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Skin Deep (1996)1 Adolph Reed, Jr.


A few years ago, in seminars within weeks of each other at two different Ivy League universities, colleagues queried me about the difference between race and ethnicity. I was a little surprised by the genuine puzzlement that motivated their questions, but I was struck still more by the good-natured querulousness that greeted my answer. I said that race and ethnicity are simply categories of social hierarchy; they are just labels for different magnitudes of distance from the most desirable status on a continuum of okayness. The farther out a population is on that continuum, the more likely it will be seen as a racial group; if its somewhat nearer in, itll most likely be understood as an ethnicity. Several people were skeptical and unsatisfied with this characterization, thinking that there must be something firmer that distinguishes race from ethnicity, that racial difference must be in some way objectively more extreme. Then came the old chestnuts: more dramatic phenotypic difference more remote common ancestry, and so on. I mentioned historian Barbara Jeanne Fieldss exercise inducing Columbia undergraduates to note whether theyre sitting in class next to individuals of their same race usually they areand then whether those individuals look just like themselves, which they dont. Fields point is that human populations vary in myriad ways, only some of which become racialized, based on specific histories of political economy and the facts of political power. Some superficial differences, like skin color, stand out to us because we perceive them in a context in which theyre already laden with significance as markers of social status, while others, like, say, eye color, height, or head shape, dont. W. E. B. Du Bois put it succinctly in 1940, in a hypothetical dialogue with a foreigner seeking a road map of American racial classification. After considering and rejecting all the usual biological or morphological criteria, Du Bois concluded that a black person is most accurately someone who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia. My son Tour (who insists that I note for the public record that he is not the guy who writes about hip-hop in the Voice), suggests a variation of Du Boiss formulation that holds for the postJim Crow era: you are what the police think you are. Those apothegms go to the heart of the matter. Race is purely a social construction; it has no core reality outside a specific social and historical context. That is not to say that it doesnt exist or that it is therefore meaningless, but its material force derives from state power, not some ahistorical nature or any sort of primordial group affinitiesthe 19th-century racist mush that has never lost its appeal as a simpleminded journalistic frame. Racial difference is not merely reflected in enforced patterns of social relations; it emerges exclusively from them. This point typically elicits a string of anxious, incoherent yes-buts from people all over the official racial map, inside and outside the academy, across the political spectrum. The hesitancy about accepting races contingency and fluidity shows just how thoroughly racialist thinkingwhich isnt just bigotry but all belief that race exists meaningfully and independently
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Adolph Reed, Jr., Skin Deep, Village Voice, 24 September 1996, p. 22.

of specific racial hierarchieshas been, naturalized in American life the extent to which we depend on it for our conceptual moorings However, the conviction of races solidity is undone by the ephemerality of the very categories that support it. Take the race/ethnicity distinction, for instance. It didnt exist less than a century ago. There were only races, and there were a lot of themGallic, Nordic, Mediterranean, Slavic, just to name a few from the list of those now homogenized as white. And each of those categories yielded other, more discrete races, such as Greeks, Armenians, Poles, the English, Welsh, Irish, and the like. (A Racial Adaptability chart prepared by industrial relations experts for employers in the 1920s listed 36 distinct races.) For most of the 19th century, even the Anglo American lower classes were often characterized as racially different from their social superiors. Whiteness, in fact, evolved as a generically meaningful status only gradually over the 19th and early 19th centuries, and in relation to specific issues associated with the incorporation of immigrant populations into an evolving system of social, political, and economic hierarchy. Whiteness became increasingly significant as a kind of safety net, providing a baseline of eligibility to rights, opportunities, and minimal social position. Of course, whiteness presumed a contrast with nonwhiteness, specifically blackness, which was simultaneously becoming a monolithic category marking inferior status. As ambiguous or intermediate categories disappeared in the 19th century, the basically bipolar racial system that we now know took shape. By the turn of the current century, immigrants came quickly to understand the material advantages of being declared white: among other things, they couldnt become naturalized citizens unless they were so classified. So federal court records from the period are littered with cases in which the swarthy flotsam and jetsam of the Mediterranean region in particular petitioned to demonstrate their legitimate claims to whiteness. These cases were steeped in state-of-the-art racial science, testament to the academys voluminous history of creating and legitimizing sophistries around racial classification. Charles Murray and sociobiology are direct lineal descendants of this once hegemonic strain of scientific racism. Besides, it didnt take much to figure out that being labeled black or colored would have a serious negative impact on economic and political opportunity. It only made sense for immigrants to try to avoid being thus hampered and these efforts were all the more important in the Jim Crow South. Sicilians, who came from the backyard of Africa anyway, were thrust among blacks in the north Louisiana cotton fields as well as in south Louisianaboth in New Orleans and in the cane fieldswhere they were physically indistinguishable in the pertinent ways from much of the officially black population. One of the most dramatic and revealing attempts to jockey for position involved descendants of the Delta Chinese, who had been imported into the Mississippi Delta region in the late 19th century to compete with blacks as plantation labor, but who eventually operated more as a stratum of commercial intermediaries. The Delta Chinese for some time occupied an ambiguous statusincluding open socializing and intermarriage with blacksthat Mississippis bipolar, white supremacist social order couldnt tolerate. Things came to a head around the issue of where Chinese should be slotted in the Jim Crow school system. No one with an alternative would have wanted to attend Mississippis schools for black people, which were never intended to provide anything like a decent education. A group of Chinese in Jackson therefore sought to

exploit the ambiguity of their colored designation to escape that fate. The result was Gong Lum v. Rice, in which the Chinese petitioners argued all the way to the Supreme Courtbased once again on academic state-of-the-art researchthat as an intermediate group they were in crucial ways racially and culturally nearer to whites and therefore should be permitted to attend white schools. (They lost the legal battle but won over Jacksons white elites, who quietly acquiesced.) Ethnicityand its corollary, the expansion of whiteness as a generic categoryis the result of similar efforts at successfully negotiating the bipolar racial system to avoid the stigma of blackness. White ethnicity emerged during the New Deal and immediate postwar period, and it reflects the incorporation of previously distinct racial populations into the safety net of whiteness. This incorporation was spurred by the Democratic Partys coalition politics and the upward mobility made possible by the New Deal. As ever, academic race theory was there to provide the legitimizing conceptual frame, inventing and projecting ethnicity as a category of subracial difference. Theres a lesson here as we confront a new destabilization in the American racial system, in the face of a wave of immigration of populations defined outside the expanded universe of whiteness. Multiculturalism is partly an attempt to transcend the bipolar system. In that sense, it is an assertion that the world is more complicated than black and white, and it therefore challenges the simplistic racial discourse that has so long been a poison in American political life. However, multiculturalism also partly overlaps model-minority ideology, the current eras version of the closer-to-whites-than-to-blacks move. To that extent its an application for a kind of contingent membership in whiteness, or for recognition of an ethniclike intermediate category of okaynessboth gambits that only reinforce existing racial ideology and hierarchy. We all need to be clear about which is which.