The Fluidity of Racial Classification

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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Many people are upset with the Census Bureau over the race question. Although 50,000 people told the Census Bureau that they wished to be identified as "Negro" on the 2000 Census, some other blacks are upset that "Negro" is on the 2010 Census.

Many Latinos and non-Latinos think being Latino is a race, but it is not a race according to the Census Bureau definition. Latinos who look "white" are supposed to check "white." Those who look "black" are supposed to check "black." Those who identify as American Indian are supposed to check "American Indian." Latinos, like everyone else, also have the option of checking "white" AND "black" AND "American Indian" or any other racial combination that works for them.

Some Arabs are upset that there is no Arab race and that they will in many cases be compelled to check "white." They are calling for Arabs to write-in "Arab."

And, then there are other folks who are upset that there even is a race question. They say we are all human beings, so why don't we just stop talking and thinking and classifying based on race.

What a mess.

What all of this confusion indicates is that race is not biology in any simple, direct or definitive way. It is not skin color--no matter how many times people say "skin color" to mean race. If it were skin color then Latinos and Arabs would have no problem classifying themselves as white if they were light complexioned. And the many Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have a darker skin complexion than Barack Obama would classify themselves as black and not as Asian.

Race is sociological, cultural, psychological and political, much more than it is biological. Take the example of Barack Obama. What race is he? Well, it depends to a degree on who is answering the question. The Pew Research Center finds that 53 percent of whites say he is "mixed race" while 55 percent of blacks say he is black. Hispanics are even more likely than whites to say the Obama is mixed race with 61 percent classifying him so. So, the perception of Obama's race varies by sociological, cultural, psychological and political factors while his biology, of course, remains the same.

Obama classifies himself as black, though he clearly could say that he is biracial or mixed race. His decision on his race is due to sociological, cultural, psychological or political factors.

Obama is not unusual. On the same Pew Research Center survey about perceptions of Obama's race only 1 percent of the people surveyed identified racially as mixed, yet 16 percent say that they are, in fact, racially mixed.

There is a difference between one's identity and one's ancestry. Obama's ancestry based on the race of his parents is black and white. But his identity is black. Similarly there are lots of people who have parents, grandparents and great-grandparents with racial identities that differ from their own. From an ancestry standpoint they are mixed, but in their day-to-day lives they may not interact with people based on the racial identities of all of their known ancestors. So, for example, a black person can claim to be racially mixed because of an American Indian grandparent, but still identify only as black on the Census.

Race is a complex and continually changing phenomenon. Because society changes, race changes. Because people can change psychologically over their life-span, individuals' racial identities can change over their lives also. Obama may one day decide that he should identify as biracial and not as black, for example.

U.S.-born Americans are not culturally uniform in their thinking about race. The foreign-born population brings even more radically different thinking about race. The Census Bureau has to reduce this complex issue and all of these conflicting ideas into one single multiple choice question. It can't be done. Since we probably don't want them asking us 20 questions about the meaning of race in our lives, we should probably cut them a little slack.

(For a more detailed discussion of the meaning of race, see my book Achieving Blackness.)

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2005-2010 by Algernon Austin. All Rights Reserved.