When asked about his race on the census form, Barack Obama, the child of a white Kansan and black African, did not take the option of checking both “white” and “black” or “some other race.” Instead, he checked “black, African American or Negro.” By doing that, Obama probably did what was expected of him, but he also confirmed an enduring legacy of American racism.
According to the Census Bureau, a little over 12 percent of Americans are “black, African American or Negro.” According to geneticist Mark Shriver, “the level of European ancestry in African-Americans averages about 20 percent.” Many notable “blacks” have been 50 percent or more “white.” These have included many notable Americans who were publicly identified as “black,” “colored,” or as “negroes,” including Frederick Douglass, NAACP president Walter White (who was one-sixty fourth black), union leader A. Phillip Randolph, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.
The obvious question—perhaps not to an American, but certainly to a visitor from another planet—is why if someone’s ancestry is predominantly white, they are not identified as “white” rather than “black.” It’s not because of the way they look. Walter White was widely “mistaken” as a white person. As a student at Colgate, Adam Clayton Powell was initially believed to be “white.” But once it became known that they had black ancestry, they became black. And American law backed up this conclusion. In the South, the idea that any black ancestry would qualify someone as black, negro, or colored was called the “one-drop rule.”
In New Orleans in 1982, Susie Guillory Phipps went to court to have herself and her parents and blond, blue-eyed siblings declared “white.” When the 48-year-old, pale, raven-haired Phipps, who had married a white man and had always been known as white, had obtained her birth certificate in order to get a passport, she discovered that she was designated “colored.” The reason, she found out, was that she was the great-great-great-great granddaughter of a slave, Margarita, who had had a child in 1770 by a white French planter. The state’s lawyers challenged her claim to be white on the grounds that she was three-thirty seconds black, and they won.
I first learned of the Phipps case from the late Harry Chang, a South Korean immigrant who in the ‘70s organized a Racism Research Project in the Bay Area dedicated to developing a Marxist theory of race. Harry, whom I recall as having been a computer programmer by day, was not your usual dogmatic leftist. He disdained the prevailing black nationalism and the revival of old left theories of a black nation. Harry drew a sharp distinction between race as a social and as a natural category. Blackness, he argued, had nothing to do with nature. It was a social creation.
In its American incarnation, blackness emerged as a social category in the seventeenth century as part of Southern whites’ attempt to justify the economic and social subordination of Africans who had been brought to the country in bondage. The legal interpretation of blackness was accompanied by laws barring miscegenation between whites and blacks. The one-drop rule endured after the Civil War and after emancipation as a justification of racial segregation and of the tiered economy of the sharecroppers.
Today, the laws against miscegenation have been thrown out, and a Louisianan with Susie Guillory Phipps’s ancestry might win her case for being classified white, but the one drop rule persists in the way Americans, including me in this piece itself, think about race. And to the extent these mutually exclusive categories of white and black endure, they perpetuate all kinds of stereotypes and pseudo-scientific nonsense, like American Enterprise Institute fellow Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve.
The Census Bureau has tiptoed around this problem for two centuries. After the Civil War, it allowed respondents to check “Mulatto,” which includes “quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible race of African blood.” In 1900, the designation “mulatto” disappeared and respondents were asked to write “W” for white; “B” for black (negro or negro descent); “Ch” or Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; and “In” for Indian.” Leading up to the 2000 census, the bureau acknowledged that race was a social category and allowed respondents to check multiple races or “some other race.” But the bureau left it up to the respondents themselves to figure out what to say.
African Americans have not necessarily welcomed this change. Writing in the American Journal of Public Health in November 2000, David R. Williams and James S. Jackson acknowledge that “race is a socially constructed category,” but worry that allowing options to the designation “black” would lead to ignoring or underestimating the problems that black Americans face. They write, “As long as being Black remains consequential for every aspect of life, and as long as racial status continues to reflect differences in power and desirable resources in society, it is important to assess race.”
It’s hard to disagree. By denying the existence of race, one denies the existence of racial inequality. Yet by using the constructed language of race, one perpetuates invidious racial distinctions. Obama faced this dilemma when he chose how to designate himself on the census. And he may have done the right thing—but only in the short run. If racism is finally to disappear, so must the peculiar logic of blackness.
Let Harry Chang have the last word. In The Critique of the Black Nation Thesis, he wrote that “the overthrow of racism will … involve the abolition of racial categories. … What is meant by the abolition of racial categories is simply that human genetical variation or genealogical diversity would not be pushed into the Procrustean bed of racial distinction. Instead, the genetic and genealogical richness of mankind will probably remain, but with this crucial proviso: truly democratic spirit would be completely indifferent to it … and assign to skin-color the same kind of social significance as weight, height, or hair-color.”
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.