The Book That Should Change How Progressives Talk About Race

Helpful suggestions to reduce polarization and build more shared narratives:

When Heather McGhee was a 25-year-old staffer at Demos, the progressive think tank she would eventually lead, she went to Congress to present findings on shocking increases in individual and family debt.

“Few politicians in Washington knew what it was like to have bill collectors incessantly ringing their phones about balances that kept growing every month,” McGhee writes in her new book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”

Demos’s explanatory attempts failed. When Congress finally took action in 2005, it made the problem worse, passing a bankruptcy bill that made escaping unsustainable debt harder than ever. For McGhee, the disaster was an education in the limits of research, which is often no match for the brute power of big money. But as she was walking down the hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building, she learned something else.

Stopping to adjust her new shoes near the door of a Senate office, she wrote, she heard “the bombastic voice of a man going on about the deadbeats who had babies with multiple women and then declared bankruptcy to dodge the child support.” She doesn’t know whether the man was a Democrat or a Republican, but when she heard him she realized she and her allies might have missed something. They’d thought of debt and bankruptcy primarily as a class issue. Suddenly she understood that for some of her opponents, it was more about race.

She wondered how, as a Black woman, she’d been caught off guard. “I hadn’t even thought to ask the question about this seemingly nonracial financial issue, but had racism helped defeat us?” she wrote.

McGhee’s book is about the many ways racism has defeated efforts to create a more economically just America. Once the civil rights movement expanded America’s conception of “the public,” white America’s support for public goods collapsed. People of color have suffered the most from the resulting austerity, but it’s made life a lot worse for most white people, too. McGhee’s central metaphor is that of towns and cities that closed their public pools rather than share them with Black people, leaving everyone who couldn’t afford a private pool materially worse off.

One of the most fascinating things about “The Sum of Us” is how it challenges the assumptions of both white antiracism activists and progressives who just want to talk about class. McGhee argues that it’s futile to try to address decades of disinvestment in schools, infrastructure, health care and more without talking about racial resentment.

She describes research done by the Race-Class Narrative Project, a Demos initiative that grew out of her work for the book. McGhee and her colleagues, she writes, discovered that if you “try to convince anyone but the most committed progressives (disproportionately people of color) about big public solutions without addressing race, most will agree … right up until they hear the countermessage that does talk, even implicitly, about race.”

But McGhee, who leads the board of the racial justice organization Color of Change, also implicitly critiques the way parts of the left talk about white privilege. “Without the hostile intent, of course, aren’t we all talking about race relations through a prism of competition, every advantage for one group mirrored by a disadvantage for another?” she asks.

McGhee is far from an opponent of the sort of social justice culture sometimes derided as “wokeness.” But her work illuminates what’s always seemed to me to be a central contradiction in certain kinds of anti-racist consciousness-raising, which is that many people want more privilege rather than less. You have to have an oddly high opinion of white people to assume that most will react to learning about the advantages of whiteness by wanting to give it up.

“Communicators have to be aware of the mental frameworks of their audience,” McGhee told me. “And for white Americans, the zero-sum is a profound, both deeply embedded and constantly reinforced one.”

This doesn’t mean that the concept of white privilege isn’t useful; obviously it describes something real. “What privilege awareness does, at its best, is reveal the systematic unfairness, and lift the blame from the victims of a corrupt system,” McGhee said. “However, I think at this point in our discourse — also when so many white people feel deeply unprivileged — it’s more important to talk about the world we want for everyone.”

So McGhee is trying to shift the focus from how racism benefits white people to how it costs them. Why is student debt so crushing in a country that once had excellent universities that were cheap or even free? Why is American health care such a disaster? Why is our democracy being strangled by minority rule? As the first line of McGhee’s book asks, “Why can’t we have nice things?” Racism is a huge part of the answer.

McGhee describes a “solidarity dividend” gained when people are able to transcend racism. Look at what just happened in Georgia, where the billionaire Kelly Loeffler, in an attempt to keep her Senate seat, waged a nakedly racist campaign against Raphael Warnock, who ran on sending voters $2,000 stimulus checks. He still lost most white people, but won enough to prevail. He did it by appealing to idealism, but also to self-interest. In the fight for true multiracial democracy, counting on altruism will only get you so far.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/19/opinion/heather-mcghee-racism.html

Heating Up Culture Wars, France to Scour Universities for Ideas That ‘Corrupt Society’

Trying to outflank the right is never good policy, even if sometimes “good” politics:

Stepping up its attacks on social science theories that it says threaten France, the French government announced this week that it would launch an investigation into academic research that it says feeds “Islamo-leftist’’ tendencies that “corrupt society.’’

News of the investigation immediately caused a fierce backlash among university presidents and scholars, deepening fears of a crackdown on academic freedom — especially on studies of race, gender, post-colonial studies and other fields that the French government says have been imported from American universities and contribute to undermining French society.

While President Emmanuel Macron and some of his top ministers have spoken out forcefully against what they see as a destabilizing influence from American campuses in recent months, the announcement marked the first time that the government has moved to take action.

It came as France’s lower house of Parliament passed a draft lawagainst Islamism, an ideology it views as encouraging terrorist attacks, and as Mr. Macron tilts further to the right, anticipating nationalist challenges ahead of elections next year.

Frédérique Vidal, the minister of higher education, said in Parliament on Tuesday that the state-run National Center for Scientific Research would oversee an investigation into the “totality of research underway in our country,’’ singling out post-colonialism.

In an earlier television interview, Ms. Vidal said the investigation would focus on “Islamo-leftism’’ — a controversial term embraced by some of Mr. Macron’s leading ministers to accuse left-leaning intellectuals of justifying Islamism and even terrorism.

“Islamo-leftism corrupts all of society and universities are not impervious,’’ Ms. Vidal said, adding that some scholars were advancing “radical” and “activist” ideas. Referring also to scholars of race and gender, Ms. Vidal accused them of “always looking at everything through the prism of their will to divide, to fracture, to pinpoint the enemy.’’

France has since early last century defined itself as a secular state devoted to the ideal that all of its citizens are the same under the law, to the extent that the government keeps no statistics on ethnicity and religion.

How does technology keep up with ever-evolving language on race and identity? We asked people who write dictionaries

Interesting:

The Rolodex of terms that can describe identity seems to expand and change on a steady basis. So, how do dictionaries both physical and online keep up? Sometimes they don’t.

The term “BIPOC” meaning Black, Indigenous and people of colour, has become the topic of many explainers since June, when this year’s racial reckoning began after George Floyd’s death. According to the New York Times, BIPOC was first used on social media by a Toronto-based account in 2013. Yet the date stamp on Merriam-Webster’s entry for “BIPOC” is just Sept. 3, 2020, and Google has yet to generate its own dictionary landing at the top of search.

It took some time for the word “racialized” to move from academic papers to colloquial use. Even as it has become more common, it’s a toss up if it can be typed out free of a crimson spell check flag depending on the online browser or platform being used.

And according to Merriam Webster’s online time traveller tool, which shows the year words were first recorded, “genderqueer” first appeared in 1995, but when typed into the messaging app Slack, it generates a red underline.

Kory Stamper is a New Jersey-based lexicographer and author of the book “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.” Stamper said that the challenge is that many English-speaking countries have set up the dictionary as an authority on language, which is not the case.

“As a lexicographer, you’re always way behind. You’re basically behind (language), picking up the crumbs, so that you can follow where it’s heading,” she said. Dictionaries record a snapshot of language at a particular time, she adds.

Even for words that are age-old but in need of updating, it’s still a process. Stamper once had to update the definition for “god” which hadn’t been updated in 60 years when she was an associate editor at Merriam-Webster. It took her four months.

For a term like “BIPOC” to enter the dictionary, it has to come across a lexicographer’s desk, have a good amount of printed uses, and is ultimately a subjective decision of that worker and the dictionary, if it’s widely used enough to make the cut. And from there, a lot of thought consideration and research is required to make sure that the definition crafted is nuanced and does the word justice.

But just because a word hasn’t made it through this process, doesn’t mean it’s not a real word or accepted term.

“Just because a word is not in the dictionary, does not mean it is not a word,” Stamper said. “That just means that a lexicographer has not found enough evidence or the production cycle has not moved quickly enough (for it to be entered).” If two people are having a conversation, and they understand the meaning of the words they are using, they are using real words, she said.

Still Stamper thinks about what out-of-date tech and dictionaries can mean for people who aren’t native English speakers.

Once, she typed out “person of colour” and got a grammar suggestion which recommended “coloured person,” a phrase that has long gone out of fashion and leans more offensive, in North America today.

Stamper said that while she and a good amount of people are aware that “people of colour” isn’t grammatically incorrect, and is a fixed phrase, she still thinks of people who may be learning English as a foreign language and may be heavily reliant on these prompts. “Would I have enough knowledge of the nuances of the language to know?”

As for the spell check inconsistencies, Vancouver-based software engineer Dawn Chandler notes that tech companies don’t all refer to the same dictionaries or data sets to operate these tools. Nor do they publicly share exactly what those algorithms are.

There would always be a chance of a lag or bias depending on where the data is being collected from, Chandler said. “Dictionaries are written to record and reflect the language people use.” Still, she said, “they can’t capture languages in every region, in every subculture.”

Kola Tubosun is a linguist currently based in the U.K. who created an online dictionary of Yoruba names after noticing that computers often red-underlined common Yoruba names, and also disregarded tonal accents necessary to write them correctly. He advocates for Nigerian languages to be more accessible and recognized through tech. He’s noticed, for example, that in Nigeria, ATMs are usually only in English, which ends up discouraging Nigerians who only speak local dialects from using banks.

Tubosun does note that media in North America, whether publications or dictionaries, do pay attention to new words, new ways of speaking, the language, the interpretation.

One instance he’s noticed where there can be tech and dictionary gaps in English, are in cultural colloquialisms. A phrase like “see you next tomorrow” which is commonly used in Nigerian culture and means “the day after tomorrow” made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2020. But with or without the dictionary recognition, it is still a phrase with a fixed meaning.

“There are many levels in which words get adopted and accepted,” he said.

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering inequity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Source: How does technology keep up with ever-evolving language on race and identity? We asked people who write dictionaries

How “Prerequisite Cases” Tried to Define Whiteness

Some interesting history:

Codified in 1790, U.S. law said being a “free white person” was a prerequisite for naturalization. But how did courts define “white” as more and more people sought citizenship?

For Black immigrants, the question was settled by the Naturalization Act of 1870, which allowed “aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent” to apply for citizenship. (The law also revoked the citizenship of naturalized Chinese immigrants.) The references to nativity and descent seemed to offer a working definition of who was Black. But between 1878 and 1952, there were at least fifty-two court cases in the United States that tried to define who was white.

In these “prerequisite cases,” writes scholar John Tehranian, individuals sued to be “declared white by law after being denied citizenship rights by immigration authorities on the grounds of racial ineligibility.” Precedent could whipsaw back and forth: A Syrian, for instance, was declared white in 1909; another Syrian was declared not white in 1913; still another wasn’t white in 1914; then, in 1915, a fourth was legally found to be white.

For Irish, Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, Slavs, Arabs, and other nationalities and ethnicities, whiteness was a gray zone. According to Tehranian, this meant that prerequisite cases “had a profound impact on shaping the immigrant experience in the United States.” Since whiteness could lead to citizenship, and therefore rights, privileges, and political power, the stakes were high.

Tehranian explores how courts used different tests to define whiteness through the 1920s. There was a “scientific evidence” test, which proved itself to be not vey scientific. And there was the “common knowledge” test, simple “common sense”—which is never all that simple.

It was, for instance, “scientific” that Takao Ozawa couldn’t be included in the category “white persons” because he was not “Caucasian” (Ozawa v. U.S., 1922). But being Caucasian per se wasn’t necessarily enough to be white, either, as Bhagat Singh Thind discovered in 1923. Thind was an India-born Sikh who served in the U.S. Army during World War I; he claimed Aryan descent, meaning membership in the Caucasian race. The Supreme Court abandoned the supposedly scientific arguments it had used just a year earlier and ruled him ineligible for whiteness and therefore citizenship. It was common sense to a majority of justices that a “heathen” couldn’t be white.

Tehranian argues that after Ozawa and Thind, a new test for racial determination took hold. Whiteness became a matter of “white performance interpreted through the eyes of judges.” A petitioner could first “point to his own adoption of white values and his personal dramaturgy of whiteness as evidence of his appropriate racial categorization.” A second piece of evidence was “the assimilation of his ethnic group into the core Western European, Christian tradition as evidence of his whiteness.”

Armenians, for instance, were declared white in U.S. v. Cartozian (1925), based on several factors. Their Christianity became “a proxy for racial belonging.” An expert witness for the court personally knew of “ten or fifteen Armenians in Boston who had married American wives.” So worshiping in a Christian church and marrying white people were signifiers of being white.

A 1952 law finally did away with the race-based system of naturalization. Quotas put in place in the 1920s to limit immigration from non–Western European countries were abandoned in 1965. But in the late 1990s, California courts still recognized the Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid groupings of humanity that had been invented in the late eighteenth century by German historians.

Race may be a social construct, but it still seems not everyone has gotten the message.

Source: https://daily.jstor.org/how-prerequisite-cases-tried-to-define-whiteness/?utm_term=How%20%2526ldquo%3BPrerequisite%20Cases%2526rdquo%3B%20Tried%20to%20Define%20Whiteness&utm_campaign=jstordaily_09102020&utm_content=email&utm_source=Act-On+Software&utm_medium=email

ICYMI: In the UK, white immigration is an asset – while everyone else is undesirable

Interesting commentary on immigration narratives and some of the contradictions with respect to white versus visible minority immigrants and their descendants:

A conversation that has stayed with me came after the Brexitvote in 2016, when a French friend, who is white, told me of her anxiety at the outcome. There were already signs of the mounting xenophobia against foreigners of all descriptions that was to come in the aftermath of the referendum. “It’s like people are seeing us as immigrants!” she said with disgust. “As if we don’t belong here.”

My immediate thought was, “welcome”. I’m not an immigrant but I have always been seen as one. The response to any perceived transgression I make towards a public person or policy is frequently: “If you don’t like it here, then leave.” White immigrants, and especially those from western Europe, had on the whole never before felt as if this prejudice applied to them, because “immigration” – as a contentious political issue – has never been about people coming from other countries, and it’s never been about the movement required to get here. “Immigration” has always been a byword for the problem of people who are racialised as undesirable, whether they were born here or not.

The hypocrisy is embedded in the history. I often wonder how it was that the arrival of the SS Windrushin 1948, carrying fewer than 500 West Indians specifically invited to come and work in the UK, was and remains such a symbol of profound soul searching for the national identity. That event stands in stark contrast to the more than 200,000 eastern Europeans and 100,000 Irish immigrants who came to Britain during the same period. The former is regarded as a turning point in the fabric of the nation’s identity, the latter is barely remembered at all.

But this illogicality in our narratives around immigration is not confined to the past. I have spent most of my life living in leafy southwest London, an area often described as “quintessentially English”, helped by the presence of rowing on the Thames at Putney and Hammersmith, lawn tennis at Wimbledon, botanical gardens at Kew and Henry VIII’s old hunting grounds in the deer-populated Richmond Park. These areas are still perceived as unchanged by mass immigration.

Dig a little deeper, however, and it emerges that locals call this area the “biltong belt” because of the large presence of white South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders. In fact, white immigration has had the same impact as immigration everywhere – provided skilled and unskilled labour to meet economic demand, triggering the arrival of a new wave of biltong-themed shops, and requiring planning to provide the requisite housing; school places; doctors surgery capacity. The difference is that this immigration is never weaponised as a threat to the national heritage, or as a reason for pre-existing communities to flee. This immigration has been largely unproblematic because it is white, English-speaking and less visibly “other”.

The notion of “other” is in itself deeply ironic. The history of immigration law is a history of government attempts to limit the movement of people who had not long before been British subjects as imperial citizens. As Rab Butler, former home secretary, said about the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1962, these were laws whose “restrictive effect is intended to, and would in fact, operate on coloured people almost exclusively”.

Today’s governments are more subtle in their language. The word “coloured” disappeared from the letter of our legislation but retains its power in effect. Immigration lawyers frequently remark, after visits to immigration detention centres, how few white immigrants can be found there – these are warehousing facilities for the still undesirable African, Asian, South American and other non-white people. In my work, I have interviewed many who were arrested in dawn raids while in the process of lawfully regularising their immigration status.

The most blatant examples of contemporary racism – the Windrush scandal for example – have exposed a historical continuity that infects the entire immigration system. The “root cause” of the scandal, Wendy Williams, inspector of constabulary, found, can be traced back to the “racial motivations” of immigration laws at their most racialised birth.

The sooner we acknowledge that legacy, and dispense with the fantasy that immigration has nothing to do with race, the sooner we will be able to consign this ongoing, abhorrent injustice to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

Source: In the UK, white immigration is an asset – while everyone else is undesirable

Do COVID-19 Racial Disparities Matter? Opinion versus evidence

The wilful blindness of dissociating race with socioeconomic factors.

Opinion, rather than any hard analysis, compared to more evidence-based work by the CDC CDC Hospital Data Point To Racial Disparity In COVID-19 Cases and the Associated Press Outcry Over Racial Data Grows as Virus Slams Black Americans:

There is now a racial justice angle on the coronavirus pandemic. Ibram X. Kendi, Director of Antiracist Research at American University, led the charge in the Atlantic a week ago, calling for data on COVID-19 deaths broken down by race. Nikole Hannah-Jones (whose work Wilfred Reilly mentioned in this space back in February) followed up with a Twitter thread documenting the disparate impact the virus has had on black Americans. Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top immunologist, hit a similar theme in a recent press conference. To sum up the argument: Black people make up roughly 14 percent of the American population, but far more than 14 percent of Americans killed thus far by COVID-19.

According to one view, this racial disparity amounts to evidence of systemic racism. But the argument rests on the false presumption that, in the absence of racism, we would see equal health outcomes by race. The data suggest otherwise.

In fact, blacks are more likely than whites to die of many diseases—not just this one. In other cases, the reverse is true. According to CDC mortality data, whites are more likely than blacks to die of chronic lower respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, liver disease, and eight different types of cancer. The same thinking that attributes the racial disparity in COVID-19 deaths to systemic racism against blacks could be applied equally to argue the existence of systemic racism against whites.

In some cases, there are obvious biological reasons for racial disparities in disease. Melanin content alone might explain the racial disparity in skin cancer, for example. But in other cases, the source of the disparity is mysterious. Why are whites more likely to die of Alzheimer’s? We don’t know. What’s important is that disparities between groups are not abnormal and are not, by themselves, a sign of any deeper societal malady.

A softer version of the above-described argument would concede that racial disparities in COVID-19 don’t prove anything by themselves—but would point to the various risk factors that nevertheless make black Americans more susceptible to COVID-19. Blacks are more likely to work in the service sector, for instance, which means they have more opportunities to contract the virus. Moreover, blacks are more likely to suffer from diabetes, asthma, obesity, and hypertension, all of which make the virus more deadly. Moreover, black Americans are less likely to have access to high-quality health care, and are more likely to live in areas that are served by over-burdened hospitals and emergency-response services.

But if we are going to discuss underlying risk factors, we should discuss them directly rather than immediately using race as a proxy. Focusing on age makes sense, because it has been obvious since early on that the elderly face a far higher COVID-19 case fatality rate. Focusing on people with pre-existing medical risk factors makes sense for the same reason. But absent some hitherto undiscovered genetic factor, focusing on race makes about as much sense as focusing on, say, religion. If anyone bothers to look, there will probably be disparities between Catholics and Protestants. Yet no one will feel the need to mention these at a press conference, and our public health efforts will not suffer as a result.

The fact is that our culture is obsessed with race. Part of this stems from a sincere desire to help the less fortunate, who are disproportionately black. But much of it stems from a deeply felt shame over the sins of history—slavery, Jim Crow, and all that followed. As a result, anything vaguely resembling a concern for black suffering is applauded—and no further questions are asked.

The House Democrats’ proposed coronavirus relief bill included a provision requiring that federal government agencies use as many minority-owned banks as possible, and another provision requiring corporations to maintain staff and budgets dedicated to “diversity and inclusion” for at least five years as a condition of receiving emergency funds. It is hard to see how either policy helps the less fortunate, much less why such non-urgent provisions are appropriate to include in a disaster relief bill.

On the sillier end of the coronavirus race obsession, CNN ran a story about black Americans who won’t wear masks because they fear being mistaken for criminals and killed by the police. A tweet from one black educator—“I want to stay alive, but I also want to stay alive”—received 124,000 likes.

Though the CNN article suggested that the fear was valid, it did not give even one example of a black person actually being harassed in this way, much less killed. Last year, 41 unarmed Americans were shot and killed by the police—nine of them black. Meanwhile, the coronavirus has been killing over 1,000 Americans per day. There is simply no comparison. Given how high the stakes are, the media should be disabusing people of life-threatening racial paranoia, not catering to it.

There are many lessons to take away from this pandemic, but the importance of race is not one of them. Italy, Spain, and France—all heavily white countries—have been among those hardest hit by the pandemic. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who possesses as much race and class privilege as anyone on Earth, has been hospitalized as a result of the virus. If there is a lesson to take away from COVID-19, it’s not that your racial identity matters, it is that ultimately all of humanity shares a common fate.

Source: Do COVID-19 Racial Disparities Matter?

The Other Census Disaster That’s Waiting to Happen

Have seen earlier discussion of the issue but this is the most comprehensive analysis:

Everyone hoping for an accurate 2020 Census breathed a sigh of relief two weeks ago when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to block the Trump administration’s cynical attempt to add a citizenship question to the forms—only to experience Twitter-tantrum whiplash when the president ordered his administration to make a last-ditch attempt to include it.

But with so much attention focused on the controversy over the citizenship question, another similarly disastrous Census Bureau decision has gone largely unnoticed: the administration’s choice not to substantively update the decennial survey’s questions on race. As a result, no matter how conscientiously Census Bureau staff administer the survey, a woefully inadequate portrait of the changing face of America will emerge.

The last census, in 2010, became a data disaster when “some other race,” showed up as the third-largest racial group in America. Over 20 million respondents, most with roots in Latin America or the Middle East, selected this none-of-the-above option, making it the most popular choice after white and black. Any time a public-opinion survey asks respondents to self-categorize and “none of the above” comes back as a popular answer, it’s a clear sign that the choices given don’t match up with people’s identities.

Facing this problem squarely, the Obama administration convened the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, a panel of academic experts and minority community leaders, to advise the Bureau on improving its race questions for 2020. The committee made myriad recommendations, most crucially suggesting that a “Middle East or North Africa” category sit alongside the “Hispanic origins” box in the upcoming questionnaire. But the Trump administration overruled this advice and, aside from a few minor tweaks, is flying into the 2020 survey without substantive changes. Given continued Latin American and Middle Eastern immigration since 2010, and the more extreme forms of racial “othering” these groups have faced ever since candidate Donald J. Trump came down the escalator in 2015, experts fear that “some other race” will become the second-largest racial group in America according to the 2020 Census.

Every census since the founding of the country has asked about race and ethnicity. Until recent decades, race was not a matter of self-identification; historically, federal census-takers were charged with determining the race of each resident of their assigned census tracts according to their era’s standards. Tracing how race questions have changed over time offers a time-lapse history of American racial concepts in 10-year snapshots. (All of the race questions are conveniently archived on the website racebox.org.)

The most drastic changes to the census race questions took place after the fall of Reconstruction, at the rise of Jim Crow, when America’s mixed-race realities were blotted out and a strict racial binary imposed. Openly mixed-race activists, in particular Charleston’s “Browns” and New Orleans’s “Creoles of color,” had been central to post-Civil War civil rights progress. Their court challenges to segregation, of which Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was only the last and most famous, assailed the notion that Europeans and Africans remained distinct racial groups in America given centuries of overt and covert race-mixing. At the time, the “one-drop rule” that any African ancestry at all made an American a “Negro” was still new and not widely accepted. This more fluid racial mindset was reflected in the late 19th-century censuses, which all catalogued biracial “mulattos” as distinct from “whites” and “blacks.” The 1890 questionnaire recorded even finer-grained mixed-race categories: “quadroon” (an American with three European grandparents and one African grandparent) and “octoroon” (an American with seven European great-grandparents and one African great-grandparent). But with the firm establishment of the color line post-Plessy, the 1900 census switched to a unitary race. (Not until 2000 would the census again allow respondents to claim mixed-race identities, this time by checking more than one racial box.)

“Only in 1980 did the Census begin to grapple with Latino identity.”

As segregation took root, the stakes of being deemed “white” grew higher. Even as Jim Crow laws proliferated in the early 20th century, the states differed on their official definitions of what exactly a “white person” was and who precisely constituted a “colored person.” Myriad ethnic groups clamored to get into whiteness, often petitioning through the courts. “Semites,” for example, won their way into whiteness using clever, albeit pseudo-scientific, arguments. Their trump card, first argued in 1907 by H. A. Elkourie, a Syrian Christian physician in Birmingham, Alabama, was that if he wasn’t white then Jesus hadn’t been white either. Anglo-Americans’ revulsion at the thought they were worshipping a person of color each Sunday was strong enough that Elkourie and the fellow members of his “Semitic” “race” were deemed “white.”

The next major revamp of the census’s race questions came in the wake of the 1960s civil rights movement. For the first time, the Census Bureau empowered each respondent to choose her own race rather than have a census-taker determine it for her. And embracing the modern understanding that race has no biological reality, only societal meanings, the Census Bureau modified the racial categories to learn more about American society rather than engage in the fool’s errand of sorting humans into some fixed number of distinct races. To this end, the 1970 Census listed eight racial categories, one of which was “Hawaiian”—a useful category for understanding American society but a group so tiny no early-20th-century race scientists ever elevated it into their core “Races of Man.”

Only in 1980 did the census begin to grapple with Latino identity. Rather than add “Hispanic” to the list of races, it introduced a question to stand apart from the various racial choices: “Is this person of Spanish/Hispanic origin or descent?” By noting that Hispanics can be of any race, the Census Bureau hoped to track the growth of this community that comes in all colors. But this well-meaning attempt never fully worked since the Latin American and Anglo-American conceptions of race are fundamentally incompatible.

While the U.S., after Reconstruction, forced Americans to claim a retroactive racial purity, Latin America never denied its mestizo realities. On the most recent Brazilian census, for example, the majority of respondents identified as afrodecendente (Afro-descended). But in Brazil this identity does not in any way suggest that the same person is not also of European, Native American, and/or Asian descent; indeed, over 80 percent of self-identified afrodecendente Brazilians claimed roots on non-African continents as well.

In Mexico, the concept of race (la raza) is even more un-American. The Mexican supposition is that the people of the New World are, in a sense, a new race unto themselves, a mixture of all the world’s peoples. It is these mutually-incompatible conceptions of race between the U.S. and Latin America that has led millions of census respondents to check that they are of Latino origin but are members of “some other race.”

Arab-Americans are similarly migrants from an alternate racial system. Arab identity embraces people of all skin colors and is largely tied to language—people whose mother tongue is Arabic are Arabs even if they don’t live on Asia’s Arabian Peninsula. Though officially white in America since the early-20th-century rulings that “Semites” are white, contemporary American racism has again called Arab whiteness into question.

“The best-case scenario is that none-of-the-above comes out as the third-largest race in America rather than second-largest.”

The most recent federal definition of a “white person,” formulated in 1997 by the Office of Management and Budget and currently used by the Census Bureau—“A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa”—clearly includes Arabs. But if “whiteness” has no biological reality and is purely a socially-constructed category in American society for those who enjoy full citizenship, including the presumption of innocence, since 9/11, Middle Easterners have no longer been white. This mismatch between being officially white by the federal definition but not being treated as white in American society has sparked a wildcat campaign among some Middle Easterners not to check the “white” box on the Census (tag-line: “Check it right, you ain’t white”). Indeed, the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations found many Middle Eastern- and North African-Americans are doing just that, checking “some other race” in defiance of the current federal definition of whiteness.

At this point the 2020 race questions are set, with just a few tweaks from 2010. The 2020 form will include “Lebanese” and “Egyptian” as examples of white ethnicities to remind Arabs to, essentially, “check it right, you are white.” The new wording also adds “Aztec” and “Mayan” as examples of American Indian ethnicities to instruct people with roots in the New World beyond the United States borders that they should still identify themselves as indigenous.

Even with these minor changes, the best-case scenario is that none-of-the-above comes out as the third-largest race in America rather than second-largest. Whiteness in America is in flux today in a way it hasn’t been in a century—even if the Census Bureau’s political appointees, in keeping with the Trump administration’s Know-Nothingism on race, won’t admit it. An administration that has backed border walls and Muslim bans has already shown Latinos and Middle Easterners that, if whiteness means first-class citizenship, they’re no longer white. The painful irony is that the rise of “some other race” at first glance suggests America is becoming post-racial, while its real roots are in rising racism.

Source: The Other Census Disaster That’s Waiting to Happen

Race or class irrelevant in intelligence of babies, groundbreaking Oxford study finds

The basics make the difference – medical care and nutrition:

Babies born in similar circumstances will thrive regardless of race or geography, Oxford-led research has found, quashing the idea that race or class determines intelligence.

In a scientific first, the team of researchers tracked the physical and intellectual development of babies around the world from the earliest days after conception to age two.

“At every single stage we’ve shown that healthy mothers have healthy babies and that healthy babies all grow at exactly the same rate,” said Professor Stephen Kennedy, the co-director of the Oxford Maternal and Perinatal Health Institute. “It doesn’t matter where you are living, it doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is, it doesn’t matter what your race and ethnicity is, receiving decent medical care and nutrition is the key.”

The INTERGROWTH-21st Project, jointly led by Prof. Kennedy and Prof. Jose Villar at Oxford, involved nearly 60,000 mothers and babies worldwide, tracking growth in the womb, then followed more than 1,300 of the children, measuring physical growth and development.

The mothers – in locations as diverse as Brazil, India and Italy – were chosen because they were in good health and lived in similar environments. Their babies scored similarly on physical and intellectual development: in fact, researchers found more variation within racial groups than between them.

The study should help settle the ongoing debate genetics as a determination in intelligence which has been rumbling since the publication of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve in the 1990s. The book argued that a “cognitive elite” was becoming separated from the general population.

“There’s still a substantial body of opinion out there in both the scientific and lay communities who… believe that intelligence is predominantly determined by genes and the environment that you’re living in and that your parents and grandparents were living in and their nutritional and health status are not relevant,” said Prof Kennedy. “Well, that’s clearly not the case.”

Frederick Douglass’s Fight Against Scientific Racism – The New York Times

Good read and reminder of early attitudes and beliefs, and the struggle to overcome them:

The 200th birthday of one of America’s greatest thinkers, Frederick Douglass, is being celebrated this month. Douglass is remembered as many things: a fugitive slave who gained his freedom, an abolitionist, an advocate for women’s rights, a gifted writer and orator. But we should also remember him as someone whose insights about scientific theories of race are every bit as relevant in our era as they were when he wrote them.

When Douglass rose to prominence, in the 1840s, he was living in a world just as excited and anxious about his era’s new inventions, like the railroad and the telegraph, as we are about modern-day innovation. But he understood that the ends to which science could be used were forever bound up with the moral choices of its practitioners. “Scientific writers, not less than others, write to please, as well as to instruct,” he wrote in 1854, “and even unconsciously to themselves (sometimes) sacrifice what is true to what is popular.”

That statement was part of a lecture in which he attacked one of the most prominent scientific fields of the antebellum era: ethnology, or what was sometimes called “the science of race.” Though often dismissed today as pseudoscience, at the time Douglass was writing, it was considered legitimate. The most accomplished scientists engaged in it, and the public eagerly consumed it.

Ethnology was not embraced just by Southerners who supported slavery. Its most important theorists lived in the North: one, Louis Agassiz, taught at Harvard; the other, Samuel George Morton, was president of one of the nation’s leading scientific societies, in Philadelphia.

Agassiz and Morton rejected the 18th-century view of race, which held that all human beings descended from a single pair and that physical differences emerged because of changes in the natural environment.

In preparation for the 1854 lecture, Douglass read dozens of books on ethnology, then dismantled polygenists’ claims one by one. Among the most important to Douglass was Morton’s claim that ancient Egyptians were white. To support his claim that black people were inferior, Morton needed to explain away the fact that ancient Egyptians were Africans, since if they were, it meant that people of African descent had the potential for similar greatness. As proof, Morton noted that the Bible made no mention of Egyptians’ color.

Douglass would have none of it.

He cited text after text, all written by respected European scientists, that noted that ancient Egyptians bore a striking resemblance to modern-day Africans. But more important, he argued that racial descriptors were not mentioned in the Bible because, at that historical moment, race did not exist. It was, as we now say, a social construct, something better understood as a product of history rather than of science.

When Morton assumed that the ancient Israelites, who he believed were white, would have never married ancient Egyptians if they were black, he failed to realize that racial prejudice was a “genuine American feeling,” Douglass wrote. “It assumes that a black skin in the East excites the same prejudice which we see here in the West.” Douglass was saying that we learn racism — we are not born with it.

Of course, engaging with ethnology on its own terms was a dangerous game. It sometimes meant that Douglass perpetuated scientific ways of thinking about race rather than simply dismantling its logic and insisting on race as a product of history. He borrowed from the ethnological theories of his friend James McCune Smith, a fellow black abolitionist and the nation’s first credentialed black physician, to argue that both black and white people would be improved by racial mixing.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss these ideas as merely the result of Douglass’s own mixed racial heritage — his father, possibly his owner, was white — or as a backhanded insult to black history, to black culture. They were always written in the service of a clear political agenda, one that was radical for his time: full black integration rather than segregation.

In 1887, Douglass traveled to Egypt and published another essay about how the ancient Egyptians were, in fact, African. “I have long been interested in ethnology,” he wrote, and “I have wanted the evidence of greatness under the colored skin to meet and beat back the charge of natural, original and permanent inferiority.” He found it in the ancient pyramids and the majestic sphinxes, with their undeniably African features.

But even as Douglass refused to allow racist scientific theories to go unchallenged, he always understood that science was not the antidote to white people’s racism. There were only so many facts you could give to prove black people’s humanity.

In 1893, two years before his death, he was disturbed by the way the nation’s white scientific elite had represented people of African descent at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Scientists from Harvard and the Smithsonian helped design the exhibition, which mirrored what they took to be humankind’s racial progress from savage to civilized.

The pavilions for Haiti and for African nations, designed as primitive huts, came first. As you walked through the exhibition, you eventually crossed a bridge into the “White City,” which housed marbled pavilions for white nations, showcasing their marvelous scientific inventions.

One day was set aside for black Americans to present their own culture, and the press came ready to lampoon the event. White vendors had their fun too, bringing watermelons by the cartload. Some black leaders called for a boycott, but Douglass insisted that black people engage — after all, here was a chance to showcase black excellence.

But Douglass also wanted to set the record straight about race, or rather, about racism. This time, he did not bother making a scientific argument about black equality. Instead, he got to the heart of the matter and wanted the clutch of white reporters at the event to listen closely, to print it in all their papers.

The problem was not with black people, he said, it was with white people. If they loved their democracy as much as they said they did, they would stop looking to science to make excuses for their own failure to treat black Americans as equal citizens. As he put it: “The true problem is a national problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.”

via Frederick Douglass’s Fight Against Scientific Racism – The New York Times

Black or white? In Brazil, a panel will decide for you

While the policy intent was understandable, implementation is another matter. Having officials develop an assessment table was bound to end up like this (like the history categorizing Blacks by their percentage of Black bloodline):

Public-service jobs in Brazil pay significantly better than private-sector ones and come with a host of generous benefits such as meal and transport allowances; workers are rarely fired and can retire at age 55 with large pensions. Competition, consequently, is fierce. Candidates must pass a gruelling exam that some study for and take repeatedly for five or six years.

Until August of this year, the quota system relied on candidates’ self-identification of their race. That system was being abused, by white people claiming to be mixed-race (although researchers estimate that no more than 5 per cent of applicants were lying).

Under pressure by some advocates from the black community, the government decided the solution was “commissions of verification” – tribunals that would evaluate each candidate. Guidelines from the Ministry of Planning said that panels should consider only physical attributes: “The forms and criteria for verifying the veracity of self-declaration should only consider the phenotypic aspects of the candidate, which will be checked in the presence of the candidate.”

That means that a panel of assessors (three, five or seven people) would look at each candidate and decide if their appearance matched their self-declared race.

Last August, officials in Para, Ms. Chaves’s state, released a chart of criteria for investigators to use, with a point system for physical characteristics such as “lips: thick,” “gums: pink,” “hair: frizzy.” It caused such an uproar that it was hastily withdrawn. But no information has been disclosed about what criteria examiners are using instead. Some tribunals work purely from physical appearance; some panelists apparently see race as more than that and ask candidates about their experience of discrimination, or their families.

The end result, frequently, is confusion. Ms. Chaves has no idea how the three people who made up her tribunal concluded she was white.

Eduardo Sobral, 30, a geologist who says he is mixed-race, was rejected for a reserved position with the Ministry of Planning in Brasilia. He was examined by video-conference, then asked about his “day-to-day life as a brown person.” He replied that it was “normal,” the interview ended and he was rejected. He is suing the ministry.

Rodrigo Campos, an electrician in the central state of Minas Gerais who says he is black, never even got before the assessors: They rejected him based on photos they asked him to submit. Meanwhile Igor Anatoli, a mixed-race police officer from Rio who is trying to join the diplomatic corps, went before a panel of seven in Brasilia in September; they chatted at length about his family and his experience of prejudice and ruled that he is, as he had declared, black.

Source: Black or white? In Brazil, a panel will decide for you – The Globe and Mail