Race Thought Experiment #8

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Consider a man named Jim in the 1960s who does what people sometimes call "passing for white". His family is black, but there's enough white ancestry for him to appear white. Someone looking at him without knowing his family would think he's white. He talks in a way that no one would know his family is black. His employers would never discriminate against him because of his being black, even if they normally did such a thing, because they wouldn't know that he is black.

Jim decides to apply for college late in life, after the civil rights era is long over. There's a checkbox to indicate if he is black, which will be used for affirmative action purposes. Some people think affirmative action is immoral, and some people think it's immoral to ask or report one's race. Ignore those issues for this example, since what I want to get at is a different issue, and I don't want those as distractions. Assuming people should normally report their race accurately on such forms, should he check the box indicating that he is black? If you think he is black-passing-as-white, but you think he shouldn't check the box, exactly why is that (because it seems as if such an action constitutes a lie)?

Now consider a man in our day named Tom who has three white grandparents. His fourth grandparent is Jim. So he has two great-grandparents who are indisputably black and a grandparent who many people would consider black-passing-as-white. But Tom grew up in a white suburb in a family considered by everyone around them to be white, and almost no one he comes into contact with ever learns of or suspects that he has pretty recent black ancestors.

Tom applies for college. Again, ignoring issues about the moral status of affirmative action and assuming people should normally report the race on such forms, should Tom check the box indicating that he is black, knowing that it will qualify him for affirmative action? If not, but Jim should, what is the difference between the two that justifies a different moral result? If you think they both should not check it, is it for the same reason in both cases?

2 Comments

For Jim to check the box marked "black" (or even "Other" or "Mixed" if those are options) is to stop passing. For him to check the box marked "white" is for him to continue passing. Insofar as passing involves a form of deception, it seems felicitous that by checking "black" Jim will both position himself to benefit from affirmative action *and* cease to deceive people about his background.

But if his intention is to use affirmative action to get in while still passing in most contexts (even at school once he gets in), then we have reason to criticize his purely self-interested usage of black identity - in fact, we have reason to see him as doubly deceptive. His identification as white in most contexts is deceptive (note that those moments where he is taken to be white through no commission or omission of his own don't count here). And his suggestion to the school that he generally identifies as black is also deceptive.

Tom should almost certainly report as white. Here's what might make a difference: if Tom, upon learning of his black ancestry, developed a deep and sincere attachment to this heritage which is totally unrelated to the desire to capitalize off of programs meant for those who have lived "black lives" in the more conventional sense, then his identification as black need not be seen as automatically problematic (although I'm not sure that this settles the issue).

Jim could check the box marked "black" on the census or for a college application while still passing at work, though. He would just have to hope that no one from the different sectors of his life would compare notes on this exact issue. I like the suggestion that he's doubly deceptive in this case. That seems right to me, and it becomes a nice example for me in service of one of the things I want to argue.

But what I had in mind was a decision to stop passing later in life, one he would make when applying for college given the realization that he's now in a situation where passing actually hurts his chances. You might still criticizing him for choosing a time to do the right thing and be honest in exactly the situation when it serves his self-interest to do so.

What's interesting about your view on Tom is that it contradicts the standard view of someone like Tom from most race scholars, particularly those who are not white and who are over 40. I was chewed out at a job interview for suggesting exactly what you're saying, and the guy's reason was that Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson (how many decades ago was that?) was 7/8 white. He clearly didn't understand what I was saying, but the one-drop rule is much more strongly ingrained in that generation than it is among younger people.

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