated with race.
Just a few years after Arkansas enacted its blood-based race laws, the fledgling Nazi Party in Germany applied an equally simplistic standard, with a still more insidious aim. “Only those who are our fellow countrymen can become citizens,” the party decreed. “Only those who have German blood, regardless of creed, can be our countrymen. Hence no Jew can be a countryman.”
It took World War II to bury that particular notion of race. Nonetheless, America emerged from the war still convinced that the people of the world were divided into a discreet set of races whose characteristics were carried in their blood.
The taboo against mixing of blood from different “races” remained so strong among white Americans that, near the end of World War II, when the U.S. Army and Navy asked the American Red Cross to organize a massive blood drive for soldiers, the military stipulated that all the blood collected had to be typed according to the race of the donor, and that blood from African-American donors was to be refused.
Even at the time, the director of the Red Cross denounced the policy as unscientific, arguing that there was no evidence to support the claim that blood differed according to race. His statements were confirmed by other scientists, and the government eventually allowed African-American volunteers to donate blood. But for years, that blood was still segregated, for use only with African-American patients.
Race laws rescinded, but ...
In the United States, it took the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the subsequent civil rights movement to overturn most race laws, including those in Arkansas banning concubinage and miscegenation. But the popular concept of race that undergirded those laws, having had centuries to work its way into our psyches and institutions, remained strong.
If the old definitions remained encoded in law, we might find them, not just unsupportable, but offensive. “Any negro blood whatever?” What does that mean? Or, “a visible and distinct admixture of African blood?” Who’s to determine that?
Nonetheless, there are probably few among us who do not automatically register most people we see as being either “black” or “white.”
In some respects, that’s natural. We notice people who are different from ourselves. And we are used to using color as a primary way of describing people, especially those whom we see as different from us. But as the number of Americans who recognize themselves and others as “mixed” grows–as the many ancestries that make up America become ever more blended–the descriptive terms we use will necessarily change.
We will not say “black,” “white” or “Asian” with any sense of authority. We may use terms like “dark-” or “light-skinned” more often, in the relative way we use terms like “short” or “tall.” Whatever terms we use, however, we will realize that they don’t signify race any more than do descriptive terms like “blue-eyed” or “brown-haired.”
For now, though, the culture of racial identification still surrounds us like the air we breathe. Because of that, we are in a position not too different from that of people centuries ago who clung to the seemingly obvious belief that the world was flat, even though science had shown it was round. Disabled beliefs can be hard to shake, but shaking them is necessary, if we’re to move.
A few years ago, when I asked John Walker, the attorney who has won many lawsuits on behalf of “black” clients, how he defined “black,” he bridled at the question. “It’s the old ‘one drop rule’,” he said. “Anyone with one drop of black blood is black.”
Intellectually, we may acknowledge, as science has assured us, that the human species began in Africa and that, as a result, every one of us carries some “admixture of African blood.” Yet, in our everyday affairs, and in institutions such as our census, police, and schools, the polls we conduct, the juries we select, and in our media, we perpetuate language about race that has all but been stripped of meaning.
We are asked to fill out forms and questionnaires about race that reinforce the same decrepit classifications that came into existence 200 years ago, or more, and that most of us learned as children. And we do.
Even our attempts at accommodating what science has told us about race have been awkward and mostly useless. As the biological basis of race has eroded, census takers and others have added “ethnicity” to their forms as a new type of identification.
Now, when we’re asked the old questions about race, we’re also given the option of answering new ones about ethnicity. Some forms even allow respondents to choose multiple races and ethnicities–because, it seems, we can’t imagine a country, a state, or a school district of uncategorized people.
The meaning of ‘mixed’
In the process, we have abandoned the old words that were handy for labeling people whose blood had become “mixed.” Words like “mulatto,” “quadroon” and “octoroon,” have slipped from common usage. Instead, we now opt for terms like “bi-racial,” “multi-racial” or simply “other” to describe people whose genetic heritage is not ... Is not what? Pure?
Having lived with a distaste for all racially descriptive words, I was heartened beyond measure by the grace with which our president-elect acknowledged his own racial status in his first press conference after the election. Someone asked what kind of dog the Obamas were planning to have in the White House.
Obama said that, while they wanted a dog from a shelter, 10-year-old Malia had allergies and would need a type of dog that would not aggravate them. “Obviously,” he added casually, “a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me. So whether we're going to be able to balance those two things, I think, is a pressing issue on the Obama household.”
One wonders: if the president of the United States can describe himself offhandedly as a mutt, who among us should insist on some more exclusive term retained from our racist past, especially when more inclusive days appear so possible, so clearly within reach?
From the founding of this country until fairly recently, census-takers noted their own observation of the race of a person to be counted, and that served as the official record. Racial categories were considered so fixed–so unchangeable, quantifiable, and observable–that hardly anyone gave the process a thought.
Race was what the writer Jack Hitt has called “an unarticulated negotiation between what you call yourself and what other people are willing to call you back.” In most cases, that negotiation took place, as the young Obama learned, in a glance. It was quick, cut and dried.
It was not until the 1960 Census that residents of the United States were allowed for the first time to identify themselves. As soon as that happened, it became clear that Americans have many more ideas about who they are than the earlier census-takers had ever imagined.
When, at the end of the 20th Century, scientists discovered conclusively that the differences in DNA between the so-called races were tiny compared to the range of genetic diversity found within those racial groups, race’s time was essentially up. By now, this country’s system of classifying races has wobbled to the point of collapse.
The 2000 Census offered a smorgasbord of color and culture options, which altogether made little sense. And, because respondents were given the choice of picking one or more racial or ethnic categories, data from the 2000 Census are not directly comparable with those from earlier ones, where respondents were not given that option.
The folly of our current situation is nowhere clearer than in the racial status of Native Americans, including some Arkansans.
It was Europeans who decided that all Indians, whatever their tribes, were members of the same race. A hundred years ago, Indian populations had dwindled so disastrously that Native Americans were deemed a “vanishing race.” The survey in 1935 counted only a few hundred thousand.
But, beginning in 1960, when people could identify themselves on the census, a remarkable thing happened. The population of Native Americans grew by 50 percent in 1970, by 70 percent in 1980, by another 70 percent in 1990, and then it almost doubled in 2000, to more than 4 million.
That would seem to be an official record. However, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) recognizes only 1.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives–fewer than half the number counted on the census.
That is because the BIA uses a different system for classifying Native Americans than does its sister agency, the U.S. Census Bureau. Part of the BIA’s system, which traces back to the administration of President Grant, relies on the old interlaced concepts of race and blood.
The BIA goes so far as to issue cards to Native Americans it considers legit–cards that officially designate their “Certified Degree of Indian Blood.” It was because of the agency’s use of C.D.I.B. cards that the terms “full-blooded Indian” and “half-breed” entered our racial vocabulary. In Grant’s day, they were considered scientific.
Today, such language is beyond passe and the notion of a “degree of Indian blood” is fast becoming that too. As the Native American scholar, C. Matthew Snipp, has written: the relationship between Native Americans and the agency that issues the C.D.I.B. cards is “not too different than the relationship that exists for championship collies and the American Kennel Club.”
Race is scientifically defunct, but that does not erase the personal and societal suffering that centuries of belief in it have caused. The United States has struggled in recent decades to counter racism’s wrongs by manipulating school populations according to race, structuring voting districts according to race, tracking test scores according to race, and adopting programs such as affirmative action that are based on race.
The problem imbedded in these approaches is the one that President-elect Obama nailed last month: the matter of identification. There are too many mutts among us. In fact, it’s hard to argue that any of us is not genetically a mutt.
So, if one’s race can be whatever we say it is, as the census bureau allows, formulas for desegregation and affirmative action can be undercut by people choosing whatever identity suits a particular situation. And if race is not by self-identification, what is the alternative? A genetic card for every citizen, similar to the C.D.I.B. card, that lists the geographic origins of our multiple ancestors?
One writer has posited what might be called a “75 percent rule.” His idea is that most people can trace at least 75 percent of their ancestry to a particular region. Those people, he suggests, belong to one race. He’d list anyone whose ancestry is more diverse than that as multi-racial.
But does anyone want a government-issued genetics card? And what makes the “75 percent rule” any better than the “one drop rule”? Aren’t both arbitrary attempts to create identifiable groups, to the exclusion of all the “others”–all the “mutts”?
And to what purpose?
America’s traumatic preoccupation with race has been matched by a corresponding denial of class. We like to imagine ourselves a classless society, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Perhaps, when our old language of race ceases to function altogether, we will shift our attention from color or culture to economic class, and base affirmative action and other remedial programs on need, not identity.
For now, though, we stand two eras. We know that race is bad science but we cling to its bad terms. We will soon have a president willing to describe himself as a mutt, but most of his countrymen still embrace terms like “black” and “white,” as though they designated something pure or were in some way or other useful.
It will probably be a while before we recognize as a nation that the day for those words, like the day for “mulatto” and “half-breed,” is past. The time will come when we look back upon all such words–and our ways of assigning them–as silly. For example:
–Arkansas statisticians determine the race of babies born in the state solely on the basis of what the mother claims as her race. From a records point of view, the racial contribution of men is inconsequential.
–The FBI uses race as one of five main “identifiers” in its National Crime Information Center database, on a par with the other main identifiers: name, birth date, Social Security number and sex. The agency and other police forces continue the practice, even though notions of race, as we’ve seen, are becoming increasingly unstable.
–Medical doctors and researchers routinely ask for patients and trial participants to identify themselves by race, though that information is mostly meaningless. As Dr. Francis Collins, who led America’s contribution to the Human Genome Project, has noted:
“The downside of using race, whether in research or in the practice of medicine, is that we are reifying it as if it has more biological significance than it deserves. Race is an imperfect surrogate for the causative information we seek.
“To the extent that we continue to use it, we are suggesting to the rest of the world that it is very reliable and that racial categories have more biological meaning than they do. We may even appear to suggest something that I know is not true: that there are bright lines between populations and that races are biologically distinct.”
Even attitude surveys about race make the term “race” seem concrete. When the Institute of Government at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock asks Pulaski County residents about their views on race, its questions presume that respondents share a common understanding of what “race” means, and of who’s who, racially, among their acquaintances. By asking, “Do you socialize regularly with members of another race?,” the survey reinforces ideas about the definiteness of racial categories that other sciences now disparage.
Teaching junk science
Nowhere, however, is the emphasis on race more pronounced–or more problematic–than in schools. As the language that once grouped Americans into a handful of races fails, it becomes hard to justify putting any child in the position described by Rachel Bailey and Harry McCravey, or by Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. Why, as Bailey put it, should anyone have to pick a category?
More importantly, the continued use of those categories teaches kids (and their families) that our school systems, at least, still believe in junk science. Sooner or later, the conflict between science class, where race is debunked, and standardized forms, where it is enshrined, will come to a head.
Eventually, schools will have to acknowledge what Dr. Collins said, that by continuing to require racial identifications of students, we are affirming “something that [we] know is not true: that there are bright lines between populations and that races are biologically distinct.”
The way out of this–past notions of racial purity and beyond words like “multi-racial” and “other”–need not be difficult. It will require us to recognize the faulted language we’ve inherited and consciously opt to ditch it.
From there, we can all feel free to celebrate and identify ourselves by whatever cultural terms we prefer. That could be Lithuanian-American, African-American, Turkish, Cherokee, Taiwanese, Mayan, Jewish, Amish, Razorback, Ivy-League, Junior League, Mason, Knight of Columbus, soldier, tailor, tinker, spy–as many as we want, or no cultural identity at all.
We could choose our cultural identities based on a language we grew up with, spiritual practices that hold meaning for us, foods that our families have savored for generations, or music, stories or the social live that fit our occupations.
This acknowledgment of roots or affiliation would have some real meaning. Unlike the racial categories we use today, it would be authentic. No one would have to choose among categories that don’t quite fit, or be labeled “bi-this” or “multi-that.”
The diversity that is America–that is Arkansas–would be honored. And no one would have to be “other.”
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