Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Washington, woman who was found to have white parents despite claiming to be black, has resigned as president of the local chapter of the NAACP. Her "transracial" lifestyle has collided with Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner's transgender journey into a massive debate about the freedom to choose your own identity.
Here's where the debate stands so far: Transgender is OK but transracial is not; George Zimmerman is a rare "white Hispanic"; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is hurt and angry at questions about her Native American heritage; and President Barack Obama (who has a white mother and a black father) says he's black, though singer/songwriter Morrissey insists he's not.
Image source: KREM-TV
Oh, and Nick Fury and Johnny Storm are also black now, Psylocke is Asian, and gone are the days when real men like Leslie Nielsen refused to let anyone question their gender, we've entered the age of Zach Braff!
As amusing or frustrating as this all is, it's a quintessential discussion for a country based on giving people the freedom to choose what they want to be. After all, if Obama can deny a racial connection to a parent who does exist, why can't Dolezal claim a racial connection to a parent who doesn't?
Whatever you might think of the possibility of "transitioning" from one race to another, it turns out the government has been doing plenty of it for you. This comes from Richard Alba in his recent article, "The Myth of a White Minority":
Take, for example, the claim that “minority babies are now the majority.” Analyzing data from the 2013 American Community Survey, I found that it identified only about half of infants (children under 1) as non-Hispanic whites — though 60 percent had at least one non-Hispanic white parent. … The census counts as minority anyone of mixed race or ethnicity. Among infants with a Hispanic parent, about 30 percent also had a non-Hispanic parent — and for two-thirds of them, that parent was white. The percentages were similar for infants of Asian parentage. For much of our racist past, all partly white, partly black individuals were socially and legally defined as black. The “one drop” rule was absurd, of course, yet it has effectively returned, with a vengeance, via statistical categories. There is no justification for viewing as not white all children who are partly white…
The "one-drop rule" was the idea that a single drop of black blood in your ancestry meant you weren't white. It was a bigoted standard of racial purity, but it apparently still operates to a degree in the Census Bureau. Just one minority parent is sufficient to get you counted as a minority (i.e., non-white), but you're only guaranteed to be counted as white (i.e., non-minority) if both your parents are white. The government is “transitioning” people from, say, being both white and black, to being just black.
At the same time, the once-per-decade U.S. Census (different from the American Community Survey) lets you choose your own race – up until 1960, they did it for you – which introduces the problem that people do a lousy job of reporting data about themselves. They often don't apply the same standards. What good are the Census Bureau's numbers if one person with a single white great-grandparent calls themselves "mixed," while President Obama reports himself only as black, and then someone like Rachel Dolezal does the same as Obama?
These statistics are going to suffer further as America gets more diverse and mixed. The categories we use are blurred already: A child with one Korean and one Indian parent is dubbed "Asian," and a child with one Senegalese parent and the other Batswana is dubbed "black," despite these countries being nowhere near one another, geographically or culturally. If race is a social construct influenced by culture, then the rise in interracial (or transracial) adoptions will further cloud the issue.
Notice, though, that what's obscuring the census' race data is all these people of different races getting married, having kids, and adopting one another. I know it's hard to see amidst the shooting of Michael Brown, the protests in Baltimore, and the fascination with Dolezal's masquerade (does it amount to blackface, or Othello?), but people of different races frequently get along with each other.
And that's because differences in race are often superseded by similarities in culture. Charles Murray provides a look at how the 13 colonies, though fairly homogenous racially, were shockingly diverse when it came to religious and political beliefs. Today the reverse seems true, and most of us don't care if we become “majority-minority” in racial terms.
Granted, there are many rifts in American culture, political and economic, and some of the latter are no doubt a legacy of government racism in the form of slavery and segregation. However fuzzy the concept of race might be, people made enough sense of it in order to ruin the lives of other people by denying them moral standing.
And that's why it's so astounding to see the government making an effort to keep track of racial distinctions while at the same time botching them in a bigoted manner rejected by most Americans. If the Census Bureau can't stop from making Americans transracial, maybe it should just stop recording their race altogether.
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