Policies of Racial Classification and the Politics of Racial Inequality

Policies of Racial Classification and the Politics of Racial Inequality

In Suzanne Mettler, Joe Soss, and Jacob Hacker (eds.). Remaking America: Democracy and Public Policy in an Age of Inequality
Russell Sage Foundation
November 2007
41 pages

Jennifer L. Hochschild, Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and Professor of African and African American Studies
Harvard University

Vesla Mae Weaver, Assistant Professor
The Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics
University of Virginia

Introduction: Policy, Politics, Inequality, and Race

In 1890, the United States census bureau reported that the nation contained 6,337,980 negroes, 956,989 “mulattoes,” 105,135 “quadroons,” and 69,936 “octoroons.” In the early twentieth century it also reported the number of whites of “mixed parentage,” the number of Indians with one-quarter, half, or three-quarters black or white “blood,” and the number of part-Hawaiians and part-Malays. The boundaries between racial and ethnic groups, and even the definition of race and ethnicity, were blurred and contested. By 1930, however, this ambiguity largely disappeared from the census. Anyone with any “Negro blood” was counted as a Negro; whites no longer had mixed parentage; Indians were mainly identified by tribe rather than ancestry; and a consistent treatment of Asians was slowly developing. In other work we examine how and why these classifications rose and fell; here we examine the consequences for contemporary American politics and policy.

Official governmental classification systems can create as well as reflect social, economic, and political inequality, just as policies of taxation, welfare, or social services can and do. Official classification defines groups, determines boundaries between them, and assigns individuals to groups; in “ranked ethnic systems” (Horowitz 2000), this process enshrines structurally the dominant group’s belief about who belongs where, which groups deserve what, and ultimately who gets what. Official racial categories have determined whether a person may enter the United States, attain citizenship, own a laundry, marry a loved one, become a firefighter, enter a medical school, attend an elementary school near home, avoid an internment camp, vote, run for office, annul a marriage, receive appropriate medical treatment for syphilis, join a tribe, sell handicrafts, or open a casino. Private racial categories have affected whether an employer offers a person a job, whether a criminal defendant gets lynched, whether a university admits an applicant, and whether a heart attack victim receives the proper therapy. In these and many more ways, racial classification helps to create and maintain poverty and political, social, and economic inequality. Thus systems of racial categorization are appropriate subjects for analysis through a policy-centered perspective because they are “strategies for achieving political goals, structures shaping political interchange, and symbolic objects conveying status and identity” (p. 2 of Intro). Race is also, not coincidentally, the pivot around which political contests about equality have been waged for most of this country’s history.

The same classification system that promotes inequality may also undermine it. Once categorization generates groups with sharply defined boundaries, the members of that group can draw on their shared identity within the boundary to mobilize against their subordinate position—what one set of authors call strategic essentialism (Omi and Winant 1994). Thus classification laws are recursive, containing the elements for both generating and challenging group-based inequality. For this reason—and also because demographic patterns and other social relations on which classification rests can change—categorizations are unstable and impermanent.

We explore these abstract claims by examining the past century of racial classification in the United States. That period encompassed significant change in systems of classification and their attendant hierarchies; thus we can see how classification and inequality are related, as well as tracing the political dynamics that reinforce or challenge inequality-sustaining policies. From the Civil War era through the 1920s, the Black population was partly deconstructed through official attention to mulattos (and sometimes quadroons and octoroons), then reconstructed through court decisions and state-level “one drop of blood” laws. As of 1930, a clear and simple racial hierarchy was inscribed in the American polity — with all the attendant horrors of Jim Crow segregation. However, the one-drop policy that reinforced racial inequality also undermined it. From the 1930s through the 1970s, that is, the Black population solidified though a growing sense of racial consciousness and shared fate, and developed the political capacity to contest their poverty and unequal status…

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