Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, November 1999
The New Colored People, Jon Michael Spencer, New York University Press, 1997, 214 pp.
For most of American history, miscegenation was thought to be a loathsome thing. Americans believed racial mixture violated both the laws of nature and the will of the Creator, who had established separate races with different traits. Americans were also concerned about the psychological effect of being a child of two races. Neither black nor white, the “tragic mulatto” was thought to be without a firm identity and not fully accepted by people of either race. It was therefore out of respect for the integrity of the races and from concern about the ambiguous status of mixed-race children that many American states outlawed miscegenation. As late as 1967, when they were struck down by the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, 16 states still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books.
Today it is fashionable to think hybrids are exotic and progressive, that they are the ideal towards which America and the world are moving, and that anyone opposed to mixed marriage is a wicked bigot (although endogamy is still respectable among Jews and many non-whites). The idea that hybrids could have identity problems is likewise thought to be “racist” patronizing. And yet, at a time when race is as salient in our lives as ever, the identity of mixed-race Americans is anything but clear. Although it is seldom publicized, there is a raging controversy—particularly among blacks and mulattos—over what it means to be mixed. It is in this debate that The New Colored People takes an openly partisan position.
The One Drop Rule
Historically, the United States has followed the “one drop rule,” according to which anyone with even a trace of black ancestry was black. Census categories, popular thinking, Jim Crow laws, and everything else followed this rule. Although the federal census has had different categories over the years, with “Mexican,” “foreign-born,” and “other” appearing at various times, the government has never officially counted mulattos or octoroons or any of the other arcane possibilities commonly recognized in Brazil, for example. Negroes were Negroes, no matter how light their skin.
It was inevitable that the racial revolution of the last 40 years would attempt to overthrow this practice, just as it has every other. But what has made this aspect of the revolution interesting—and also embarrassing to liberals—is that blacks are now the most impassioned supporters of the one drop rule. What was, in the past, a method of keeping the white race pure by holding even light-skinned blacks at a distance is now conventional black thinking. Most black intellectuals and “leaders” rise up in fury against anyone who opposes it.
Organized criticism of the one drop rule comes from people who want the United States to implement an official new racial designation, namely, “multiracial.” But who wants it and why? It seems that the most energetic proponents are whites married to non-whites and who have hybrid children. If they are married to blacks, they don’t like the one drop rule because it means their children can’t be anything but black — which is a repudiation of the white parent. At the same time they argue it is unrealistic and cruel to force hybrids to call themselves either black, white, Asian or American Indian. They don’t like the “other” census category because it sounds like an afterthought. The leaders of the campaign appear to be whites affiliated with organizations with names like Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally), American Association for Multi-Ethnic Americans, A Place For Us, and with magazines like Interrace.
There are also some mulattos and other light-skinned hybrids who don’t like being told they must be black and only black. Jana Wright, in an essay in Interracial Voice, writes: “If you are of mixed-race, you are often called upon to prove your Blackness, as though a lack of melanin proves that you don’t want to ‘uplift the race’.” She argues that by adding a multiracial category she and people like her could be “no longer just ‘half’ Black, we could be Black AND White.”
At the other extreme is a mulatto who completely rejects whiteness: “Until the last remnant of white racism is verifiably eliminated from the Earth, all ‘non-whites’—however one defines that—must contribute to the continuation and the strengthening of the . . . ‘fundamental racial distinction’ in America by identifying solely with their/our non-European roots.”
Heather Green, a Canadian mulatto takes the same view: “If I do anything short of vigilantly embracing my African identity—consciously, wholeheartedly and without illusions about African realities—then I may be swept away, co-opted, consumed and sucked into the European power structure, culture and mindset which preaches that because of African blood, I am inferior.”
The New Colored People is essentially a book-length argument in support of this view. Jon Michael Spencer, who is a professor of music and American studies at the University of Richmond, offers two kinds of arguments to support the one drop rule. The first has to do simply with numbers. Congressional districts are sometimes drawn to give black voters a majority, and employment discrimination cases often turn on whether a white employer had the same proportion of blacks in his workforce as live in the neighborhood. So long as numbers can be an advantage, Prof. Spencer doesn’t want a single black to slip into a different category.
There is strength in numbers even aside from government regulation: “While whites, with their majority status, hunt down, identify, and discriminate against everyone with that ‘one drop,’ the greater number of blacks resulting from the ‘rule’ make it more difficult for our oppressors to maintain the institutions of discrimination.” The second part of this argument is nonsense. As the history of South Africa or of the ante-bellum South shows, a small number of whites can govern large numbers of blacks if they wish, but Prof. Spencer is correct to glory in numbers. Today, bloc voting by blacks is a powerful tool for advancing black interests.
However, his main objection to the multiracial category, to which he devotes most of the book, is that it might undermine black consciousness and solidarity: “[O]pponents of the multiracial movement suspect that the movement’s real aim is to dismantle the black community.”
He quotes a black, F. James Davis, who argues that “the suggestion today that the one-drop rule is an arbitrary social construction that could be changed sounds to the black community like a dangerous idea. If one result of such a change would be to cause some lighter-colored persons to leave the black community for the white community, the former would lose some of its hard-won political strength, perhaps some of its best leaders <. . .”
Prof. Spencer is also very much afraid light-skinned blacks will bolt. He worries about “blacks who [might] defect to the multiracial category” and wonders about their motives: “Some opponents of the multiracial movement may also suspect that the real aim of the multiracialists, particularly those who have traditionally been viewed as black due to the one-drop rule, is for the mixed-race blacks to be able to dissociate themselves from that despised caste.” Odd as it may seem, Prof. Spencer wants to bind to the black race the very people he thinks secretly despise blacks and would prefer to have nothing to do with them.
Prof. Spencer suspects that the white parents of hybrids are also desperate to find a new racial category that will keep their children out of the “despised caste”—though this is a mean-spirited reproach to whites who, by marrying blacks, have made the most profoundly pro-black, integrationist statement possible. Prof. Spencer’s fear that the friends and relations of the black race are all waiting for a chance to run for the door must say something about his own feelings about being black.
He goes on to argue—rather fantastically—that the new classification would “do nothing more than break up the black community.” He writes of “the havoc that would be brought upon the black racial identity and black solidarity” and warns of “the havoc that would likely be wreaked in the black community” by a loss of black solidarity. Any decline in black power is a serious concern because “the destruction of white supremacy will not occur by further fragmenting the black community or peoples of color.”
Prof. Spencer is particularly touchy about the idea that some of the icons of black history might have been “multiracial” rather than black. Nothing seems to infuriate him more than the thought of the white parents saying to their hybrid children, “Colin Powell, Lena Horne, Alex Haley, and Malcolm X were multiracial, just like you.” He thinks this is nothing less than the theft of black history, adding, “The United States has a history of this kind of grand larceny.” “Is Black History Month to be replaced by Multiracial History Month?” he asks. For Afro-centrists this may be a real worry because without the one drop rule, not even the most brazen of them can claim that Nefertiti, Jesus, Rameses, and Beethoven were “black.”
Prof. Spencer has visited South Africa and thinks multiracials would probably become like the Coloreds—mixed-race Africans who had an apartheid status above that of blacks but below whites. He says whites are past masters at throwing mulattos a few scraps to win their help in oppressing blacks. He can easily imagine a co-opted class of light-skinned “house niggers” outdoing whites in anti-black behavior, and believes that if the United States had granted mulattos special privileges they would have left blacks to fend for themselves. He warns that “in Brazil, the mulattos, in their struggle to get on the white bandwagon, kick their darker kindred around even more severely than the whites.”
He notes that black-mulatto tension is ripe for exploitation: “Already there is a lack of trust in the black community for those who appear mixed, given that historically whites have chosen mixed-race people who are part white to guard their systems of power and privilege in countries they have colonized.” He adds that if mulattos defected to a new category blacks might never agree to take them back.
Prof. Spencer therefore wants to support the one drop rule in every possible way. It is only with the greatest reluctance that he would let anyone who is part-black be anything but black. He does concede that “African Americans must open up new space for mixed-race blacks to be biracially black.” He does not elaborate on what would be in that “space”—perhaps hybrids cannot be expected to be as hostile to whites as real blacks—but such people are to be biracially black, rather than biracial.
The huge majority of whites wouldn’t think twice about giving hybrids the option of checking a “multiracial” box on their census form and would be astonished at the vehemence of the views expressed by Prof. Spencer and by the people he quotes. And it must have been a fearsome shock for the idealistic white parents of mulattos to find themselves accused of wanting to undermine the black race when they proposed for their children a racial classification that was something other than 100 percent black.
James Landrith is a white man married to a black woman, and edits a publication called The Multiracialist Activist. He is bitter about “traditional civil rights groups who tend to brush off our community or denigrate us.” “These same groups,” he writes, “are the ones battering self-identifying multiracials as ‘running from their blackness’ and calling them ‘Uncle Tom’ as well as belittling and demeaning interracial marriages.”
The white liberal goal is to do away with racial consciousness, or at least to allow voluntary, multiple and even shifting racial identities. Liberals soon discover that blacks want the very opposite; for many of them race comes first. When Prof. Spencer writes about “the havoc that would be brought upon the black racial identity and black solidarity” if there were to be a multiracial category, he takes for granted that racial consciousness and solidarity are essential for blacks.
It is therefore almost amusing to watch Prof. Spencer struggle with the fashionable and now nearly obligatory view that race is a biological fraud. He apparently feels he has to endorse this silliness but his heart is not in it; he cannot turn his back on race. He says the country needs “an obliteration of racism . . . before the people at the bottom of the social and economic totem [pole] of American society abandon the unity and protective barrier that race has brought them so far.” He says he believes in “the denunciation of race but the dependency on race until the vestiges of racism are obliterated,” adding that “we must be careful not to abandon the idea of race too hastily and not to let those groups that have been history’s oppressors forget their behavior too soon.” In other words race may be rubbish, but blacks should use it to their advantage and keep whitey on the hop as long as they can.
It is in sentiments like these that we find the significance of black opposition to the proposed new census category. It was a significance few whites understand: Racial solidarity is so important to blacks that the most innocent and even obvious proposal that could conceivably undermine it unleashes near-hysterical opposition.