Black and White Mixed People

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One of the things I'm suggesting in my dissertation is that the one-drop rule for determining race in the United States is on the wane, or at least that it's more complicated when it applies than just the usual view that it always does. One piece of evidence I think is somewhat compelling is the linguistic fact that a lot of people feel perfectly comfortable referring to a set of twins with different skin colors as if one is black and the other white. I've also got some more outlandish intuition pumps that I think help the case a little.

But there's another way of departing from the one-drop rule that a lot of people I know seem to exhibit, one that a lot of race scholars seem to me to treat as at best marginal. A lot of people will talk about mixed-race people as if they are both races. Barack Obama is sometimes referred to as both black and white, for example. James Collier, a mixed black-white man, speaks this way. I think a lot of people we know see our kids as either both black and white or as neither black nor white. If someone can be both black and white, then it clearly contradicts the one-drop rule.

I discussed some of my work with a leading scholar of African-American philosophy a few months ago. He took me to task for a lot of assumptions that he refused to recognize as anything but ignorance. He spent a lot of time explaining that Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson was 7/8 white, I suppose in order to show how significantly the one-drop rule has affected policy. What that ignores is that things are changing, however. That case was a long time ago. I think he may have thought I was denying that the one-drop rule ever operates, which is not only way beyond the evidence I've presented but almost certainly very easy to prove false. But that's not the view I was defending. I was simply arguing that it's more complicated than it was several decades ago, with some people at some times no longer relying on such a rule.

I don't know many non-blacks of my generation whose racial judgments rely on the one-drop rule, and I've discussed race issues with a lot of people of my generation from a broad range of backgrounds. The one place it still persists very strongly in the circles I've run in is among black people. I know of at least two black conservatives who have claimed that black Americans have a lot invested in the one-drop rule, although I haven't seen enough to figure out what they might be. It's a provocative claim, one I want to think about more. But I'm sure of one thing. At least in the northeast of the U.S., people of my generation are at the very least not consistently using the one-drop rule. I say good riddance. It's unfortunate that some scholars are a little more reluctant to acknowledge that than there seems to be evidence for.

6 Comments

"I don't know many non-blacks of my generation whose racial judgments rely on the one-drop rule, and I've discussed race issues with a lot of people of my generation from a broad range of backgrounds."

I don't know many who are even aware of it. That said, I do think many whites, of all political persuasions, tend to think in a dichotomous white/non-white manner which places anyone who is mixed-race on the other side of the divide.


"I know of at least two black conservatives who have claimed that black Americans have a lot invested in the one-drop rule, although I haven't seen enough to figure out what they might be."

I think that makes sense. Ethnic leaders, be they Italians, Poles, Jews, blacks or what have you, have a vested interest in numbers. If you're recognized by mainstream society as the leader of an ethnic group, your influence is determined in part by the number of those people. . .

I've been studying quite a bit about race and ethnicity in my grad studies. To me, the best thing we could do would be to view "race" as an anachronistic concept with little real-world merit. Race matters because of the continuing legacy of racism and the mutual antagonism it engendered, but we'll all be happier when we can see race for what it is. The segmentation of people by their melanin count is as arbitrary and weird a taxonomical system as any humanity has devised. . . And from a Christian point of view, I see no support for the concept. "Nations" yes, but nothing on "races."

I don't know many who are even aware of it. That said, I do think many whites, of all political persuasions, tend to think in a dichotomous white/non-white manner which places anyone who is mixed-race on the other side of the divide.

I don't think that's true, in my experience. As has already been pointed out several times, it depends a lot on skin color. Someone mixed who has a skin color typical of people who are black and not thought of as mixed (because any mixing was generations ago) are usually seen as black. This can include people as light as Halle Berry. On the other hand, with my kids it's very reasonable to look at them and expect at least a white parent, perhaps even three white grandparents. They're unusually light for mixed kids. Most people in our life would hesitate to refer to them as simply black without qualification.

Race matters because of the continuing legacy of racism and the mutual antagonism it engendered

I agree. And that's why the following statement is false:

the best thing we could do would be to view "race" as an anachronistic concept with little real-world merit

Recognizing racism and immoral discrimination has plenty of real-world merit, and you can't recognize it if you don't accept racial categories. Without such a concept, there's no recognition of anything belonging to the categories, and thus you can't have much hope of even saying what it is that people are basing their discrimination on.

It also ignores that racial identity plays a very important role in determining how people think about themselves. For whites this is almost entirely unconscious unless people have their consciousness raised in certain ways. For non-whites, at least in the U.S., it's usually utterly obvious how people's social arrangements depend so significantly on race that any talk of removing such concepts amounts to pretending something very present is absent.

Racial categories are not arbitrary in every sense. They're arbitrary in terms of simply classifying people by things you can know only by looking at genetics. But they're not remotely arbitrary when you see the social history of different populations of people and how important these categorizations have been historically and socially.

The Bible doesn't talk about concepts that hadn't been created yet at its time, so of course it doesn't address this particular kind of category. What it does, however, is say things about related kinds of categorizations, and we can apply those to race according to any relevant similarities. (I'm not sure our concept of a nation is quite the same as any ancient concept either, so I don't quite agree with you on that either.)

This is interesting. Do you know whether the 'one-drop rule' is supposed to apply to other racial categories besides 'black'?

A little autobiography: my father's family is Japanese, and my mother's is of Swedish descent. I have the Japanese surname, but I don't look particularly Japanese, at least to the untrained eye. (People who know enough of us can recognize half-Japanese people.) I've been told that I look Hispanic, Native American, and Asian, with about that order of frequency. I don't think much about my own race, but I guess I feel pretty white.

I'm not trying to make any point; I'm just wondering how this fits in.

You said: As has already been pointed out several times, it depends a lot on skin color.

My response: That's a pretty snotty way to phrase things. Secondly, let me clarify. I don't think people are explicitly aware of something which existed in history which was explicitly called the One-Drop Rule. I do think on a de facto level they do practice something quite similar to it. As I made very clear in my discussion of the dichotomy.

I said: Race matters because of the continuing legacy of racism and the mutual antagonism it engendered

You said: I agree. And that's why the following statement is false: the best thing we could do would be to view "race" as an anachronistic concept with little real-world merit

My response: You misunderstand me. My point is that we still MUST account for race because people still believe it to be a genuine way of classifying people, rather than a weird and arbitrary way. When I said 'the best thing we could do', I meant in the sense of 'this is what I hope we move toward.' In other words, I hope America evolves toward a post-racial understanding which no longer classifies people according to the color of their skin, but rather the content of their character. I almost feel like I've heard that somewhere before. . .

You said: I'm not sure our concept of a nation is quite the same as any ancient concept either, so I don't quite agree with you on that either.

My response: I agree that "nation" had a differing definition then than now. However, my point was that "nations" are the only grouping I see Biblical support for other than "tribes." When writing about race not being a valid Biblical category, I had in mind racist doctrines which we have both seen taught in Reformed circles. Those that say that God established the "races" and that they should remain eternally separate because it is a Biblically-sanctioned distinction. From what I know of your biography, I'm pretty sure you'd disagree with them. My point is that "race" is a man-created concept which has little scientific, Biblical or historic merit. IT DID NOT EXIST until recently in history, and its entire existence has been pernicious. Why you would want to perpetuate it is curious to me.

I'll allow you the last word. I'd forgotten your approach to dialogue.

Jonathan:

I don't actually know what the general consensus is with other non-white racial groups. I know there is something like this with Native Americans in terms of who can benefit (in terms of affirmative action, anti-discrimination law, and so on) from having Native American ancestry and who can belong to the official list of a tribe. But the justification for that isn't some notion of a racial essence polluted by the non-white ancestry. It's partly just expediency in preserving the culture, although I do think it's also partly due to racism against those who have mixed ancestry.

My guess is that the approach that I think is becoming more common with black-white mixed people is probably more standard but perhaps not fully standard for most other mixings of whites with other racial groups. The situation is probably similar but with less resistance to change and perhaps an earlier start to the change. With mixings of two non-white groups, there may be nothing like it at all if the two groups have never been viewed hierarchically (with one over the other) but may be more like it if they have (e.g. someone who is mixed black-Asian is probably assumed to be black almost as often as someone who is mixed black-white).

J. Wesley:

I'm not sure what you mean by my approach to dialogue or why you think it's snotty to refer you to an earlier point that you hadn't addressed rather than continue to repeat it redundantly.

On the substance, I agree that most people who rely on the one-drop rule do not know they are doing so, and I've insisted all along that it still does operate to some degree. I do think in a certain populace it's becoming more the exception than the norm in terms of explicit attitudes, and those explicit attitudes are beginning to affect unconscious judgments and intuitions a lot more than a lot of race scholars are acknowledging.

When I said 'the best thing we could do', I meant in the sense of 'this is what I hope we move toward.' In other words, I hope America evolves toward a post-racial understanding which no longer classifies people according to the color of their skin, but rather the content of their character.

I'm not disagreeing with that. I don't think that's as easy as it sounds, and I think it will take a long time, if it's even possible. But I envision an ideal future that recognizes race only as a category that has no current social meaning, just a historically-significant social meaning.

However, my point was that "nations" are the only grouping I see Biblical support for other than "tribes."

I think there are lot more terms than those. I don't remember any references offhand, but one passage I'm thinking of in one eschatological prophecy (I believe somewhere in Revelation) has at least four different terms in succession for different kinds of group-classifications of people all being united in Christ.

My point is that "race" is a man-created concept which has little scientific, Biblical or historic merit.

Depending on what you mean, I may or may not agree. If you mean people just made it up, I don't think that's true. They were trying to explain genuine differences between already-existing populations of people, and those populations existed in part because of geographical differences and genetic divergence over a long time between different populations. What that study, relying on false empirical claims, has led to is something that involves false beliefs and depends on a history of immorality. Without those false beliefs and immoral treatment, the categories wouldn't be what they are. Nevertheless, the false beliefs and immoral treatment are a component of a much larger phenomenon, one that couldn't have occurred if there hadn't been the initial populations already. Those groups (or at least groups with similar enough composition) could have existed as separate populations, and been called races, and there wouldn't have been anywhere near as much problem with that concept of race.

So it's unclear to me what you think I want to perpetuate. I don't think what I'm advocating is the same thing you think I'm advocating.

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