Historicizing “mixed-race” and post-modern amnesia

Historicizing “mixed-race” and post-modern amnesia

O Desafio da Diferença (Challenge of the Difference)
Universidade Federal da Bahia
Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
2000-04-09 through 2000-04-12

Grupo de Trabalho (Workshop) 5: Mixing it up with Mixed Race: Problematizing and Historicizing the Mixed Race Discourse

Katya Gibel Azoulay [Mevorach], Associate Professor of Anthropology
Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa

Americans have carried the problem of the color line into the 21st century but it is doubtful that the generation of W.E.B. Du Bois anticipated the emergence of a “multiracial” movement whose primary objective was to gain recognition of mixed-race people as a unique entity and different collective. This phenomenon is an outgrowth of “interracial” marriages which, according to the U.S. Census, indicate dramatic increases since the dismantlement of state anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. Blacks, however, are “noticeably absent” from this trend and Newsweek has estimated that approximately 20 percent of interracial marriages were between black and white partners and the overwhelming majority of these are between white women and black men [Fletcher 1998; Azoulay 1997:95]

This paper focuses on the demand for a multiracial category in the U.S. Census in order to explore two intersecting aspects of the multiracial discourse. Attention is only given to the black/white binary for it is this angle which is the most contentious and has received the most public attention. On the one hand, the idea of multiracialism eclipses the broader issue of power partially because it is premised on privileging individual rights rather than group rights. On the other hand, the celebration of multiracial people may be read as a postmodern script in which women, as mothers, occupy a central role in the formation and politicization of racial identities.

As a departure point, let us address the premise of the question posed by the multiracial movement: should racial classifications used to track broad demographic trends and monitor compliance with legislation against racial discrimination take each individual heritage into account? I suggest that the demand for a multiracial category confuses personal identities with prescriptive identities while ignoring the relationship between public policy and identifiable communities. Public policies that utilize race categories affect groups of people who may or may not subscribe to a shared collective identity but who are nevertheless perceived as a group. Government and institutional policies shaped by information gathered about social categories are not formulated for individuals but for groups. The political implications of this lead opponents and supporters of government sponsored social engineering to invoke the equal protection clause under the 14th amendment with very different interpretations. In a departure from the direction set by the U.S. Supreme Court 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education toward civil rights legislation, the courts have moved away from protecting historically disadvantaged group rights evidenced by court-ordered repeals of affirmative action policies confusing invidious discrimination with remedial racial preference.

As a preface, let me state clearly my position: race categories are public fictions which are deeply embedded in American ways of thinking and acting. Furthermore, because classifications based on the political and social category of “race” have no scientific basis, they are misused when appropriated as biological criteria into medical research in the United States [Tapper 1999]. Consequently, arguments for a multiracial category for health reasons (such as bone marrow donors) rely on a faulty notion that race categories can be adjusted for accuracy. Nevertheless, race has assumed the status of a social fact whose meanings reflect, and are reflected by, the cognitive feel of lived experience in a race-based society [Piper 1992; Scales-Trent 1995].

Read the entire paper here.

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