Sydney Trent, Washington Post, October 16, 2023
The notice from the federal government arrived in Carlos Hoyt’s inbox last August. It was looking ahead to the 2030 Census and inviting Americans to give feedback. A request for help with the “challenge” of properly counting members of racial minority groups piqued his interest.
The moment Hoyt and others had been waiting for had finally arrived. The chance to tell the federal government, and send a bold message to the public: We shouldn’t be asking people to identify by “race” at all.
Racial categories, assigned to people based on their appearance, geographic origin and other supposed attributes, got their start during the dawn of Western science in 18th century Europe. White Europeans, who then had no knowledge of human genetics and little meaningful contact with other cultures, placed themselves at the pinnacle. For centuries now, the categories have been used to divide and perpetuate every version of harm — enslavement, violence, an eclipse of opportunity. The reality of it all sometimes moves Hoyt to tears.
In 2003, the completion of the Human Genome Project — which found that humans globally share 99.9 percent of their DNA — laid waste to the notion of “race” among the vast majority of scientists. But the public appears barely to have noticed. The idea still lives everywhere — in discrimination and criminal profiling, in the rise in hate speech and acts, in the recent Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action in college admissions, in the rhetoric of social justice advocates and the new capitalization of Black and White in the media. Racial categorization persists on job applications, medical forms, and most critically to Hoyt due to its high visibility, the Census.
The 63-year-old educational consultant and psychotherapist is part of a small but increasingly vocal group of people who favor phasing out racial categories. A diverse cohort of highly educated professionals and academics, they are trying to gain broader societal acceptance for their beliefs through a cottage industry of books, articles, websites, conferences and training.
Yet they recoil at the idea of being confused with people who call themselves “colorblind,” those “who are trying to deny that there is racism in the world,” Hoyt said. The government must account for harms caused by “race,” but without resorting to debunked categories that suggest it is biological, he said.
Hoyt read aloud the Census Bureau’s caveats, that “the racial categories included in the Census Questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country, and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”
He sighed. “To recognize that race … is a false concept but to keep doing it anyway, there’s something intellectually problematic about it.”
But it’s a long distance from here to there, so he and his fellow racial-category resisters are proposing a middle ground until society catches up. They don’t advocate for the cold-turkey method of the French, whose laws strictly limit data collection on race and ethnicity amid protests of racial discrimination.
“There’s a principle in psychotherapy that says you don’t take away a client’s defenses unless you have something to replace it with, because it’s serving a purpose, right?” said Hoyt, the author of “The Arc of a Bad Idea,” who has given a TEDx talk, developed a website with a “nonracial world view library” and frequently consults at schools and universities on the topic.
To outsiders, such efforts might seem like so much tilting at windmills. It’s a formidable task to dismantle a centuries-old system that persists like air, omnipresent, its twisted origins largely invisible.
In fact, there have long been thinkers who have questioned the use of racial categories, as well as people who sought to escape them and the harm they’ve posed.
Early 20th century anthropologist Ashley Montagu famously wrote “The word race is racist” in his landmark 1942 book, “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race.” Franz Boas, the German American anthropologist, argued over a century ago that race was solely a social construct, as did African American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. More recently, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates urged the nation to devise a new language for talking about race, given what is now known about human origins.
As with religion, some people never bought in to begin with, Hoyt said. He puts himself into this category.
He was about 3 when his parents, poor Costa Ricans of West African and Jamaican descent, immigrated to the United States, where the family was plunged into the country’s system of racial categorization.
In seventh grade, Hoyt became part of a racial busing program that carried him from his home in Dorchester to Dover or, as he describes it, “a black-identified environment to a white-identified environment,” where he said he did not experience discrimination.
In the late 1970s, he went off to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. In her 1998 sociology classic “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Beverly Daniel Tatum, an alumnus, psychologist and educator, referenced the very Wesleyan cafeteria where Hoyt dined, a sunken space with windows allowing an elevated view of how students chose to self-segregate.
Tatum affirmed the practice as a healthy way to cope in a racist society. Hoyt viewed it differently. “I would never want to relegate myself to sitting with only one type of person,” he recalled thinking.
Thus was born his own interest in the development of racial identity and the harms caused by racism — and how to undo them.
Yet Ellis Monk, a sociology professor at Harvard University who researches race, inequity and colorism, is among those who think eradicating race is impractical. Although he knows that biological race does not exist, there’s no getting away from race “in a world where race has mattered,” Monk said.
Some argue that identifying collectively by race has also enabled members of minority groups to more effectively fight for equal rights; others, like Harvard professor Tommie Shelby, assert that battling oppression does not require a common Black identity.
The pride many minority group members have come to take in their identities can be viewed as a resistance in itself, Hoyt said. “But while reclamation feels good, it’s always incompletely successful,” because it fails to challenge the delusion of race at the heart of racism, he said.
To tide Americans over to a more egalitarian time, Hoyt and others suggest that people use alternatives for self-description.
For example there’s “classified [insert racial category ],” “[insert racial category]-identified,” and Hoyt’s personal preference, “racialized [insert racial category],” which refers to the way in which one is perceived or what has been done to a person, in contrast to who one is down to a debunked genetic notion. Such descriptors could still allow the government to account for possible harms caused by modern and historic discrimination, Hoyt and others believe.
On an individual level, these new terms of describing oneself can also create a psychological buffer against the assault of racist assumptions and stereotypes and feelings of otherness embodied in the centuries-old racial categories, said Sheena Mason, an assistant professor of English at SUNY Oneonta.
But racial categories can’t be unraveled by pulling a string. First, they must be confronted in the real world.
To Hoyt and many in his cohort, deciding whether to check the race box requires deliberation. The box at the doctor’s office, which can lead to false inferences that are sometimes detrimental, is often nixed — for herself and her three young children, Mason said. Marriage license applications are a no-brainer: No.
Boxes in which aggregate data is used to correct past wrongs are greeted with some hand-wringing. That includes the racial category boxes that were included on college admissions applications, before the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down their use as unconstitutional.
The racial data in the Census is used at the local, state and federal levels to devise and fund policies and programs. It is also used to evaluate them “to ensure that they fairly and equitably serve the needs of all racial groups and to monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws, regulations, and policies,” according to the Census website. Significantly, the data is used to draw congressional districts, thereby helping to determine the influence of minority voters and challenge racial gerrymandering.