Review of Spencer, Jon Michael, The New Colored People: The Mixed-Race Movement in America

Review of Spencer, Jon Michael, The New Colored People: The Mixed-Race Movement in America

H-Net Reviews
January 1998

Richard L. Hughes

The Census, Race, and…

Amid a racial climate which includes a presidential advisory board on race and a discussion of slavery within the popular media, there lies an increasingly prominent dialogue on race in American culture. As the United States nears its next federal census in the year 2000, many Americans have expressed dissatisfaction with the accuracy of the current four categories of white, black, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaskan Native. Some observers have supported the addition of a “multiracial” category where others, such as historian Orlando Patterson, have criticized the continued existence of racial categories on the census as a “scientifically meaningless” and “politically dangerous” “Race Trap.”[1]

One of the reasons why this debate resonates with so many Americans is that the discussion of race and public policy includes both the persistent belief that race is a fixed biological factor and the emerging notion of many scholars and policymakers that race is a fluid historical and sociopolitical construct. Acknowledging both perspectives, Jon Michael Spencer’s The New Colored People: The Mixed-Race Movement in America is the latest scholarly contribution to this ongoing debate concerning the census and the possible use of the category “multiracial.” Borrowing both the title and analytical framework from Joel Williamson’s New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (1980), which focused on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Spencer offers a cautionary tale about a “multiracial” category in the contemporary United States.[2] He contends that without a “frank assessment of race” and the end of racism, such a category would be “politically naive” and even “suicidal” to black Americans (pp. 148,155).

While Spencer shares Williamson’s astute perspective that the status of “mulattoes” or, to use Spencer’s term, “multiracial” Americans, is an instructive index for race relations, his argument about the dangers of a new government-sanctioned racial category centers on a “cross-cultural analysis” of multiracial Americans and the coloured people of South Africa (p. 11). Building on the comparative work of historian George Fredrickson, the writings of coloured intellectuals such as Richard Van der Ross and Allan Boesak, and interviews with other “coloured nationalists,” Spencer concludes that the creation of a coloured “middle status” under apartheid served to divide and oppress nonwhites by creating a buffer zone between white elites and the black masses (pp. xiii, 91).[3] The result was the continued oppression of South African blacks and a marginal status for coloured South Africans. Cognizant of the centrality of issues of personal identity in the current American debate, Spencer adds that the middle status robbed coloureds of the identity, esteem, and culture only possible through a unified black consciousness movement in more recent South Africa. Spencer’s valuable contribution lies in his comparative analysis in which the tragedy of South African apartheid underscores the possible dangers in careless additions to America’s racial landscape…

Read the entire review here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,