Black, White, Other: Racial categories are cultural constructs masquerading as biology

Black, White, Other: Racial categories are cultural constructs masquerading as biology

Natural History Magazine
December 1994
pp. 32–35

Jonathan Marks, Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of North Carolina, Charlotte

While reading the Sunday edition of the New York Times one morning last February, my attention was drawn by an editorial inconsistency. The article I was reading was written by attorney Lani Guinier (Guinier, you may remember, had been President Clinton’s nominee to head the civil rights division at the Department of Justice in 1993. Her name was hastily withdrawn amid a blast of criticism over her views on political representation of minorities.) What had distracted me from the main point of the story was a photo caption that described Guinier as being “half-black.” In the text of the article, Guinier had described herself simply as “black”

How can a person be black and half black at the same time? In algebraic terms, this would seem to describe a situation where x = 1/2 x, to which the only solution is x = 0.

The inconsistency in the Times was trivial, but revealing. It encapsulated a longstanding problem in our use of racial categories—namely, a confusion between biological and cultural heredity. When Guinier is described as “half-black,” that is a statement of biological ancestry, for one of her two parents is black. And when Guinier describes herself as black, she is using a cultural category, according to which one can either be black or white, but not both.

Race—as the term is commonly used—is inherited, although not in a strictly biological fashion. It is passed down according to a system of folk heredity, an all-or-nothing system that is different front the quantifiable heredity of biology. But the incompatibility of the two notions of race is sometimes starkly evident—as when the state decides that racial differences are so important that interracial marriages must be regulated or outlawed entirely. Miscegenation laws in this country (which stayed on the books in many states through the 1960s) obliged the legal system to define who belonged in what category. The resulting formula stated that anyone with one-eighth or more black ancestry was a “negro.” (A similar formula, defining Jews, was promulgated by the Germans in the Nuremberg Laws of the 1930s.).

Applying such formulas led to the biological absurdity that having one black great-grandparent was sufficient to define a person as black, but having seven white great grandparents was insufficient to define a person as white. Here, race and biology are demonstrably at odds. And the problem is not semantic but conceptual, for race is presented as a category of nature…

…Unlike graduated biological distinctions, culturally constructed categories are ultrasharp. One can be French or German, but not both; Tutsi or Hutu, but not both; Jew or Catholic, but nor both; Bosnian Muslim or Serb, but not both; black or white, but not both. Traditionally, people of “mixed race” have been obliged to choose one and thereby identity themselves unambiguously to census takers and administrative bookkeepers—a practice that is now being widely called into question

Read the entire article here.

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