Racial Identity’s Gray Area

June Kronholz, Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2008

When Barack Obama, whose mother was white, identifies himself as black, and when Bill Richardson, whose father was white, identifies himself as Hispanic, who is white?

The U.S. Census Bureau says the country will be majority-minority in 2050—that is, the combined number of blacks, Asians, American Indians and Hispanics will put whites in the minority. Texas and California are already there.

But the definition of white keeps shifting. Groups have been welcomed in or booted out; people opt out, sue to get in or change their minds and jump back and forth.

The deepest racial divide, between blacks and nonblacks, endures. But there also are identity shifts among African-Americans, as Sen. Obama’s success suggests. Some make it into the middle class, where education and social mobility may help shape their identities as much as race does. Others are left behind in increasingly segregated schools and neighborhoods.

The U.S. has never found it easy to assign race, although it certainly has tried. A century ago, the people who did the counting—demographers, sociologists, policy thinkers—divided whites into three strata. They considered Nordic whites, from England, Scandinavia and Germany, the most ethnically desirable and elite, followed by the Alpine whites, from eastern and central Europe, and finally the Mediterraneans. Everyone else was identified as black, red, yellow or brown, which included South Asians.

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In 1922, the Supreme Court decided that a Japanese man had white skin but wasn’t ethnically Caucasian, and it denied him citizenship. A year later, it decided a South Asian was ethnically Caucasian but not white, and it denied him citizenship, too.

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Some minorities or multiracial Americans who were once counted as white are opting out of the category. The population calling itself Native American quadrupled when the Census Bureau began asking people to identify themselves by race rather than relying on its own enumerators to do the job.The number of Hawaiian dropped by half when the “two or more races” category was introduced.

Mexicans were long counted in the Census as whites because of an 1848 U.S.-Mexico treaty that allowed them citizenship; only whites and blacks could naturalize, so by that logic, Mexicans were white. But since 1980, Hispanics have had a separate Census category where even intermarried, non-Spanish speakers can include themselves, if they choose. One in eight people in the U.S. does, including Latin American, European and Caribbean Hispanics and their progeny.

Identity groups that once lobbied to be accepted as whites now see advantages in being nonwhite, including college-admission and hiring preferences. Some African-Americans who fear losing political power to the fast-growing Hispanic population have quietly urged Caribbeans and those of mixed race to identify themselves simply as black. Other minority groups are reclaiming their racial identities out of pride.

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That’s not likely to change soon. Some demographers predict that within a century, there will be as many Americans who are mixed-race as there will be those whose parents are both of the same race, further blurring color lines. But that “hybridity,” as demographers call it, will be concentrated among Hispanics and Asians who marry whites and each other, not among blacks.

Meanwhile, the definition of who is white may change again—and again. {snip}

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