Politics & Policy


Color depends on what the meaning of "black" is.

In Black.White, a new reality show on FX, two families trade races. With sophisticated makeup, the white family becomes black, and the black family becomes white. “Please don’t believe the hype,” goes the title song. “Everything in the world ain’t black and white.”

Affirmative action rests on the opposite assumption: that we can sort everyone into neat racial categories and make employment and educational decisions accordingly. We should hope that the show gets people to question this idea.

Ponder existing methods of racial classification. The simplest is self-identification. Pollsters and census-takers use this approach, which counts people according to the category they choose. If you say you’re black, then you count as black.

Self-identification works for the anonymous collection of statistics, but it creates obvious problems for affirmative action. If people can get greater opportunities by marking a racial box on a form, and if there is no other means of checking racial identity, then everybody has reason to claim minority status. And if everybody is a minority, nobody is.

Another tack is to look at “cultural identity.” By this method, people belong to the group whose values they share and whose cultural practices they follow. Unfortunately for affirmative action, it is unworkable. Is Bill Clinton black because he plays jazz? Is the great mezzo-soprano Denyse Graves white because she sings operas composed by dead Europeans? And who gets to decide what is “authentically” white or black?

Then, as Black.White reminds us, there’s the matter of appearance. Surely we can decide racial identity just by looking, can’t we? The magic of makeup can make the distinction seem obvious, but just picture how the government would run an appearance-based racial classification scheme. Like other programs, it would require quantifiable benchmarks. Bureaucrats would have to pose applicants against color charts and measure their features with calipers. That sounds like South Africa, circa 1960.

Furthermore, an appearance standard involves anomalies. Many “white” people have fairly dark skin. Many “black” people have fairly light skin. And what of someone with a flat nose, thick lips, and curly hair? Does he or she automatically become black? If so, count me in, because that description fits yours truly.

In my case, one could object that few observers would peg a pale male as black. But there’s another reason why I’m black. In a 2005 article in The New York Times Magazine, Jeffrey Rosen noted that people might use genetic tests to prove their racial heritage. I have taken such a test, which shows that nine percent of my ancestry is African.

By custom, Americans with any minority ancestry have counted as members of the minority race. Homer Plessy, whose exclusion from a “whites only” railway seat gave rise to Plessy v. Ferguson, was only one-eighth black. (The Supreme Court noted “that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him.”) Under President Clinton, the Office of Management and Budget issued a directive mandating that federal agencies consider mixed-race people as members of the minority race.

Therefore, I am black. I do not know whether the nine percent reflects ancient heritage or a hidden episode of 19th-century family history. It does not matter. “One drop of blood” is the standard, and I can prove more than one drop.

According to Rosen, trouble will come if lawmakers use genetic testing to settle the issue of racial classification. If a state legislature “were to declare that anyone with a drop of African-American blood is entitled to be considered black, the policy might provoke a bitter Supreme Court challenge.”

What could the justices do? If they rejected genetic testing, what rule would they use? Other methods of racial classification dissolve into ambiguity or absurdity. If they accepted genetic testing, what “blood quantum” would they pick? What would become of people who consider themselves black but test just a few drops short of the mark? There is no good answer.

But there is a way out. In his Plessy dissent, Justice Harlan suggested a principle that would allow that Court to avoid the whole irrational mess of racial classification: “There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”

Please don’t believe the hype. Everything in the world ain’t black and white.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, California.


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