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"At the Races: the Multicultural Proposal,"

by Ibrahim K. Sundiata March/April 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

For more than two years, the federal government has been considering revising race in America. Among the most controversial proposals is one calling for creation of a mixed-race "multiracial" category. The debate on this subject promises to establish the context for race relations for the next century and beyond.

The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees establishment of official race categories, has several options. It could urge abolition of all racial data gathering. Conversely, it could multiply the number of new ethnolinguistic categories. Neither approach would solve any long-range problems. Abolition of race is not feasible. The collection of racial data is essential for anti-discrimination measures--for instance, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At the same time, creation of ever greater numbers of categories meets political demands, but also creates confusion as categories overlap. This would be the chief problem if the proposed multiracial category were to become law.

It must be directly faced that any multiracial proposal would "deconstruct" the historic Black category, due to undercounting and reclassification. Legally enumerated Black populations have all but disappeared in several countries, most notably Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica. Significantly, the United States Census has been acclaimed because it did not, for a large part of the 20th Century, have a mixed-race category. In 1972, Carl Degler, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Neither Black Nor White, argued that the United States' race relations were better than those in Latin America because the U.S. Census made no distinction between Blacks and people of mixed Black descent. According to Degler's thesis, racial segregation, anti-miscegenation laws and legalized Jim Crow led to intense group solidarity. The Civil Rights Movement was one outcome of this unity, a unity that contrasted with the fragmented nature of racial identity in Brazil, for instance. There, he argued, the "Mulatto Escape Hatch" siphoned off much of the potential "Black" leadership. Civil rights legislation and affinnative action could emerge in the United States because of the very fixity of racial boundaries.

Creation of a mixed-race category for the year 2000 Census would answer the demands of many individuals
especially the offspring of Whites and Blacks-who are not included in any of the present "racial" categories. It would also serve to limit the number of Blacks. Degler observed: "All offspring of Whites and Negroes are Negroes. Therefore, if intermarriage did become widespread, the result would be a Negro majority-or a change in the definition of a Negro." We have reached the latter point with the proposal now before the government.

Conceptually, the multiracial proposal presents several problems. For one: who would be counted? The African American population already has varying amounts of European ancestry. In addition, many persons are of partially Native American ancestry. Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White, Adam Clayton Powell, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall and Lani Guiier were, or are, all "multiracial." If the new category lacked wide-spread public support, it would tell us very little. Because membership would be on the basis of self-declaration, Census numbers would still not reflect the actual number of "mixed-race" persons within the general population. Also, would the category be retroactive or would it apply to offspring conceived after the prescribed date? Very importantly, how would the new category affect implementation of existing civil rights legislation?

Advocates of the "multiracial" proposal insist that it recognizes biology. What they fail to realize is that the term itself posits the existence of two or more "pure" races, a situation that is chimerical. The proposal accepts antiquated notions of ideal racial essences and then proposes to rectify racism by multiplying categories. What has been labelled "race" in the United States represents on-going "ethnic" communities that have a shared history and often a common experience of legalized discrimination. The supposed problem of what to do with the offspring of mixed marriages presents, at bottom, a problem no greater or smaller than that presented by other types of interethnic marriages-for instance, Hispanic/non-Hispanic. The individual, under the policy of self-selection that has been operative since 1960, is free to choose the category of primary identification-or none at all.

If "multiracial" were to be anything more than a euphemism for the old "mulatto" category, abolished after 1910, it would have to be defined in such a way as to include large numbers of people from the present Hispanic and Asian groups. What would be the effect of change on Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans? Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indians have comparatively high rates of out-marriage. There is little evidence that these groups wish to place interracial offspring in a new "multiracial" designation. Indeed, the proposed category is opposed by La Ram and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.

One of the most deleterious effects of a "multiracial" category would be that it would disaggregate one group while others were in the process of government-managed aggregation. The Asian/Pacific Islander category includes individuals from Pakistan to Fiji who have no common racial, religious or linguistic link. The Hispanic category, created in 1980, has been defined very broadly for political reasons. It now stretches to include Mayas in Guatemala and the children of German immigrants in Argentina. This administrative creation is not the ethnic label chosen by most people within the group (e.g., Chicanos and Puerto Ricans) and has served chiefly as a means of transethnic political mobilization in an era of civil rights legislation.

The disaggregation of Blacks would drive a wedge into the community that would not only increase the isolation of its most disadvantaged members. The flight of the Black middle class from inner-city neighborhoods has already been noted by numerous scholars. Some have also found a relationship between skin color and socioeconomic status within the African American community. Creating a North American version of the "Mulatto Escape Hatch" would have the effect of legally hastening the proliferation of caste boundaries in a society that is already a pigmentocracy." In a recent review of Richard Hennstein and Charles Murray's Bell Curve in the conservative National Review, historian Eugene Genovese predicted a "caste war between mulattoes and Blacks." Without a doubt, any split in the community will be acted on by those inimical to its interests. The manipulation of the "Coloured" (Mixed Race) category by South Africa's former apartheid regime should stand as a caveat to those who would advocate its introduction here.

Ibrahim K. Sundiata Beinfield Professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University and Chair of the Department (Waltham, MA 02254-9110). His latest book is Between Slaving and Neoslavery (University of Wisconsin, 1995). His current work is on the creation of race and ethnicity in 20th Century America.


We continue the Symposium begun in our last issue commenting on the lead article in our November/December issue, "Racial/ Ethnic Categories: Do They Matter?"(an edited version of a July 25, 1994, New Yorker feature by Lawrence Wright, titled "One Drop of Blood"). In the last issue, we presented comments by Raul Yzaguirre/Sonia Perez, Juanita Tamayo Lott, Libero Della Piana, john powell, Samuel Myers, Jr. and Reynolds Farley. This final segment offers contributions by Ibrahim K. Sundiata, Carol Korenbrot, Nathan Glazer and Chris Hansen. To repeat our editorial practice: we go with whatever terminology, punctuation, capitalization our contributors use with respect to racial and ethnic designations.

New readers can obtain a copy of Part 1 of the Symposium, as well as the initial article in the November/December issue, by sending a SASE with 55c postage. The February 13,1995, issue of Newsweek had a 9-page special section, "What Color is Black? Science, Politics & Racial Identity," which well also be glad to send with a SASE (55c postage).


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