Blurred Vision

Seeing beyond government racial categories


In a provocative coincidence, golfer Tiger Woods–who, in reference to his mixed ethnic background, identifies himself as a "Cablinasian"–won the PGA Masters tournament just as the Office of Management and Budget began pondering whether to add a new "multiracial" category to government forms used in censuses, population surveys, and enforcing federal affirmative action programs.

Since 1977, when the OMB last issued guidelines on the matter, all individuals have been assigned one of the following "racial classifications": American Indian or Alaskan native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Black; or White. An additional "ethnic classification" is also made: "Hispanic Origin" or "Not of Hispanic Origin." The current choices, notes a Census Bureau report, "have come under growing criticism from those who believe that the minimum set of categories no longer reflects the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the Nation's population."

Proponents of adding a multiracial designation are absolutely correct that the current categories inadequately account for the tremendous diversity of contemporary America. They are, however, mistaken to think that much–if any–good can come from a more precise accounting by government of "racial" demographics. Even without reference to Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, our own twisted history on the matter makes clear that governments should be discouraged from recording such information at all. Indeed, because racial classifications seek to fix forever one's identity through blood and birth, they are particularly appalling in a country whose ideals include the ability to continually remake, redefine, and reinvent oneself.

This is the great tragedy, the original sin of American history: Even as our country, relatively free of the inherited social, political, and economic strictures found throughout most of history and human society, has granted people unparalleled opportunity to pursue their talents, it has been obsessed with limiting individuals through racial identification.

The "one-drop rule" that evolved in the South was used to restrict a person's chances for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the late 19th century, racial classifications were used not merely to curtail emigration from China and Japan, but to deny those immigrants and their children property and marriage rights ("yellow" men were even barred from sleeping with "white" prostitutes throughout most of the West). In the 1920s, country-of-origin quotas were used essentially to end the influx of genetically "inferior" immigrants from southern and central Europe. ("The primary reason for the restriction of the alien stream," said one approving congressman, "is the necessity for purifying and keeping pure the blood of America.")

Today, of course, racial information is used for "enlightened" purposes–tracking minority employment and school enrollments, granting government contracts, ensuring voting rights, and the like–that are supposed to end the necessity for such information in the first place. But because racial classifications are predicated upon the notion of a fixed, immutable identity, they necessarily perpetuate divisive racial categories, regardless of how they are used.

Interestingly, opponents of the multiracial classification acknowledge that official racial categories are designed to maintain strict boundaries, to prevent one group from blending into another; in fact, that point underlies their opposition to the new multiracial designation. Letting individuals opt out of the current categories, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) told Time, "just blurs everything."

But whether official data reflect it, our society is already a transracial blur. Consider Tiger Woods, whose neologistic self-description refers to the fact that he is part white, part black, part American Indian, part Thai, and part Chinese. While he provides a particularly dramatic illustration, he nevertheless embodies a steadily growing trend. During the past two decades, the number of children from interracial marriages grew from around 500,000 to over 2 million; the percentage of African Americans marrying whites has roughly quadrupled.

More to the point, most blacks and many American Indians have white ancestors; similarly, an appreciable number of whites share minority blood as well. And, as even casual students of American history know, "whites" are hardly a stable group: Earlier in this century, for instance, Jewish, Italian, and Slavic Americans were excluded from the category.

The "blurring" of ostensibly rigid categories, of course, has always been the great fear of racial classifiers. But the potential to do just that remains at the heart of what is distinctive about the United States.

In 1782, even before there was a proper United States, Jean de Crèvecouer asked famously, in Letters from an American Farmer, "What then is the American, this new man?" His answer: "He is either a European, or the descendant of a European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a Frenchwoman, and whose…four sons have four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced."

To be sure, Crèvecouer's formulation has significant (and telling) blind spots, some borne of the time he was writing, others not so readily dismissed (he himself owned black slaves for a time). But certainly it suggests one of the more laudable impulses in American history, the desire to obliterate inherited position and to leave behind "blood" as the chief determinant of identity and status.

Similarly, we should embrace "multiracial" not as a box on a government form but as a shared social and historical reality, one that unites rather than divides us. In doing so, it may become easier to deliver on the promise of America by finally transcending our obsession with race.