Discovery Guides Areas


Multiracial Identity and the U.S. Census
(Released January 2010)

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  by Tyrone Nagai  


Key Citations




What is Race?


What the controversy surrounding Tiger Woods and Fuzzy Zoeller illustrates is that assumptions and misunderstandings abound when it comes to conversations about race. Part of the difficulty is that objective, scientific definitions of race are non-existent. Among biologists and geneticists there are differing schools of thought.

One group of scientists argues that there is only one race: The human race. In their view genetic research demonstrates that Homo sapiens share 99.9% of DNA (Lehrman, 2003). The few genes and alleles that account for differences in skin, eye, and hair color-common physical traits used to differentiate racial groups-are part of that 00.1% where human DNA diverges. Thus, "race is biologically meaningless" (Schwartz, 2001) and "commonly used ethnic labels are both insufficient and inaccurate representations of inferred genetic clusters" (Wilson et al, 2001). On top of the high percentage of genetic similarity, physical traits such as skin and hair color vary independently. For example, dark skin and blond hair are found together in the Solomon Islands (Norton et al. 2005). This type of variance undermines the usefulness of binding together certain physical characteristics to create scientific categories of race.

Another school argues that researching by race is a worthwhile undertaking in limited situations, such as studying susceptibility to genetic diseases and reactions to medication. In this narrow realm of research where race can be a significant factor, the way in which we typically define race must be altered. Instead of using physical traits such as skin color, a more objective and useful method involves genetic sub-groupings, which can be derived from major events in the timeline of human evolution (Risch, 2002).

chart of racial groups
The evolutionary tree of human races. Population genetic studies of world populations support the categorization into five major groups, as shown. (Risch, 2002).

If we take a look at the science related to physical traits commonly associated with race, then we can learn a great deal about how evolutionary adaptations to the environment have resulted in genetic differences. For example, the leading explanation for the evolution of light hair and light skin concerns an adaption to better produce Vitamin D in places with deficient sunlight. Lack of Vitamin D inhibits calcium absorption and can lead to rickets. Also, women need to produce additional Vitamin D3 when pregnant or lactating in order to absorb greater quantities of calcium. For these reasons, humans in Northern Europe, which suffers from seasonal deficiencies of sunlight, developed skin with less pigmentation. Lighter skin allows more sunlight to trigger the production of Vitamin D. In this way, the prevalence of light hair in Northern Europe is a result of the light skin adaptation (Robins, 1991; Jablonski and Chaplin, 2000). At the same, overexposure to sunlight among pregnant women can harm fetal development because excess UV radiation can cause oxidative damage to DNA. Darker skin and hair offers protection from this risk, which is an evolutionary advantage in places like Africa and India (Jablonski, 2004).

While natural science can explain the evolutionary causes and effects that lead to differences in skin color, hair color, and other physical traits we associate with race, it is within the realm of social science where the significance assigned to race through social, political, and cultural beliefs are interrogated. For example, from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century, eugenicists believed they could prove the superiority of one racial group over another through scientific investigation. Comparing differences in the average volume of the human skull was one method used in the attempt to rank racial groups by intelligence. It was found that these so-called biological differences originated from researcher bias once blind testing became the scientific standard (Gould, 1981). Scientists were able to disprove eugenics over time, but the eugenicists' focus on racial stratification still pervades our society.

It might come as a surprise that the popularity of breeding "pure" dogs arose in conjunction with the eugenicist movement (Budiansky, 2000). The idea that one could create the perfect type through selective breeding, resulting in a "pure bred," became widespread. We look down upon people holding this view with regard to human life, exemplified by the Nazi belief in Aryan supremacy. Yet efforts to avoid "contaminating" the purity of so-called "supreme" races by discouraging or preventing sexual relations between persons of different racial groups had also formed part of the eugenicist agenda, even in the United States (Sandall, 2008). The belief that so-called "inferior" races are "improved" when there is "mixture" with the "supreme" race has often been used to justify genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass rape. This was the case with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as well as, more recently, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In the U.S., it was thought that the white race is weakened through mixing with other races, but other races are strengthened by being mixed with white (Park, 1931). This hypocrisy speaks to the cruelty of racism as well as the tenuous position of multiracial people.

Richard & Virginia Loving
Mildred and Richard Loving
In the U.S., the last legal prohibitions against interracial marriage were overturned in 1967 with the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in Loving v. Virginia. Richard and Mildred Loving were residents of Virginia, which banned marriage between white and non-white partners, so they married in Washington, D.C., in 1958. Richard was white and Mildred was black and Native American, and the police in Virginia arrested them in 1959 for violating a law that criminalized interracial couples from marrying out of state and returning to Virginia to live. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Lovings, which eventually led to the legalization of all interracial marriages.

Unfortunately, the social stigma attached to interracial marriage remains (Moran, 2001). In one extreme case, a justice of the peace in Louisiana named Keith Bardwell was forced to resign in 2009 because he refused to perform marriages for interracial couples. His justification was that the children of mixed marriages are rejected by both communities and suffer as a result (Deslatte, 2009). The more typical mechanism used to discourage interracial marriage stems from pressure applied by family members, often disguised in color-blind language (Childs, 2002). Families create and reproduce racial boundaries by controlling whom members can and cannot date, court, or marry. Often the racial "other" is construed as "different," "deviant," or even "dangerous" in order to discourage an interracial couple or union from forming (Childs, 2002).

Given that Barack Obama, the nation's first African American president, is the son of a biracial couple, why does the taboo against interracial couples and their children persist? For social scientists, the answer resides in the social construction of race. In other words, the concept of race originates from our society, including its history, culture, and laws. Meanings and interpretations of race change as society changes (Sollors, 2002). This is especially true for multiracial people.

Omi and Winant (1986) illustrate the social construction of race in a famous legal case from 1983 where Susie Guillory Phipps sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records to change her racial classification from black to white. By many definitions she was multiracial as the descendant of an 18th-century white planter and his black slave. She was designated as "black" on her birth certificate because Louisiana law stated that anyone with at least one-thirty-second "Negro blood" was "black."

Phipp's' attorney argued that the assignment of racial categories on birth certificates was unconstitutional and that the one-thirty-second designation was inaccurate. He asked for expert testimony from a retired Tulane University professor who cited research indicating that most whites have one-twentieth "Negro" ancestry. Assistant Attorney General Ron Davis defended the law by pointing out that some type of racial classification was necessary to comply with federal record-keeping requirements and to facilitate programs for the prevention of genetic diseases.

In the end, Phipps lost. Despite being 97% "white," the one-drop rule prevented her from legally changing her race on her birth certificate, so she remained "black." The fact that the case was heard only 26 years ago speaks to the immediate and complex social, political, and cultural issues at stake when it comes to multiracial identities. While controversy over race remains in U.S. society, its origins can be traced back to the nation's genesis. A historical overview of the interdependence among race, census, and the United States Constitution follows. As it turns out, all three are related in surprising ways.

Go To Unlikely Bedfellows: Race, Census, and the United States Constitution

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