Race and Ethnic Conflict: Contending Views on Prejudice, Discrimination, and Ethnoviolence

By Fred L. Pincus; Howard J. Ehrlich | Go to book overview
"racial" groups, while Japan describes itself as "racially pure." In both societies, powerful groups define the categories and make policies and laws to support their views.

Ian F. Haney López cautions that even if race has no biological basis, we cannot call it an hallucination. Biological race is the illusion; social race is not. Haney López ( 1994) defines race in social terms as "a vast group of people loosely bound together by historically contingent, socially significant elements of their morphology and/or ancestry" (p. 7). In evaluating this definition, we must keep in mind that a race is not created simply because a subset of people share just any characteristic (height, hand size, eye color or ancestry). It is the social significance ascribed to certain physical features and to certain ancestors, such as Africans, Europeans, or Asians, which define races. In "Passing for White, Passing for Black," Adrian Piper ( 1992) states, "What joins me to other blacks, then, and other blacks to another, is not a set of shared physical characteristics, for there is none that all blacks share. Rather, it is the shared experience of being visually or cognitively identified as black by a white racist society, and the punitive and damaging effects of that identification" (pp. 30-31). If those physical features we associate with a specific race are absent in a person who claims to be of that race, or if those physical features are present in a person who claims not to be of that race, we accuse him or her of being "underhanded or manipulative, trying to hide something, pretending to be something [they were not]" ( Piper 1992:23).

Even the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which sets racial and ethnic classification policy and standard in the United States, acknowledged the social significance of race in Federal Statistical Policy Directive No. 15. The directive states that a person's mixed race or ethnic background was to be reported in a standard category which most closely reflects how others in the community recognize that person ( Hunt 1993).

In the reading "The Mean Streets of Social Race," Ian E Haney López ( 1994) expands on the social significance of race through the case of Piri Thomas, a Puerto Rican of mixed Indian, African, and European descent, who finds himself transformed into a Black person upon moving to the United States with his family. López argues that race is not a fixed, inherited attribute, free of human intervention--something parents pass on to their off-spring through their genes. Rather, race is a product of at least three overlapping and inseparable factors: chance (physical features and ancestry), context (historical, cultural, and social setting), and choice (everyday decisions).

In view of the shortcomings associated with the U.S. system of racial classification and the fact that race is not a fixed, inherited attribute, we should not be surprised to learn that the U.S. Office of Management and Budget is under pressure to modify the classification scheme outlined in Federal Statistical Policy Directive No. 15.


NOTES
1.
There was one exception to this rule. If either parent was Hawaiian, the child was assigned to the Hawaiian category ( National Center for Health Statistics 1993).
3.
Before 1980, Asian Indians were considered white. Mexicans were considered a separate race in 1930 but in the 1940 Census were classified as white. (Ed.'s note: In the 2000 Census, mixed race people can check multiple categories.)

-21-

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