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Fading Race

Black Is Black? Not Anymore, As Racial Labels Rapidly Lose Meaning

February 4, 2007
By WILLIAM WEIR, Courant Staff Writer

Whether he wins the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama's bid for the presidency is sure to fuel a debate over what racial and ethnic labels actually mean in an increasingly diverse America.

Much of the attention on Obama's candidacy is based on his potential to become the nation's first black president. But some wonder whether Obama would be a "black" president. His mother is white, and to complicate matters, his ancestors did not come to America by way of slavery (his Kenyan father came to this country to study).

For his part, Obama identifies himself as African American. That hardly settles the matter.

Debra Dickerson, the African American author of "The End of Blackness," recently caused a small ruckus when she wrote for Salon.com that she doesn't consider Obama black.

"'Black' in our political and social reality means those descended from West African slaves," she wrote. Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio talk-show hosts have taken to mocking Obama's claim to his own heritage, calling him a "Halfrican American."

Then, from the other end of the spectrum, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, sizing up the field last week after joining the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, credited Obama's appeal to his being "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and is a nice-looking guy."

In the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly 7 million Americans described themselves as being of more than one race, and this number is expected to climb steadily for some time.

Although the 2000 census was the first to allow respondents to identify themselves as multiracial, it's evident that multiracial Americans have become far more numerous in just the last few decades.

So, of all candidates vying for the 2008 presidency, Obama's less-than-clearly defined cultural identity may be the one that best represents America's future. At the very least, it's another example of how the lines drawn between groups are continuing to blur.

And the more we think about race, the more elusive the concept becomes. The meaning of terms "black" and "white" vary in different parts of the world. For instance, in Brazil (where issues of race are even more convoluted and emotional than here), the concepts of black and white are entirely different from what they are in the U.S.

Even well-intentioned corrective terms such as "African American" fall short. For one thing, it excludes large portions of Africa's populations, like Egyptians and white South Africans. It also stamps a cultural identity on a vast group of people, although some may see themselves simply as "Americans."

"Hispanic" (a term referring to ethnicity, not race) also frustrates. It was officially adopted during the Nixon administration as a corrective to "Spanish American." But it's a term so broad that many who technically fall into that category have refused to check off that box on census forms, protesting that it's meaningless and even misleading. Expect more discussion on this should presidential contender Bill Richardson, the half-Hispanic governor of New Mexico, pick up in the polls.

In recent years, the debate over what race is has turned to the science of it. As such, race barely exists. Genetically, differences from one population to another are generally no greater than among individuals within the same population.

The Anthropological Association of America has long held that race is mainly a social construct that arose around the time of global expansion in the 15th century - largely to justify poor treatment of certain peoples.

"We're not saying it doesn't exist, but it was a human invention," says Peggy Overbey, director of the organization's Race project. "It does exist - it is real. But it is not scientific and biological."

The Anthropological Association's recently launched exhibit "Race: Are We So Different?" is a major effort to raise awareness about what race is, and is not. It's scheduled to come to Hartford in spring 2008. (More information: www.understandingrace.org.)

The organization has also worked to minimize the U.S. government's emphasis on race and was one of the groups urging the change in the 2000 census that allowed for multiracial identification.

"These differences in people are important," Overbey says, "but culture changes, and I think what's happened is that, as patterns of marriage change, our identities are more complex now."

But David Canton, an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College, cautions that we can go too far in minimizing our acknowledgment of race.

"With home ownership, wealth, health, infant mortality, we see that race does matter, so there have to be policies that address these matters," he says.

Otherwise, Canton says, we risk creating an institutionalized form of "colorblind racism." Refusing to acknowledge race, he says, could allow racially related problems to become even worse. By acknowledging race, he says, we can address the problems.

"First, we have to admit that they still exist and that we live in a society with white privilege," Canton says.

People can choose to identify themselves however way they want, Canton says, but the real issue of race is how others perceive you. "If a mixed-race kid walks into a department store, he's going to be identified as black."

Cheryl Greenberg, professor of history at Trinity College, teaches her students that race doesn't exist in any scientific way. But perceptions of it do and come with real consequences.

"We were taught to see people in those terms," she says, adding that this has also affected our behavior. "So, of course, there is such a thing as race."

Though Greenberg would like to see an end to unequal treatment along racial or ethnic lines, she hopes that our differences will continue to be recognized.

"I'm not sure its desirable to get to the point that we don't notice those things," she says. "Just as it is a part of our culture, you don't want to pretend there aren't differences."

Overbey also appreciates the differences in populations but prefers the term "ancestry" to "race." The difference is more than semantic, she says. It allows that people possess two lineages - from their mothers and fathers - and for a much more complex cultural identity than broadly and arbitrarily drawn racial groupings.

"I think our hope in the long term is that people will look beyond race," Overbey says. "Over 100,000 years, we have been mixing and mating for all of this time, and our identities are much more complex than we like to think."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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