A Philosopher's Blog

Race in America

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2012
Official photographic portrait of US President...

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While the United States professes that all men are created equal and there has been talk of a post-racial America, race is still a significant factor. To use but one example, the 2012 Presidential election involved considerable focus on race. Some, like Bill O’Reilly, lamented what they seem to have taken as the end of the dominance of the white establishment. Others merely focus on the demographic lines drawn in accord with race and hope to appeal to those groups when election time comes.

Despite this unfortunate obsession with race, the concept is incredibly vague. There have been various attempts to sort out clear definitions of the races. For example, the “one drop rule” was an attempt to distinguish whites from blacks, primarily for the purposes of slavery. More recently, there have been attempts to sort out race based on genetics. This has had some interesting results, including some people finding out that the race they identified with is not the same as their genetic “race.”

In many ways, of course, these sorts of findings illustrate that the concept of race is also a matter of perception. That is, being white (or black or whatever) is often a matter of being perceived (or perceiving oneself) as being white (or black or whatever). In many ways, race is clearly a social construct with little correlation to genetics.

Getting back to genetics, many Americans are mixed rather than “pure.” This, of course, creates the problem of sorting people into those allegedly important racial demographics. After all, if a person has a mixed ancestry, they would not seem to fall clearly into a category (other than mixed). To “solve” this “problem” the tendency is to go with how the person is perceived. To use one example, consider President Obama. While his mother was white and his father black, he is considered black (after all, his place in history is as America’s first black president). The fact that he is considered black is thus a matter of perception. After all, he is just as white as he is black—although, of course, he looks black. As might be imagined, appearance is often taken as the major determining factor in regards to race. So, Obama looks more black than white, so he is black. Or so it might be claimed.

There is, of course, a problem in regards to people who are “mixed” but look “pure.” Interestingly enough, in the United States it is typically the case that a “mixed” person who looks “pure” means that they look white enough. After all, people who are “mixed” but do not look clearly white are typically classified as belonging to the “other” race. Like, for example, President Obama.  People who look white enough are typically classified as white, despite their actual ancestry.

I can use myself as an example in this case. While my mother’s side is documented “white” all the way back to the Mayflower, my father’s side is mixed. While my grandfather’s ancestry is French and some Native American, we really have no idea about the specific mix. My grandmother, however, was at least 50% “pure” Mohawk. As such, I am mixed. However, I look rather white and I have consistently been treated as white. Since many official forms and job applications require that a person identify by race, I always pause and look through the categories—especially when there is supposed to be consequences for not being honest. When a form allows multiple selections, I go with “white” and “Native American” since that is true. If I can only pick one, I usually go with “other” and if that is not an option, “white.” After all, no one would doubt that I am white simply by looking at me. As such, I might “really” be white—at least in the way that matters most in society (namely appearance). However, the race categories continue to annoy me and I always worry a tiny bit that I will be busted someday for putting down the wrong race.

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  1. biomass2 said, on November 23, 2012 at 11:36 am

    “I always worry a tiny bit that I will be busted someday for putting down the wrong race.”
    We’ll only be a post-racial society when no one has to worry about that. . .

    “. . . these sorts of findings illustrate that the concept of race is also a matter of perception.”
    In America, we called it segregation for a while. . . I’m not sure when segregation and its societal impact became “racism”. Or when we became “racists” and not just a “segregated society”. That research would be up to someone more interested in etymology. In any case, the effects on those being oppressed by segregation or racism is— not-so-surprisingly— similar in many ways, and different. Segregation was more overt. Racism (white on black) is more covert. More code words and images.

    Then there is what some call “reverse racism”. If “X” is discriminated against, he cries racism, and blames “Y”. If “Y” senses he is the suffering because “X” is benefiting from actions taken to deal with past racial mistreatment of “X” , “Y” squeals “reverse racism”. In this situation, the meaning of the word racism, as specifically applied to the original black/white social structure in this country is twisted and spun to make “Y” feel better and to help “Y” regain/retain his advantageous position. Meanwhile, “X” remains “the other”.


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