Race: April 2010 Archives

Note: Some of these thought experiments are my own, and a number of them appear throughout the philosophical literature on race. Charles Mills was a source for some of them, I think. Sveral of them have come from Jonathan Glasgow, and a few are unique to him, so I should at least give some credit here for that. I've never seen this one in particular anywhere else. Given that I'm giving him credit in this post, I'll just quote his own description of the case:

Everyone above the age of ten months is being killed by a virus that itself will expire as soon as it kills the last person who is more than ten months old. In a furious effort as they await their doom, the remaining scientists devote themselves to finding a way to finding a device that can keep the infants alive until they are old enough to survive on their own. [Jonathan Glasgow, A Theory of Race, p.121]
Do races cease to exist upon such a disaster?

A friend of mine just brought this story to my attention. There are lots of interesting questions to ask about how the census keeps track of race, and this article brings out several of them.

There's no bi-racial or multi-racial category. There used to be no option at all for those who didn't identify as just one race. You had to pick one or leave it blank. In 2000 they added the option to check more than one box. You still can't say that you're bi-racial or multi-racial, though, meaning that you don't consider yourself fully any of the races you check. You have to be fully each of them or not at all.

Given that, we might expect what this article brings out. Some children of a black parent and a white parent end up checking just "black". Others end up checking both "black" and "white". I'm sure some just leave it blank. What interests me is the percentages who think the second option is legitimate. According to the numbers given in the article, 53% of white people say President Obama is mixed race, and only 24% say he's black. But the numbers go in the opposite direction from black respondents. 55% say he's black, and 34% say he's mixed.

One reason more black people say he's black and not mixed is that they see how others identify you as definitive of what race you are. Hence the quote from the woman who said that if you put a hoodie on Obama and had him walk down a dark street you'd get everyone saying he's black. It's been my experience that the one-drop rule, which classified someone as black just for having one relatively recent black ancestor, is far more strongly operative among black Americans than it is among white Americans, especially of my generation and younger. Sam once told me that she thinks this is because a lot of black Americans have more invested in the one-drop rule. If that's true, there's a real irony there, because the one-drop rule was developed in order to serve the interests of white segregationists.

I think part of what's going on here is that a lot of black Americans (and mixed-race Americans who, by their looks, will be classified as black) experience a reality of being treated a certain way, and this applies more because of how they look than because of what racial group their parents belong to. That leads them to conclude that the one-drop rule is still operating as strongly as it ever did. One very interesting item in this article is the guy who claims to be both black and white. He did check both boxes, and it's because he really does think of himself as fully both. Check out the responses in the comments on the BET reprinting of this article to see how strong the resistance among a lot of black people will be to such a claim.

Then a lot of white Americans do something very different. They want racial problems to be over. They want to be post-racial. So they're happy to mess with traditional ways of classifying people, especially if they see those as immoral. Those who are young enough and in certain parts of the country have been in more racially-enlightened spheres of influence where they've been taught to see race as less important, and thus care a lot less what race someone is, and that's led many of them not to have ever heard of the one-drop rule or seen anyone assuming such a thing. Their natural inclination is to see mixed-race people as mixed. They'd call Obama half-black, perhaps.

This includes me, and by "me" I mean my unreflective intuitions on these matters based purely on how I was raised and the environment I grew up in, i.e. how people around me classified people according to race. I grew up thinking the child of a black parent and a white parent would be half-black and half-white, just as Elrond in The Lord of the Rings is half-elf and half-human, his daughter Arwen is 3/4 elf and 1/4 human, and her son with Aragorn is 3/8 elf and 5/8 human. (That's actually ignoring Aragorn's way-back elvish ancestry through Elrond's half-elf brother, but that's so far back that it's negligible in comparison, and, for the record, shouldn't really count as incest either.)

I'd never heard of the one-drop rule or even seen any signs of anyone assuming it until I was in graduate school, and I was taught that this was the law in the South during segregation and is still how everyone thinks about race. (It's always interesting to be told how you think about race when it's obvious to you that the way of thinking is completely new to you.)

I've long known that I have heterodox views on race. People on both the left and the right have strongly disagreed with almost every substantive view I've ever taken on race. But here I'm not just talking about my own views. If the statistics given in the article are reliable at predicting what the views of Americans in general think (and you can see the Pew source here, which seems to me to say they are), then a majority of white people in this country and a strong enough minority of black people think that President Obama is not black but mixed race. That means the one-drop rule is at best not completely operative. This is with someone whose skin is dark enough that a lot of people still do just call him black, including himself. What would people say about a child of a black and a white parent whose skin is much lighter? I'd expect the numbers to be even more strongly in favor of "mixed" rather than "black".

But then the very same survey turned up only 1% of respondents choosing more than one race for themselves, while 16% of them indicated that they're of mixed race. Does that mean they're applying the one-drop rule to themselves but not to Obama? That would be weird. But all this really shows is that there seems to be a much higher chance of getting someone to self-identify as mixed than there is to get them to identify as a member of two different races.

Perhaps that's because, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, they tend to think checking off both boxes mean they're fully both, and they don't think of themselves as fully both but only part each. Perhaps it's not because they're inconsistently applying the one-drop rule to themselves but not to others. Perhaps it's just a function of the unavailability of a mixed category. But either way, I think it's pretty obvious that contextual factors, even slight differences in wording, can have a huge impact on how we think about racial classification. Most academics who discuss racial classification seem to me to underestimate how strong such effects are.

As to the question in the post title, the answer is "yes".

Suppose we finally reach a point where we don't treat races differently in any sense that matters. There's no more even unconscious discrimination. The structural barriers that in most contexts favor whites more than other races and some non-whites over other non-whites are gone, even those instances when no one intends to do harm. There are no more people who have negative attitudes toward people because of race. (So far this is all the same as #9.) Suppose further we have abandoned the use of racial terms, not just terms like 'race' but even terms like 'black', 'white', 'Asian', and so on.

If you don't think races exist now, you'll obviously not think they exist in such a circumstance. But if you think races exist now, will they still exist under such circumstances?

Suppose we finally reach a point where we don't treat races differently in any sense that matters. There's no more even unconscious discrimination. The structural barriers that favor whites more than other races and some non-whites over other non-whites, even when no one intends to do harm, are gone. There are no more people who have negative attitudes toward people because of race. Yet people continue to use racial terms the same way we continue to use ethnic terms (e.g. Italian) even when there's no prejudice or societal structures making things difficult for those ethnic groups.

If you don't think races exist now, you'll obviously not think they exist in such a circumstance. But if you think races exist now, will they still exist under such circumstances?

3/5 of a Person

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I recently encountered the claim (that I see often enough) that the U.S. Constitution defined slaves as 3/5 of a person. That claim is actually false. The Constitution did no such thing. What it did is count them as 3/5 toward representation, which was a compromise between those who didn't want them represented and those who thought they should count fully. Here is what the actual wording said:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The wording actually assumes they are full persons. It distinguishes between the contribution to the census from free persons and the contribution from other persons. It's 3/5 of the number of other persons that gets added to the number of free persons. It's not that slaves are 3/5 of a person.

And for the record, it was those who opposed slavery who didn't want them counted and those who favored it who did, because counting them as full persons would mean more representation in Congress for their states (and yet the voting for those states wouldn't involve the slaves voting, of course, so it's even more influence for the slave-holders if they counted fully).

If we take the constitutional wording to imply that slaves were only viewed as 3/5 of a person, we should also conclude that abolitionists must not have thought slaves were real people, because they wanted them counted as zero, and slaveowners must have thought they were indeed real people, because they wanted them counted as full persons. It's not as if those who favored slavery were defining slaves as less than full persons. It was those who opposed slavery who didn't want their slaves counting toward representation when they didn't have representation who were behind this.

Interestingly, the roles had been reversed for the debate over an amendment on this for the Articles of Confederation, because that debate was over how much in taxes the states had to pay, where the non-slave states wanted slave states to pay more due to their higher population. You would have more success making that argument in this case, because at least the roles line up that way, but that would misunderstand what the issues were.

It had nothing to do with their actual view of the moral status or personhood status of slaves but was about how much political influence states would have, and the Articles of Confederation debate about the same exact issue had been about how much in taxes they would have to pay. Which issue it was about determined which stance each side took, and they completely reversed their positions when the issue changed to make the opposite view favor them. So there's simply no claiming that this was about defining the personhood of slaves or anything. It was simply about how to calculate populations for political results, and those who argued for each side compromised between counting them for certain purposes and not counting them for those purposes by proposing the 3/5 count.

There are plenty of things you might disagree with about how slaves were treated, and it is indeed unfair to be counted at all for representation but not being represented (but we do that with children still). Nevertheless, it's simply false that the Constitution defined them as 3/5 of a person, as if that judgment in particular reveals a view that slaves were viewed as not fully persons. It does no such thing, because it's not about that issue at all. To find evidence that people believed such a thing (and I'm not saying there is no such evidence), it doesn't do to cite what the Constitution says about this issue.


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