Earlier this year a CBS commentator in a panel with Jay Smooth embarrassingly revealed that she thought he was white (Smooth’s father is black) and this week the internet learned that Rachel Dolezal was white all along (both parents identify as white). The CBS commentator’s mistake and Dolezal’s ability to pass both speak to the strange way we’ve socially constructed blackness in this country.
The truth is that African Americans are essentially all mixed race. From the beginning, enslaved and other Africans had close relationships with poor and indentured servant whites, that’s one reason why so many black people have Irish last names. During slavery, sexual relationships between enslavers and the enslaved, occurring on a range of coercive levels, were routine. Children born to enslaved women from these encounters were identified as “black.” The one-drop rule — you are black if you have one drop of black blood — was an economic tool used to protect the institution of racialized slavery (by preserving the distinction between two increasingly indistinct racial groups) and enrich the individual enslaver (by producing another human being he could own). Those enslaved children grew up and had children with other enslaved people as well as other whites.
In addition to these, of course, voluntary relationships between free black people and white people were occurring all these years as well and they have been happening ever since, both before and after they became legal. And the descendants of those couplings have been having babies all these years, too.
We’re talking about 500 years of mixing between blacks, whites, Native Americans (who gave refuge to escaped slaves), and every other group in America. The continued assumption, then, that a black person is “black” and only “mixed race” if they claim the label reflects the ongoing power of the one-drop rule. It also explains why people with such dramatically varying phenotypes can all be considered black. Consider the image below, a collage of people interviewed and photographed for the (1)ne Drop project; Jay Smooth is in the guy at the bottom left.
My point is simply that of course Jay Smooth is sometimes mistaken for white and it should be no surprise to learn that it’s easy for a white person — even one with blond hair and green eyes — to pass as black (in fact, it’s a pastime). The racial category is a mixed race one and, more importantly, it’s more social than biological. Structural disadvantage, racism, and colorism are real. The rich cultural forms that people who identify as black have given to America are real. The loving communities people who identify as black create are real. But blackness isn’t, never was, and is now less than ever before.
A study by doctor Ruchi Gupta and colleagues mapped rates of asthma among children in Chicago, revealing that they are closely correlated with race and income. The overall U.S. rate of childhood asthma is about 10%, but evidence indicates that asthma is very unevenly distributed. Their visuals show that there are huge variations in the rates of childhood asthma among different neighborhoods:
The researchers looked at how the racial/ethnic composition of neighborhoods is associated with childhood asthma. They defined a neighborhood’s racial make-up by looking at those that were over 67% White, Black, or Hispanic. This graph shows the percent of such neighborhoods that fall into three categories of rates of asthma: low (less than 10% of children have asthma), medium (10-20% of children have it), and high (over 20% of kids are affected). While 95% of White neighborhoods have low or medium rates, 56% of Hispanic neighborhoods have medium or high rates. However, the really striking finding is for Black neighborhoods; 94% have medium or high prevalence. And the racial clustering is even more pronounced if we look only at the high category, where only a tiny proportion (6%) of White neighborhoods fall but nearly half of Black ones do…a nearly mirror image of what we see for the low category:
Rates of asthma and racial/ethnic composition (the color of the circles) mapped onto Chicago neighborhoods (background color represents prevalence of asthma):
Asthma rates don’t seem to be highly clustered by education, but are highly correlated with overall neighborhood incomes:
It’s hard to know exactly what causes higher rates of asthma in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods than in White ones. It could be differences in access to medical care. The researchers found that asthma rates are also higher in neighborhoods that have high rates of violence. Perhaps stress from living in neighborhoods with a lot of violence is leading to more asthma. The authors of the study suggest that parents might keep their children inside more to protect them from violence, leading to more exposure to second-hand smoke and other indoor pollutants (off-gassing from certain types of paints or construction materials, for instance).
Other studies suggest that poorer neighborhoods have worse outdoor environmental conditions, particularly exposure to industries that release toxic air pollutants or store toxic waste, which increase the risk of asthma. Having a parent with asthma increases the chances of having it as well, though the connection there is equally unsure–is there a genetic factor, or does it simply indicate that parents and children are likely to grow up in neighborhoods with similar conditions?
Regardless, it’s clear that some communities — often those with the fewest resources to deal with it — are bearing the brunt of whatever conditions cause childhood asthma.
Originally posted in 2010.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
With interest, I have been watching the resistanceto theright of trans people to choose public restrooms based on their identity instead of their biology at birth. Though there is no evidence that allowing trans people to use the bathroom of their choice will put anyone in danger, one of the arguments against doing so is that women or children will be victimized. Completely tone deaf to the actual experiences of trans people, the idea is nonetheless framed as allowing men to use women’s restrooms:
I can’t help but want to draw connections to history and a recent post at Notches, a history of sexuality blog, helped me do so.
Recall that it wasn’t so long ago that black and white people weren’t allowed to use the same restrooms in public. When this practice came under attack, segregationists in the South, like anti-trans choice advocates today, claimed that it would be dangerous for white women, claiming that they would be infected with black women’s venereal diseases.
White women participated in this resistance, protesting against the integration of their bathrooms. A girl at Central High in Little Rock, AR, for example, claimed that bathroom integration functionally stole bathroom facilities from white girls. “Many of the girls won’t use the rest rooms at Central,” she said, “simply because the ‘Nigger’ girls use them.”
Several decades later, conservatives fighting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women drew again on racism and the politics of the bathroom. They stoked fear in the American public by suggesting that passage of the ERA would lead to the sex integration of bathrooms. Still smarting from the loss of racial segregation, they even compared race and sex segregation, hoping that the public would be opposed to both.
In this anti-ERA flyer, the final threat is: “Do you want the sexes fully integrated like the races?”
Combining the two was a powerful tool, exploiting the longstanding racist belief that white women were uniquely vulnerable to predatory, sexually voracious black men. Both race and sex integration of bathrooms would mean that white women would be going to the bathroom not just with black women, but with black men. “I ain’t going to have my wife be in the bathroom with some big, black, buck!” said one North Carolina legislator.
This same argument, now with trans women as the target, is being made today.
October 2015: University of Louisville President James Ramsey held a staff Halloween party where stereotypically Mexican sombreros, maracas, and bushy mustaches were handed out to guests. Latinos account for 3.4% of the college’s student population.
October 2015: Members of UCLA’s Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Phi sorority threw a “Kanye Western” party. According to UCLA’s Afrikan American Newsmagazine, witnesses reported:
“a group of women leaving the dormitory dressed in oversized shirts, gold chains, and form-fitting black dresses stuffed to caricature their butts.”
a girl who had “taped a wine glass to her fake butt.”
people “dressed in baggy clothing, bandanas, and gold chains.”
“fraternity members [wearing] black face paint.”
When witnesses tried to take photographs, they reported being rushed by fraternity members, but some images appeared on social media. In their coverage of the party, Cosmopolitan included these:
March 2015: Sigma Alpha Epsilon members and others at the University of Oklahoma sing:
There will never be a nigger in SAE.
You can hang them from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me.
November 2014: “USA vs. Mexico” party hosted by the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Randolph-Macon College
September 2014: Entries in a “car costume” event by ENSOC, the Engineering Society of the University of Canterbury, mock ebola victims, the violence in the Gaza strip, and the Taliban. Discussed here and the university’s official response can be read here (thanks to Mark B. and another anonymous tipster for the heads up).
And some sexism for good measure:
Earlier that year, in May, the same group also put out a song parody featuring an actor in blackface. The negative response to this incident was swift, but it did not apparently make much impact on the group.
February 2014: Photos from an Olympics-themed mixer co-hosted by the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at Columbia University, discussed here. Costumes and gags reflected racial/national stereotypes:
January 2014: The Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Arizona State University hosted a so-called Martin Luther King, Jr party in which “mocked blacks by donning loose basketball jerseys, flashing gang signs and drinking from hollowed-out watermelons.” Photos online were tagged with #hood.
November 2013: The Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity at California Polytechnic – San Luis Obispo threw a “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” party.
October 2013: The Delta Kappa Epsilon sorority at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, throws a 60s-themed party features “hippies” mixing with men in rice paddy hats. Faces blacked out. (Thanks to Holly for the link!)
July 2013: The Alpha Delta fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority at Dartmouth College hosted at “Bloods and Crips” party (story here, picture here):
April 2013: This still is from a video celebrating the spring semester induction of new recruits into UC Irvine’s Asian-American fraternity Lambda Theta Delta (via Colorlines). It features a fraternity member in blackface. The entire video can be seen here.
February 2013: Three hockey fans in the audience of a North Dakota high school semifinal donned Ku Klux Klan-ish hoods as a “joke,” they later said:
October 2012: The photograph below depicts the members of the Chi Omega sorority at Penn State (source). It was taken during a Mexican fiesta-themed party around Halloween. The signs read: “will mow lawn for weed & beer” and “I don’t cut grass I smoke it.” The Vice President of the college’s Mexican American Student Association, Cesar Sanchez Lopez, wrote:
The Mexican American Student Association is disappointed in the attire chosen by this sorority. It in no way represents our culture. Not only have they chosen to stereotype our culture with serapes and sombreros, but the insinuation about drug usage makes this image more offensive. Our country is plagued by a drug war that has led to the death of an estimated 50,000 people, which is nothing to be joked about.
The president of the sorority sent out an apology. Penalties are under discussion as of this posting.
May 2012: The University of Chicago’s Alpha Delta Phi fraternity required pledges to wear “Mexican labor outfits” and sombreros while mowing the frat house lawn to Mexican ranchera music (source).
UPDATE: A University of Chicago student involved in reporting this incident wrote it to say that the photograph we originally published is likely unrelated to the Alpha Delta Phi incident (that is, a fake or a photo of a different event). In other words, the incident happened, but the photograph was not of the incident. Accordingly, we’ve removed the photo.
March 2012: “Cowboys and Indians” party, University of Denver, hosted by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority:
February 2010: Members of the Athletics Union at the London School of Economics painted their faces brown and “dressed up as Guantanamo Bay inmates and drunkenly yelled ‘Oh Allah’…” At least 12 students were found to have dressed up in costumes that were deemed “racist, religiously insensitive and demeaning.”
October 2009: University of Toronto students decided to dress up like the Jamaican bobsled team from Cool Runnings for Halloween (source). Their costume, which earned them a “Costume of the Night” award at this college-sponsored party, included blackface.
February 2007: Pictures from a “South of the Border” party at Santa Clara University in California. Indeed, that IS a pregnant woman, cleaning ladies, and a slutty gang member.
January 2007: A party in “honor” of Martin Luther King Day at Tarleton State University in Texas:
January 2007: A party in “honor” of Martin Luther King Day at Clemson College in South Carolina:
January 2007: A party in “honor” of Martin Luther King Day at University of Connecticut School of Law:
This video was making the rounds last spring. The video maker wants to make two points:
1. Cops are racist. They are respectful of the White guy carrying the AR-15. The Black guy gets less comfortable treatment.
2. The police treatment of the White guy is the proper way for police to deal with someone carrying an assault rifle.
I had two somewhat different reactions.
1. This video was made in Oregon. Under Oregon’s open-carry law, what both the White and Black guy are doing is perfectly legal. And when the White guy refuses to provide ID, that’s legal too. If this had happened in Roseburg, and the carrier had been strolling to Umpqua Community College, there was nothing the police could have legally done, other than what is shown in the video, until the guy walked onto campus, opened fire, and started killing people.
2. Guns are dangerous, and the police know it. In the second video, the cop assumes that the person carrying an AR-15 is potentially dangerous – very dangerous. The officer’s fear is palpable. He prefers to err on the side of caution – the false positive of thinking someone is dangerous when he is really OK. The false negative – assuming an armed person is harmless when he is in fact dangerous – could well be the last mistake a cop ever makes.
But the default setting for gun laws in the US is just the opposite – better a false negative. This is especially true in Oregon and states with similar gun laws. These laws assume that people with guns are harmless. In fact, they assume that all people, with a few exceptions, are harmless. Let them buy and carry as much weaponry and ammunition as they like.
Most of the time, that assumption is valid. Most gun owners, at least those who got their guns legitimately, are responsible people. The trouble is that the cost of the rare false negative is very, very high. Lawmakers in these states and in Congress are saying in effect that they are willing to pay that price. Or rather, they are willing to have other people – the students at Umpqua, or Newtown, or Santa Monica, or scores of other places, and their parents – pay that price.
UPDATE October, 6: You have to forgive the hyperbole in that last paragraph, written so shortly after the massacre at Umpqua. I mean, those politicians don’t really think that it’s better to have dead bodies than to pass regulations on guns, do they?
Or was it hyperbole? Today, Dr. Ben Carson, the surgeon who wants to be the next president of the US, stated even more clearly this preference for guns even at the price of death. “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” (The story is in the New York Times and elsewhere.)
Social and biological scientists agree that race and ethnicity are social constructions, not biological categories. The US government, nonetheless, has an official position on what categories are “real.” You can find them on the Census (source):
These categories, however real they may seem, are actually the product of a long process. Over time, the official US racial categories have changed in response to politics, economics, conflict, and more. Here’s some highlights.
In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different than it does today:
Free white males
Free white females
All other free persons (included Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks)
By 1870 slavery is illegal and the government was newly concerned with keeping track of two new kinds of people: “mulattos” (or people with both black and white ancestors) and Indians:
Indian (Native Americans)
Between 1850 and 1870 6.5 million Europeans had immigrated and 60,000 Chinese. Chinese and Japanese were added for the 1880 Census.
By 1890, the U.S. government with obsessed with race-mixing. The race question looked like this:
Black (3/4th or more “black blood”)
Mulatto (3/8th to 5/8th “black blood”)
Quadroons (1/4th “black blood”)
Octoroons (1/8th or any trace of “black blood”)
This year was the only year to include such fine-tuned mixed-race categories, however, because it turned out it wasn’t easy to figure out how to categorize people.
In the next 50 years, the government added and deleted racial categories. There were 10 in 1930 (including “Mexican” and “Hindu”) and 11 in 1940 (introducing “Hawaiian” and “Part Hawaiian”). In 1970, they added the “origin of descent” question that we still see today. So people are first asked whether they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” and then asked to choose a race.
You might immediately think, “But what do these words even mean?” And you’d be right to ask. “Spanish” refers to Spain; “Latino” refers to Latin America; and “Hispanic” is a totally made up word that was originally designed to mean “people who speak Spanish.”
Part of the reason we have the “Hispanic” ethnicity question is because Mexican Americans fought for it. They thought it would be advantageous to be categorized as “white” and, so, they fought for an ethnicity category instead of a racial one.
Funny story: The US once included “South American” as a category in the “origin of descent” question. That year, over a million residents southern U.S. states, like Alabama and Mississippi checked that box.
2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race. They considered a couple other changes for that year, but decided against them. Native Hawaiians had been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the US government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government considered it for 2000, but decided “no.” And whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity was also discussed for that year. They decided to continue to instruct such individuals to choose “white.”
The changing categories in the Census show us that racial and ethnic categories are political categories. They are chosen by government officials who are responding not to biological realities, but to immigration, war, prejudice, and social movements.
In the 6-minute video below, Stanford sociologist Aliya Saperstein discusses her research showing that the perception of other peoples’ race is shaped by what we know about them. She uses data collected through a series of in-person interviews in which interviewers sit down with respondents several times over many years, learn about what’s happened and, among other things, make a judgment call as to their race. You may be surprised how often racial designations. In one of her samples, 20% of respondents were inconsistently identified, meaning that they were given different racial classifications by different interviewers at least once.
Saperstein found that a person judged as white in an early interview was more likely to be marked as black in a later interview if they experienced a life event that is stereotypically associated with blackness, like imprisonment or unemployment.
She and some colleagues also did an experiment, asking subjects to indicate whether people with black, white, and ambiguous faces dressed in a suit or a blue work shirt were white or black. Tracing their mouse paths, it was clear that the same face in a suit was more easily categorized as white than the one in a work shirt.
Race is a social construction, not just in the sense that we made it up, but in that it’s flexible and dependent on status as well as phenotype.
She finishes with the observation that, while phenotype definitely impacts a person’s life chances, we also need to be aware that differences in education, income, and imprisonment reflect not only bias against phenotype, but the fact that success begets whiteness. And vice versa.
In this 6 minute video, Col. Ty Seidule, head of the department of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, takes on the claim that the Civil War was about something other than slavery. He begins:
Was the American Civil War fought because of slavery. More than 150 years later, this remains a controversial question. Why? Because many people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution. “There has to be another reason,” we are told. Well, there isn’t.
He goes on to use strong logic and documentation — speeches, secession documents, the Emancipation Proclamation, and more — to make a convincing case that the Civil War was about “slavery and just slavery.” He finishes:
Slavery is the great shame of America’s history. No one denies that. But it’s to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. As a soldier, I am proud that the United States army — my army — defeated the confederates. In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform, almost 200,000 of them former slaves themselves, destroyed chattel slavery; freed four million men, women, and children from human bondage; and saved the United States of America.