Interpreting the Census: The Elasticity of Whiteness and the Depoliticization of Race

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Census/Demographics, Chapter, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2010-12-28 02:31Z by Steven

Interpreting the Census: The Elasticity of Whiteness and the Depoliticization of Race 

pages 155-170 

Katya Gibel Mevorach, Associate Professor of Anthropology
Grinnell College 

From the anthology: 

Racial Liberalism and the Politics of Urban America
Michigan State University Press
280 pages
6 ” x 9 ”
ISBN: 0-87013-669-0, 978-0-87013-669-6 

Edited by: 

Curtis Stokes, Professor of Political Philosophy and African American Thought
James Madison College of Public Affairs
Michigan State University 

Theresa A. Melendez, Associate Professor of Chicano/Chicana Literature
Michigan State University 

I begin with a brief review of how whiteness was established as a norm and context for considering initial media reports of U.S. Census data on race released in March 2001.  This is followed by reflections on the politically conservative ramifications of multiracialism and multiculturalism, which have had an exaggerated impact on popular interpretations of the census.  As a preface, it should be noted that although we are, collectively, caught in the trap of using race as a noun, race should be understood as a verb—a predicate that requires action.  People do not belong to a race but the are raced; in this context, race operates as a social fact with concrete material consequences for the manner in which experiences shape individual lives and their meaning. 

Let us take note of an overlooked but rather obvious observation: inequality is not distributed equally.  Therefore Americans of all colors and national origins need a constant reminder that Africans brought to the English colonies in the 1600s were strategically and explicitly excluded, by law and social custom, from the privileges and rights accorded English men.  This is a critical factor in how U.S. history has been shaped.  Emphasizing the unequal distribution of inequality underlines the continuities and clarifies the linkages between the past and the present.  Beginning in the colonial period, being white was perceived and defined as having certain privileges and rights, including right to citizenship,  to vote, to serve in the militia and bear arms, and to be a member of a jury.  Most important of all was the right of self-possession—in other words, he right to be identified as a free person and to act on that right.  Children of enslaved African females were legally designated as slaves and property of their masters, who often where their biological fathers.  As blackness quickly came to be associated with slave status, the law set the parameters within which, conceptually, people with African ancestors would be legally and socially identified as Negroes (Fields 1990)… 

…In sum, the multiracial movement has successfully blurred the lines between two very different forms of identifying: public self-identification and personal or private plural identities. From Elk magazine to Seventeen and ABC to MTV, the notion of mixed-race and multiracial identities is given positive visibility as a celebration of how much America is changing. Curiously, this multimedia arena has neglected a discussion of the limitations of a notion of multiracialism that refers only to children whose parents are raced differently. In fact, the campaign for a multiracial category completely obscures the fact that black or African American is already a multiracial category. Patricia Williams skillfully interprets this phenomenon when she writes, “what troubles me is the degree to which few people in the world, and most particularly in the United States, are anything but multiracial, to say nothing of biracial. The use of the term seems to privilege the offspring of mixed marriages as those ‘between’ races without doing much to enhance the social status of us mixed-up products of the illegitimacies of the not so distanct past” (1997, 53)…

Read the entire chapter here.

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