Eliminating Race Categories to End Racism
The new Administration has made fighting racism a political priority. While it is debatable whether this is a task that should be entrusted to the government, the government can take a positive step towards eliminating racism by eliminating race categories.
Scientifically speaking, race does not exist. There is more genetic variation within a single race than among various races. Race is a socio-cultural construct, not a biological reality. This socio-cultural construct is nonetheless important; however, it would be more beneficial to think of race as a culture rather than as an immutable feature of birth.
The government took steps in recognizing that race is cultural and not biological in 1960, when they allowed individuals to select race based on self-identification rather than based on the determination of the census-taker. The next logical, and necessary, step is to eliminate race categories altogether.
“Racism,” by very definition, requires the existence of “race.” The United States government has a long history of institutionalized racism based on definitions of race categories. As only “negroes” could be enslaved, it is accurate to say that the very existence of race-based slavery depended upon the government having the power to define individuals as negroes. In antebellum America, categories of negroes included mulattoes (half African, half European); quadroons (one quarter African, three-quarters European); and octoroons (one-eighth African, seven-eighths European).
However, laws other than slavery–such as those relating to marriage and inheritance–also depended on these definitions. Even free mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons had fewer rights than whites. Those rights varied by state. For example, in antebellum New Orleans, quadroon women who could not legally marry white men would sometimes enter into extralegal arrangements known as “placage,” through which they would negotiate a home and education for their children. However, those children could still not legally be recognized as white–they were octoroons, and therefore negro. Though some could “pass” for white, especially if they had blonde hair and blue eyes, they still did not have the same legal rights of inheritance, marriage, or voting as their “white” half-siblings.
This complicated system of quadroons, octoroons, and mulattoes rightfully strikes us as quite absurd today. However, I argue that our present system of race categories, though less complicated, is equally absurd. Though we have simplified the categories and done away with discriminatory laws based on them, we have not eliminated the categories. And that is the root of the problem.
After abolition, race categories were used in Jim Crow laws, including those banning interracial marriage. For example, in Alabama in 1867, Section 3602 of the Alabama Code mandated a two to seven year prison term each for a white person and a “descendant of any negro, to the third generation,” who married or “live[d] in adultery or fornication with each other.” As mixed ancestry became more common, states struggled to identify who qualified as negro, leading some states, such as Virginia, to adopt the “one drop rule.” It wasn’t until the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that laws banning interracial marriage were finally recognized as unconstitutional and abolished.
The government is now trying to use these race categories for “good” by creating minority business set-asides in government contracting, grant awards, and hiring. However, this is nothing more than an attempt to use a fundamentally flawed system. The same system that created racism cannot be used to end it.
Notable African American writers have recognized this point and argued it as well. In his 1963 civil rights essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in Mind,” James Baldwin argued for an end to race categories. Baldwin states point-blank, “The value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.” He envisioned not black history and white history, but one American history.
“Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet,” Baldwin writes. He continues, “In short, we, the black and white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.”
More recently, Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of the 2019 Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, has advocated for an end to racial categorization as the only way to create true freedom and equality. He writes, “The truth is that no matter how long and hard you try—you cannot struggle your way out of a straitjacket that does not exist. But pretending it exists, for whatever the reason, really does leave you in a severely restricted posture.”
However virtuous the government’s goals may be, it can best meet those goals not through the continued hyperfocus on race, but by recognizing that we are all one human race, and that we are all Americans. To truly end racism, government instituted race categories will have to be eliminated. And the sooner the government eliminates them, the better it will be for all of us.