Favorite

Race doesn't fit in a checkbox 

Lamentably, the Boston Marathon bombing re-opened some of the most poisonous arguments in American life. Specifically, are the Tsarnaev brothers "white"? It's a meaningless question.

Some hotheads couldn't wait to declare all Muslims suspect. Certain thinkers on the left (David Sirota, Salon) argued against collective guilt while oddly lamenting that "white male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated" for the crimes of Caucasian psycho killers.

Should they be?

Anyway, I'd previously treated the theme of ethnicity as destiny in a column about which racial ID boxes President Obama should have checked on his 2010 census form.

Everybody knows Obama's mother was a white woman from Kansas, his father an exchange student from Kenya. But there's no box labeled "African-American." So the president checked "black." He could also have checked "white," but chose not to.

This decision disappointed a unique student group at the University of Maryland, although most understood it. Recently profiled in the New York Times, the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association could with equal accuracy be called "Students Whose Mothers Were Asked Insulting Questions by Busybodies at the Supermarket."

Questions like the one my sainted mother put to my wife's mother at our wedding: "What nationality are you people, anyway?"

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Maryland group strikes me as entirely benign. Asked which boxes she checks, vice-president Michelle Lopez-Mullins, age 20, says "It depends on the day, and it depends on the options."

Lopez-Mullins, the Times reports, is a one-woman U.N., "Chinese and Peruvian on one side, and white and American Indian on the other." As a child, she says even friends asked hurtful questions, such as "What are you?" and "Where are you from?"

To lessen the sting, she and her friends play a "who's what?" guessing game among themselves. "Now when people ask what I am, I say, 'How much time do you have?'" Lopez-Mullins said. "Race will not automatically tell you my story."

My view is that race alone never tells you anybody's story. But then I once got summoned into the registrar's office for identifying my race as "1500 meter freestyle" on an official form.

They explained that Civil Rights laws made an accurate response necessary. In other contexts I might have joked, "I only look white. Actually, I'm Irish." Reading 18th and 19th century accounts taught me that every racist slur against black slaves in America, was also made by the English about Irish Catholic peasants.

The native Irish, their overseers thought, were physically powerful, gifted at singing and dancing, but also dumb, lazy, insolent, sexually promiscuous and smelly. These shortcomings, as Swift made clear in his immortal satire "A Modest Proposal," recommending fattening Irish children like piglets for slaughter, made their virtual enslavement inevitable.

But that was long ago and far away.

Anyway, back to President Obama, who's written books about his mixed inheritance. It appears to me that along with his great intelligence, Obama's mixed background helped make him an intellectual counterpuncher — watchful, laconic, and leery of zealotry, a born mediator.

Like a man behind a mask, Obama watches people watch him.

Checking the "black" box on the census form, however, was the politically canny choice. Americans aren't far from the days when absurd categories like "mulatto," "quadroon," and "octoroon" could determine people's fate. Sadly, had he checked the "white" box too, many voters would have resented it.

My own choices were simpler. Raised to think of myself as Irish before American — all eight of my great-grandparents emigrated during the late 19th century, hunkering down in ethnic enclaves within walking distance of salt water — I was taught that there was a proper "Irish" opinion on every imaginable topic.

To dissent was to be labeled inauthentic, a traitor to one's heritage. Over time, however, I decided that if there's one single, overriding "Irish" trait, it's yelling at the dinner table. My kinfolk disagreed passionately about damn near everything. Meanwhile, back in the Old Country, people kept killing each other over 17th century religious issues.

I once asked a (Catholic) friend in Belfast how the antagonists told each other apart, as they all resembled my cousins. It's the shoes, she said, and the accents. The shoes! Sorry granddad, it's a foreign country. (People in the Irish Republic often find their American cousins' pugnacity alarming.)

But here's the thing: People don't know these things unless I tell them. With regard to President Obama, black's an ethnicity people make it harder to resign from. Even so, all demands for racial and ethnic groupthink are inherently crippling. All racial arguments are reactionary — signs not of strength, but weakness.

It's not merely possible to honor one's heritage without denigrating anybody else's; to me, it's the essence of Americanism. Those Maryland kids with their Heinz-57 genes aren't in any way victims.

Their thinking is way ahead of most of us.

Favorite

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

More by Gene Lyons

  • Swing and miss

    It follows that baseball is both too important and too trivial to lie about. Even if your name is Hillary Clinton.
    • Aug 24, 2016
  • Russia and Trump

    Are we watching an American presidential campaign or the pilot episode of a bizarre new TV series? Or both?
    • Aug 17, 2016
  • World in chaos?

    Supposedly 2016 is the Year of the Angry Voter. To hear the pundits tell it, Americans are just furious.
    • Aug 11, 2016
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • The cult of gun-toting

    That Idaho mother shot to death by her 2 year-old son in a Walmart store? Judging by Veronica Jean Rutledge's biography, you can be just about certain that she'd driven to the store wearing a seat belt, with her little boy buckled carefully into his car seat.
    • Jan 8, 2015
  • In God's name

    Because I'm not running for anything, I can give it to you straight: Christianity pretty much got out of the genocide business when church and state became separated in the United States and Europe following the American Revolution.
    • Feb 12, 2015
  • Live from darkest Arkansas

    Housebound in an ice storm, the columnist finds himself distracted by online trivia and tempted to yell at the TV.
    • Feb 19, 2015

Most Shared

Latest in Gene Lyons

  • Swing and miss

    It follows that baseball is both too important and too trivial to lie about. Even if your name is Hillary Clinton.
    • Aug 24, 2016
  • Russia and Trump

    Are we watching an American presidential campaign or the pilot episode of a bizarre new TV series? Or both?
    • Aug 17, 2016
  • World in chaos?

    Supposedly 2016 is the Year of the Angry Voter. To hear the pundits tell it, Americans are just furious.
    • Aug 11, 2016
  • More »

Event Calendar

« »

August

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31  

Most Viewed

  • Swing and miss

    It follows that baseball is both too important and too trivial to lie about. Even if your name is Hillary Clinton.
  • Dollars and degrees

    Governor Hutchinson says a high graduation rate (ours is about the lowest) and a larger quotient of college graduates in the population are critical to economic development. Every few months there is another, but old, key to unlocking growth.
  • Pay to play. Really?

    The announcement that Bill Clinton will distance himself and foreign and corporate contributors from the Clinton Foundation if Hillary Clinton is elected president has, if anything, increased attention to the intersection of money and politics at the Foundation, along with the ongoing email controversy.
  • The real targets in Trump's outreach to African Americans

    Political analysts have spent recent days asking whether Donald Trump's outreach for African-American support last week at consecutive night rallies in Michigan and Virginia will produce electoral benefit with voters who, according to a raft of surveys, are rejecting him at rates matched only by the poor showing of Barry Goldwater in 1964 after Goldwater's high-profile opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Swing and miss

    • Yo, Aloysius, what up bro? Long time. I think the "titty bar" mention was funny,…

    • on August 26, 2016
  • Re: Swing and miss

    • I find it fascinating and absolutely symptomatic that confronted with a simple, non-controversial fact, "investigator"…

    • on August 26, 2016
  • Re: Swing and miss

    • Well, that was fun. Ashland & Foster - Andersonville, right? Ever eat at Reza's on…

    • on August 25, 2016
 

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation