Spurious Issues: Race and Multiracial Identity Politics in the United States

By Rainier Spencer | Go to book overview
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eral racial classification. The importance of civil rights compliance monitoring, and the difficulty of devising an acceptable alternative to the current method of relying on racial statistics, was made especially clear by the White House announcement of January 19, 1998, unveiling a plan to increase annual federal civil rights spending from $516 million to $602 million in the 1999 budget. 90 This would represent nearly a 17 percent increase, amounting to $86 million. Federal racial categorization would be a fundamental factor in determining how a great deal of this money would be spent. The history of federal racial categorization, the extent of its spread throughout both the public and private sectors, and its application in civil rights compliance monitoring are among the subjects of Chapter 2.

Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler, and Carl Ridenhour, "Fear of a Black Planet"," on Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy, Def Jam Recordings, Columbia Records (CK 45413), 1990.
In medieval Europe many people believed that the Earth was flat, yet despite this mistaken appreciation of geophysics they developed a coherent civilization. Similarly, peo- ple in the United States have found ways to rationalize and live with the false conscious- ness of race. One must visualize oneself outside the American racial system in order to see how it perpetuates itself and how it masquerades as an already present empirical condi- tion of the world.
This thought experiment is adapted from an earlier version originally published in my article "Race in the Face"," Interrace, June-July 1994,26.
That the important differences between people are cultural and not racial is illus- trated by an encounter I had a few years ago with two colleagues. My Afrocentric friend began a statement with the words "We Africans . . ." but he was stopped cold by our col- league from Sierra Leone. She halted him in midsentence, telling him in no uncertain terms that he was an American, not an African, and that he'd do well to remember this fact in her presence. That experience continues to impress upon me the fact that the American idea of racial identity is not a universal one.
Marvin Harris, Patterns of Race in the Americas ( Westport,Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1964), 56.
Marvin Harris and Conrad Kotak coined the term " hypo-descent" in The Structural Significance of Brazilian Racial Categories," Sociologia 25 ( 1963): 207.
Harris, Patterns of Race, 56.
I want to be very clear in acknowledging that so-called racial mixture between whites and Asians, and whites and Native Americans, is indeed problematic. However, neither of these cases is as problematic as black/white racial mixture, either immediately or through succeeding generations.
The infamous Susie Guillory Phipps case of the 1980s consisted of a district court trial and several appeals involving a Louisiana woman whose birth certificate listed her as colored in virtue of her having had a single black ancestor in the late eighteenth century. Phipps argued that she was raised white, that she considered herself white, that she lived her life as a white person, and that her birth certificate should therefore be changed ac


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