Race: Time to Give Up on the Four-Letter Word

Since the 19th century, the word has burrowed its way into our everyday lexicon, just as the very concept has entrenched itself in our lives.

Ostensibly, race is a key, crucial definer of who and what we are. Your race is your raza, your people. This is what I am, or, at the very least, this race of mine has informed the way I experience the world -- and how, for better or worse, others relate to me.

As Americans, we learn to check the race box early on: Black. White. Asian-Pacific Islander. Native American, and the confusing Hispanic/Latino distinction.

In this way, we check boxes to announce that we are of one kind of human or another which, according to U.S. Census 2000, means that we're a country of many races; fully one-third of our country now consists of "minority races," while some 15 million of us belong to that enigmatic racial category, "Other."

Racial categories, particularly those relating to the U.S. Census, provide endless hours of number-crunching fun for government statisticians. We journalists, in turn, take this data and weave racial figures into articles on housing, health care, prisons, jobs, elections, television and education. Racial data allows us to highlight discrimination, racial profiling, gaps in funding, trends in voting.

Writing guidelines for journalists including the favorite Associated Press Stylebook, encourage us to identify when a particular issue "cuts across racial lines," just as we are expected to refer to a person's race when such identification provides the reader with a "substantial insight into conflicting emotions known or likely to be involved in a demonstration or similar event."

We're further expected to identify article subjects by their race when a subject has been appointed to a position not typically held by persons of that race. President Bush's February nomination of Charles A. James, a respected antitrust lawyer, to the position of assistant attorney general in charge of the antitrust division of the Justice Department was therefore duly noted in The New York Times this way: "If confirmed, Mr. James would be the first black to lead the antitrust unit on a permanent basis."

Mr. James was therefore "the first black," and not "the first black (or African American) person" or the more accurately descriptive "dark-brown person." Because the point, in this instance as in so many others, was not to be physically descriptive. The point was to deliver to the reader an identification of the subject's race -- an announcement of the racial subdivision to which Mr. James has been assigned from the time of his birth. And, in this manner, it became a way of recognizing that Mr. James had accomplished something significant for his race.

Racial Categories: Tainted Origins

The New York Times article is, in fact, a relatively benign example of the power and the loaded, layered meanings of the term. In the hands of white supremacists, "race" quickly takes on a dark and vicious lifeforce of its own, and the fight against the "mongrelization of the races" (an issue argued about loudly and publicly by segregationist politicians as late as the 1960s) becomes the rallying cry for the self-appointed protectors of the "white race."

But Klansmen are hardly the only ones hanging onto the idea that humans can and should be shoved into racial categories. In the world of journalism (and beyond), race is such a pervasive and stubbornly entrenched term that even publications which have finally made the switch from "minorities" to "people of color" are still unwilling to use "ethnicity" and "ethnic origin" rather than race, although many are now grouping the two together, with phrases like "the nation's many racial and ethnic groups."

The change seems a long way in coming. Even the recent announcement by scientists sequencing the human genome that they were unable to find any biological basis for race warranted only a few of interesting newspaper articles on the subject, but no real discussion or examination of why -- in the absence of any science to back up racial divisions among human beings -- we still cling to the word.

To understand why, it's worth taking a variety of factors into account, not the least of which is the very history of the word and the pseudo-science behind the concept.

Creating Human Categories

In the 18th and 19th centuries, with the growth of interest in ethnology and anthropology, North American and European philosophers, scientists and writers began to put forth the idea that most humans could be assigned -- clearly and unambiguously -- to one racial group. The notion of race as a fixed, rigid construct meant that race was supposed to determine not only a person's appearance and skin color, but also his or her intellectual and physical traits and capacities.

In the simplest race diagram, people were either Caucasian, Mongoloid or Negroid. Other 19th century "experts" determined that there were as many as 300 races. No matter what the number of total races, at the top of that racialist totem pole sat the "Caucasians."

From theory to practice, the implementation of this pseudo-scientific racial categorization was fast and furious. In the U.S., the naturalization law of 1790 determined that citizenship was for "free white persons" only, as whiteness was now associated with "fitness for self government." Conveniently, notions of racial supremacy evolved into the national justification for the brutal enslavement of Africans, colonialism, the poor treatment and exclusion of Asians and genocidal practices against entire tribes of Native Americans.

The Evolution of Whiteness

But the formula for whiteness was constantly tripped up by its own fallacies. The "one drop" rule had to be invented to explain why fair-skinned people -- people who appeared "white" in all possible ways -- could be discriminated against and excluded. The eugenics movement soon took hold as another way of promoting the idea of racial purity, and by 1907, over 20 states had enacted compulsory sterilization laws.

Later, Jews, Italians and Irish workers were allowed to immigrate into the U.S. from the mid-1880s to the early 1900s (before immigration limits for these groups were capped radically), but they were not given standing in the white race. In fact, according to the rapidly evolving and self-constructing fable of racial "science," they had their own races, and were treated accordingly.

In early March, the Washington State Supreme Court granted Mr. Takuji Yamashita honorary entrance to the state bar, ninety-nine years after Yamashita (now deceased) passed his bar exam with flying colors. Despite his obvious capability, Yamashita was denied the opportunity to practice law after he had the misfortune of facing a court that determined, in its own attempt to define racial boundaries, that the Japanese immigrant was not a member of "any branch of the white or whitish race." (And what, precisely, is a member of the 'whitish race'? One can't help but wonder how the justices arrived at that one.)

And so it went. While concepts of racial whiteness were clumsily being crafted out of thin air in the U.S., Russia, Germany and all of the Scandinavian countries were busily embarking on their own similar flights of fancy.

Racial Purity and International Politics

In Sweden (and, to a lesser extent, in Finland and Norway), the eugenics movement took off with the notion that the pure Swedish race had to be protected from inferior traits. A sterilization policy was implemented in that, the most "democratic" of the social welfare states, targeting immigrants, Roma (Gypsies) and the disabled. In recent years, information emerged that such practices were not stopped in Sweden, Finland and Norway until the 1970s -- some thirty years after the end of Germany's Holocaust nightmare.

In Germany, "race hygiene" was seen as a kind of anthropological rescue mission, where cleaning up the pure German gene pool was the only way to ensure the survival of a brave, new Aryan future. The consequences of that nation's mass racialist hallucination were to leave an indelible, gaping wound in the history of humankind in the form of the genocide of Jews, Roma, gays, the disabled, communists and all other "undesirables."

The idea of "race" had become so convincing that most people, including the people targeted by racist laws and discrimination in their daily lives, began using the term. Even if individuals rejected the idea that there was such a thing as a "superior race," the idea that one belonged to one race or another had taken hold.

Uses & Abuses of Racial Grouping

Today, within communities of color -- ethnic groups that have historically been the victims and targets of this racialist doctrine -- the decision to hold onto the terms and categories is, at least, understandable: Civil rights groups and journalists alike have used collected racial data and statistics to try to remedy inequalities and unfair practices in law enforcement, housing, employment and health care.

But not everyone has been willing to go along with "race." Some have gone so far as to announce that the race emperor was wearing no clothes. Ashley Montagu was one of the ones to do so, early on. An anthropologist born into a working-class Jewish family in London's East End, Montagu published 'Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race' in 1942, arguing that race was a social construction.

Montagu, who continued to insist on this point in numerous works until the time of his death in November, 1999, was later joined by the entire American Anthropological Association (AAA). In 1998, the association took an in-depth look at the origins of the concept, and determined that the word should immediately be replaced by more correct terms including "ethnicity" and "ethnic origins."

In particular, the AAA urged the U.S. Census to drop the use of the word "race," with no success. At least a victory, of sorts, was achieved when the Clinton administration agreed to let people check more than one race box on the 2000 census. The result? From the longstanding racial categories, our "advanced" understanding of the mixing of races has now arrived at no less than 63 different racial possibilities. "Multiracial," but not "multiethnic," is now being talked about as the face of the new American frontier, which, according to the most recent census, consists of nearly seven million Americans.

Shifting the Terms of Debate

Our imagined racial lines are blurring faster and faster all the time. And whether we consider ourselves singularly ethnic or multiethnic, here's a radical suggestion: it's about ethnicity, and not race. Asserting our collective human and civil rights, tackling discrimination, righting wrongs, correcting injustices and reporting on America's phenomenal diversity doesn't have to require a committment to a kind of mass hallucination that should have been ended long, long ago.

At the dawn of the 21st century, as scientists have nearly finished the monumental and historic task of mapping of the human genome (the catalog of the genetic material found in every human cell), the incontrovertible proof has been presented: race does not exist. There is, in fact, far more genetic variation within given "racial" groups than between them. And skin color, the basis for so much of the pseudo-science of the previous centuries, appears to come from variations of just one of tens of thousands of human genes.

The language of "race" limits our self-concepts, just as it continues to feed -- largely on a subconscious level -- the notion of separateness and inequality. The conscious decision to shift language a few decades ago from "Oriental" to "Asian American," for instance, was a shift to a more accurate way of defining ethnic origin, sans the racist origins of those assigned terms.

Every person has the right, of course, to self-define as they choose, just as certain terms born out of racialist origins, like "racism" continue to serve a useful purpose in reporting.2 For my part, I'll continue to plead this case before editors and readers alike: it's time to move on from the language of 18th century pseudo-science. But it's a frustrating, uphill battle. "Ethnicity" is sometimes acceptable instead of "race," sometimes not. "People of color" only rarely works as a substitute for "minorities." "African American" may or may not fly for "Black," and "Euro-American" is almost never accepted instead of "white" or "Caucasian."

Fundamentally, one of the most damaging Western social constructs -- that of the concept of biological racial subdivisions among people -- has also proven to be one of the most stubborn ideas known to humankind, and journalism has only contributed to its painful longevity. I can only hope that the next few decades worth of realizations about how "multiracial" a nation we've truly become eventually leads us down a different kind of path in language, intent and deed.

Ethnicity is where it's at. Race is a crafty, cruel invention that deserves to be excoriated from our minds -- and our vocabulary.

I, for one, am eagerly awaiting that change.

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