Race in America

RaceUSCensusBureauE2I share below the text of the talk I was privileged to give recently to the members of the Interfaith Council of Garden Grove, Stanton, and Westminister. Thank you, Ann Nguyen, and friends for inviting me. I found your questions and comments encouraging and they have stimulated my own thinking as well.

I came to America in the summer time with a suitcase in hand, stars in my eyes, and my head filled with dreams. Isn’t that how most immigrant stories begin?

I can still see myself in my mind’s eye: A petite girl who looked far younger than she was clutching a suitcase that was tied up with a bright blue Kuwaiti Airways headset’s electric cord. You see, the airline stewards, and they were all men – I don’t recall seeing any women on the flight serving as stewardesses – had found my bag on the layover in Kuwait. They were unable to identify to whom it belonged; halfway into the journey which had started the night before, from Madras, India, the tags and labels had fallen off. So, the men had broken open the lock to make sure that it did not contain a bomb. When I came back to the plane I found the broken suitcase, its contents, which I can’t remember now but I suspect were clothes, spilling out. My first thought remained with me for the rest of the flight: How was I going to carry it off the plane? There was nothing that could hold the suitcase closed. Inside, a storm of feelings churned. I was mortified. Embarrassed. Angry. Outwardly, I was silent. One of the stewards, however, was kind. He told me, “Wait. We still have many hours before we get to New York. I will find a way to tie this suitcase so that it can be carried safely.” In the end, he had to tear out the cord from the headphone set to improvise the rope that adorned my suitcase. That’s how I came to America. I’m sure you’re wondering about the year. When do you think I arrived? 

The year was 1984. Yes, this was long before 9/11. And, thirty one years before the infamous Charleston shooting last year in 2015. And it is also the year that I had my first brush with race. I had applied for a teaching assistantship at the University of Akron, Ohio and they had invited me to teach Freshman English composition as part of a teaching team. I had a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. So I had the proper credentials. They asked me to go through the training. I did. At the end of the week I was turned down. It was very gently done, but the words have stayed with me. Here’s how the Prof. summarized their reason not to hire me as a TA: “How will it look if a person, who is not a native speaker of the English language teaches the language to our mid-western boys and girls?” When they heard of this, my family and friends were filled with anger, on my behalf. They called it “blatant discrimination” and “racism.” I refused to accept it as racism. Instead, I rationalized it. This was my first semester in America and I had no experience of the American way of doing things. The Prof. was right; I am a small woman and the undergraduates are big; I would not have been able to discipline or hold their attention. I didn’t want to make waves. I wanted to fit in. I gave up the idea of getting a degree in English Literature and moved into another area, where I felt I would not be as dis-advantaged. And, that’s precisely what I also did for the next twenty years of my life: I tried to fit in quietly. Every time I was perceived to be ‘different’ I focused on the positive and ignored the negative.

I have a rich inner life. So while on the surface things appeared to be good – Phd in Library and Information Science, a professor, researcher with the Alexandria Digital Library at UC Santa Barbara, University of Arizona and so on – I continued to squirrel away what I called “nameless experiences.” The first of these has to do with the US Census and the classification of race. Oh, by the way, I should say that my area of specialization and expertise is the cataloging and classification of books and knowledge. To classify the subject matter of books one must also understand categorization, real and conceptual, from a number of disciplinary perspectives. And, so that’s what I study. We can talk more about categorization later, if you want. Back to the Census now. “The U.S. Census Bureau collects information on race following the guidance of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) 1997 Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. The federal standards mandate that race and Hispanic origin (ethnicity) are separate and distinct concepts. When collecting these data via self-identification, two different questions must be used.”

The 2000 Race categories are: 1) White, 2) Black or African American, 3) American Indian or Alaska Native, 4) Asian, 5) Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, 6) Some Other Race.

Let’s see how this plays out in real life for me, ok? I’ve filled out a number of forms, from when I came into this country until now. They are not census forms. They are mostly in academic settings but they all want to know my race. Here’s what I noticed, in completing these forms: In the 1980s, I, as a person from the Indian subcontinent got to check “white.” In the 1990s, I believe, but have forgotten now if this is 100% accurate under all circumstances or only some, I checked “Middle Eastern, including the Indian sub-continent.” By 2000 I was firmly in the Asian category (Middle Eastern today is still “white”). Let’s look at the handout, “What Census Calls Us: A Historical Timeline” from the Pew Research Center. [handout]

US Census, decennial, started in 1790. Until 1840, the categories were:

  • Free white males, Free white females
  • All other free persons
  • Free colored males and females
  • Slaves
  • Indian

In 1850 the categories changed and these continued until 1890:

  • Free white males, free white females
  • Black
  • Mulatto (definitions varied from census to census; quadroon and octroon = mixed)
  • Black slaves
  • Mulatto slaves
  • Quadroon
  • Octroon

1870 the first post-slavery census used the word race for the first time and also added new “races,” reflecting the new immigrants into the country:

1870 – Chinese

1890 – Japanese

In 1900 the categories changed again with five categories offered.

  • Free white males, free white females
  • Black (Negro or of Negro descent)
  • Chinese
  • Japanese
  • American Indian

In 1910 – 1920;

  • Free white males, free white females
  • Black
  • Mulatto

Other additions were

In 1910 – Other – Korean, Filipino, and Asian Indian (called Hindu)

In 1920 – Filipinos

In 1920 – 1940 – Koreans, Hindu (referred to Asian Indians regardless of religion)

In 1950 – American Indian (rather than Indian)

I want to highlight some significant language as well as census taking practice changes:

In 1930  “color” races introduced:

  • White
  • Negro

Mexicans were also counted as a separate race for the first and only time in 1930.

In 1960, people could choose their own race. Census takers (called enumerators) no longer assigned the race based on what they saw. Emergence of Aleut, Eskimo, Part Hawaiian

In 1980. Samoan, Guamanian

In 1970, Negro or Black becomes the category and in 1980, 1990 it is switched Black, or Negro

In 2000, people could choose two or more races. Language becomes Black, African American, or Negro, and categories include White, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian Indian, Other API, Other Asian, Native Hawaian, Samoan, Guamanian or Chamoro, Other Pacific Islander, Some other race.

You know, where I’m going with this. And, if you look at the bottom categories beginning with Mexican, you will see how socially and politically constructed the category of race is.

1930 – Mexicans (only time counted as race) (“color” along Filipino, Hindu, and Korean)

1970 – Central and South American, Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Other Spanish, Hispanic, Latino, Another Hispanic, Latino, Spanish origin.

In 2010, we also learned something very important about race in America: Mixed races.[i]

“The 2010 Census showed that people who reported multiple races grew by a larger percentage than those reporting a single race. According to the 2010 Census brief The Two or More Races Population: 2010, the population reporting multiple races (9.0 million) grew by 32.0 percent from 2000 to 2010, compared with those who reported a single race, which grew by 9.2 percent. Overall, the total U.S. population increased by 9.7 percent since 2000, however, many multiple-race groups increased by 50 percent or more.” [ii]

According to the Census Bureau, there are 57 possible multiple-race combinations involving the five (actually six, if you count Other) races.

·       Four groups were the largest multiple-race combinations, each exceeding 1 million people in size, white and black (1.8 million), white and “some other race” (1.7 million), white and Asian (1.6 million) and white and American Indian and Alaska Native (1.4 million).

  • Since 2000, two multiple-race groups exhibited the most significant changes — the white and black population, which grew more than 1 million and increased by 134 percent; and the white and Asian population, which grew by about 750,000 and increased by 87 percent.

By now, you should be fairly convinced that race is not a biological category. Race is socially and politically constructed for economic reasons – access, control, domination, power, and more. Scientists have been telling us this for years. And, this is also a good place for me to introduce to you the Anti-racism Digital Library. You can read the whole story of why I started this digital library, online. I invite you to browse it: http://tinyurl.com/antiracedl/Anti-Racism Digital Library

Briefly, the Anti-Racism Digital Library is dedicated to the nine victims in the Charleston shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church. And, through the work here I seek to honor all the victims but most especially the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45 year old pastor at Emmanuel AME, speech therapist and high school girls track coach, a long-time good friend of my new friend, a pastor, Rev. Chineta Goodjoin of New Hope and Cynthia Hurd, a 54 year old librarian and manager of the St. Andrews regional (public) library system.

The ADL is a prototype. The end goal is an interfaith intercultural Anti-racism Digital Library and International Anti-racism Thesaurus. We need language to speak anti-racism. The library includes: Upcoming events – you can see my presentations and research here. Glossary – when fully developed, will have definitions. E.g.: Race is the idea that the human species is divided into distinct groups on the basis of inherited physical and behavioral differences. Genetic studies in the late 20th century refuted the existence of biogenetically distinct races, and scholars now argue that “races” are cultural interventions reflecting specific attitudes and beliefs that were imposed on different populations in the wake of western European contests beginning in the 15th century. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.  Collections have resources for individual and group study. This is also where you can help me, by contributing new materials or using the materials here, and providing feedback and opportunities for community training and interaction.

Back to my “nameless experiences” which I finally admitted, last year, had a name: racialization. I have written about this elsewhere, and so will share the lessons I learned quickly now, and let you read the story.[iii]

There’s a question I’ve been asked all my life. Even when I was growing up in India, people would ask, “Where are you from?”[iv]

Sometime I’d invite people to guess. At other times, given to day-dreaming, I would give a different answer every time: Sri Lanka, Madagascar, New Zealand. As I grew older, the diplomatic answer and what I hoped would invoke laughter became “Space cadet. Planet Earth. Milky Way Trainee.” Few understood. Differentiation, I learned, was the crux of identity and group formation. Learning to see differences was the norm. Categorization was fundamental; without it, I was invisible. People required my geographic, social, economic, political, national, sexual, and religious labels in order to “see” me, in order for me to “compute.”

America, the great melting pot, I thought, would be different. [Aside: I actually prefer the flower bouquet analogy to the melting pot – ask me later]. Coming to the United States, I wore a small gold cross on a chain around my neck proudly. The cross symbolized my identity in Christ, passionate devotion to God, and determination to live life the Jesus way. It had been possible in India, despite the fact that Christians were a minority.

The concept of “an identity in Christ,” however, proved to be almost unheard of in the churches I frequented here. The process of my racialization begun during my first summer was continued. Last year, the Charleston church shooting brought things to a head. I decided I must speak up. I still cringe when I hear pastors use the word ‘race’ because the Bible does not speak of races. It speaks of ethnicities, nations, origins, families and tribes, but not races. The racial imagination was constructed by the Western mind to justify the discovery and capital needs of progress, the Enlightenment.[v] And so, I come to the last part of my story and it is filled with good news.

Diversity, Hybridity. Fusion. Melting pot. We are a mixed people. DNA tests are telling us that humanity originally migrated from Africa and came here to America in different ways. Obvious differences of skin color and phenotypical variations don’t reveal our whole stories. And global tribes are becoming more common as diasporas are created – e.g. Little Saigon, Little India.

Race is not real. Bias, categorization, racialization, and racism though are real. As we get educated about race, and learn to understand that race is not real, and that racialization is unhealthy, we must give up the language of racial division and seek instead a language that unifies us. What can that language be? I’ll give you a small example.

I don’t identify myself, as “white” black or a “person of color.”  Instead I embrace the language of my faith. I am a child of God. All humanity is made in the image of “our God.” On census and other demographic boxes I choose, Other, proudly. Labels that others assign us or that name us have the power to shame us too. I don’t want to give anybody that kind of power over me.[vi]

Instead of racial reasoning I want to use moral reasoning, thanks to Cornel West, as the force of great good to draw people together. Together, I want to discover the language of anti-racism so all people everywhere can enjoy life, peace, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In short, blackness is a political and ethical construct. Appeals to black authenticity ignore this fact; such appeals hide the political and ethical dimensions of blackness. That is why claims to racial authenticity trump political and ethical argument and why racial reasoning discourages moral reasoning. Every claim to racial authenticity presupposes elaborate conceptions of political and ethical relations of interests, individuals and communities. Racial reasoning hides these presuppositions behind a deceptive cloak of racial consensus, yet, racial reasoning is seductive because it invokes an undeniable history of racial abuse and racial struggle. … Where there is no vision, people perish. Where there is no framework of a moral reasoning the people close ranks in a war of all against all.[vii]

Discussion Questions: What labels do you use to describe yourself? Do these labels affirm your identity as a human being or do they diminish you? Do they tell your whole story? What is your story?

Some of the questions and comments at the end of the presentation:

  1. What is the difference between race and ethnicity?
  2. What do you think about recent trends such as hyphenated ethnicity/faith with nationality and/or origin – e.g. American Indian Sikh[viii]
  3. What about culture?
  4. What is the purpose of racial classification today?[ix]
  5. Economic status, today in America, is a more pernicious factor besides just race. (e.g. rich white congregations affiliate with rich black ones)
  6. What are the changes that are going to be made in the next – 2020 – census?[x]

[i] United States Census. Newsroom. 2012. 2010 Census shows multiple-race population grew faster than single-race population. URL: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/race/cb12-182.html

[ii] United States Census Bureau. 2012. The Two or more races population: 2010. Available from: https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-13.pdf

[iii] Racialization. Merriam-Webster  defines it as: the act or process of imbuing a person with a consciousness of race distinctions or of giving a racial character to something or making it serve racist ends.

[iv] Coleman, Anita. 2015. (Blog post). How do you see me? An intimate portrayal of race, identity and invisibility in the church and the United States.  http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/today/2015/9/1/mote-minervas-eye/

[v] Christian theology and race for anti-racist vocabulary. The theological origins of race at two presentations by me are: September 24 titled, Theology, Race and Libraries: Treatment of Anti-racism, and November 19, 2015 titled Bible, Race, Diversity. (if these links don’t work you can find them on the Upcoming Events page in the Anti-racism Digital Library, http://tinyurl.com/antiracedl.

[vi]  Coleman, Anita. 2016 January. How I turned my body into a canvas for solidarityhttp://www.pcusa.org/blogs/today/2016/1/12/mote-minervas-eye/

Coleman, Anita. 2016 February. Global citizens and universal aliens. http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/today/2016/2/10/mote-minervas-eye/

[vii] West, Cornel. “The Pitfalls of Racial Reasoning.” In Race Matters. Page 38-40, 48. First Vintage Books edition, 1994. Btw, “white” is also a state of mind, a construction, that I encourage you to investigate on your own!

[viii] As Multi-American as apple pie and tamales, a blog that was run for a few years by Southern California Public Radio sharing the stories of immigrants/communities about Southern California’s evolving identity.  http://www.scpr.org/blogs/multiamerican/2010/07/21/7470/as-multi-american-as-apple-pie-and-tamales/

“Blaxicans of L.A.” is another kind of racial identity/coalition that points the way forward. See, http://www.latimes.com/local/moments/la-me-scm-blaxicans-20150715-story.html

[ix] United Nations. 2010. Principles and Recommendations for Populations and Housing Census. Revision 3. Available from http://unstats.un.org/unsd/publication/seriesM/Series_M67rev3en.pdf

[x] The word Negro will be dropped from the Black or African American category. More information about the 2020 United Census changes is available from http://www.census.gov/2020census. According to a November 2014 report, Race and Ethnicity in the 2020 Census: Improving Data to Capture a Multiethnic America, from the Leadership Education Conference Fund and co-branded with the Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and the NALEO Educational Fund, a separate Muslim category – MENA – Middle Eastern and North African origin is being field tested. There’s also been discussion about the confusion of “Hispanic is not a race” (the Federal Classification scheme considers it an ethnicity). If these changes take place the number of “whites” will drop down. The report is available here, http://civilrightsdocs.info/pdf/reports/Census-Report-2014-WEB.pdf

Additional Notes from a presentation on The Modern Racial Imagination: Categorization, Bias and Prejudice

1) The Bible does not affirm race. Rather, Scripture reveals a God who loves diversity.

2) Race is a social construct of the Western racial imagination forged by the marriage of philosophy and theology driven by the Enlightenment’s need for “capital” (human and material).

Categorization is central to what makes us human; most of it is automatic, unconscious; we become aware of it, often only in problematic cases.

CLASSICAL VIEW OF CATEGORIES – 2000 years of thinking this way: 1) Categorization is based on Reason, categories have clear boundaries and shared properties, that things are categorized together on the basis of what they have in common; 2) Categories have hierarchy: order, arrangement, gradation, above/below/same level. 3) Categories are natural: As we move around the world we categorize both man-made and natural things and we think the categories of our mind naturally fit the things that are there in the world; but most of our categories are not of things, they are of abstract entities: social relationships, events, actions, emotions, illnesses, governments, entities in science and folk theories like electrons and colds.  Classical view is the dominant – western – still predominant view today, even though all the evidence from research has shown us otherwise.

COGNITIVE MODELS VIEW OF CATEGORIES (PROTOTYPE THEORY) – Recent research from a number of different disciplines contradicts the classical view of categories. These diverse models are best called: Cognitive models or prototype-based categories defined by cognitive models: 1) Bayi, Balan, Balam, Bala (Dyirbal categories; Dyirbal is an Australian aboriginal language) and other show: Centrality, chaining, experiential domains, idealized models – myths and beliefs, specific knowledge, the Other; No common properties; Motivation; 2) What, If Anything, Is a Zebra? (Gould, 1983) – Taxonomist groups differed on categories. 3) The Bottom Line: Human categorization is a complex product of reason, experience, and imagination; research in varying fields linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, have changed our view of categories; no universal conceptual system, boundaries are fluid.


Published by Dr. Anita Coleman

The one and only Biblio Prof :)

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