Race in America

Senator Obama calls himself a black American or African American. He is seen as a black American or African American by most of the black/African-American community and probably also by the white community and the other racial/ethnic communities in the USA. By self-identifying as a black American, Senator Obama, who has a black Kenyan father and a white American mother, denies or diminishes the 50 percent of his parental heritage that is white.

Self-identification is, of course, a matter of personal preference and choice. But if I were to self-identify as a black female, a few eyebrows would be raised. When a self-identifying choice makes little sense because of its lack of congruence with easily observable facts, it is open to question, even to criticism.

Language matters. By any reasonable use of the English language, Senator Obama is not a black American or an African American. By the twisted usage that prevails in the USA (and to a growing extent also in the UK) where the politics and language of race are concerned, he is a black American or an African American.

Senator Obama is clearly an American, because he was born in the USA. But he is neither only black nor only white. He is of mixed race or multi-racial. He is also not the descendant of slaves forcibly taken, sold and shipped to America. This era of chattel slavery is the defining historical trauma that has shaped and distorted the American discourse about race. African-European American would be a better description if the geographical location of recent ancestors determines the adjectives that precede ‘American’.

Because his father was born in Africa, Senator Obama can fairly claim African as a self-identifying adjective to go with American. For most of the African-American community in the USA, however, the most recent ancestor to have been born in Africa is many generations in the past. What determines how many generations you live in a country but still identify with a country or continent of origin of some distant ancestor? If we go back far enough, because of the African genesis of humanity, every human being should put ‘African’ before their continental and racial identification.

Humans have through the ages classified and sorted themselves according to many criteria and observable characteristics, including gender, race, sexual orientation, age, hair colour, eye colour, social status, religion, nationality, tribe, class, height, weight and health status. The term ‘race’ is vague and fuzzy. Many scientists argue that it is not a particularly useful criterion for classifying people. Typically, the term race is used to divide people into populations or groups according to visible traits, especially skin colour, cranial or facial features and hair texture. Some of the taxonomies based on racial categories are completely crackpot. Some are motivated by evil intent. The other way (rather circular, in my view) the concept of race is used to divide people is based on self-identification.

Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another race. Racism is a universal phenomenon: it appears to occur in every time and place. In every country and age, however, there also appear to be many individuals who have not succumbed to this virus. I have seen manifestations of racism everywhere I have lived or visited: in the Netherlands, in Belgium, in the UK, in the USA, in China, in India, in Japan, in Vietnam, in Russia, in Peru, Argentina and Brazil, in South Africa, Ethiopia and Morocco, in Australia, in Israel, in the UAE and in Egypt.

The American attitude towards race, especially towards those who, during my lifetime have been designated as negroes, blacks, African-Americans and people of color (a category also often defined more broadly to include all non-whites) remains baffling, divisive and destructive of a true sense of nationhood. First, everyone must be put into some racial box. Second, everyone who has even just a single great-grand parent who hailed from Africa and had black skin colour is identified as African-American/black and is expected to self-identify the same way. What happened to the remaining 87.5 percent, 75 percent, 50 percent or whatever lower percentage of a person’s ancestors who came from other parts of the world and may have had very different skin colours or hair textures?

I am not saying that this selective denial of part or even most of a person’s ancestry is hard to explain historically. But even if we grant that the American obsession with the country’s failure to fully integrate into the national mainstream a significant proportion of its black/African-American population can be explained and understood fully through the unique historical experience of the USA, where the majority of the African-American population are the descendants of slaves brought to the country from Africa in chains – what of it? That does not alter the fact that for both the black and the white communities, it is an unhealthy and destructive obsession – one that is in urgent need of change if the long shadow cast by slavery is not to destroy a large segment of yet another generation of black American males.

If change is indeed needed, I believe that there is good news on the racial front. Things are changing, even in America. The identification of Senator Obama by most of the US electorate as a black American or African American, and Senator Obama’s matching self-identification reflect a mindset and a model of racial identification and self-identification that have not yet cast off the historical chains of slavery in the USA. It reflects a culture of which the Rev. Wright is an extreme example from an earlier generation, a culture that makes those who embrace it the prisoners of a vile past – a past that has become a dead-end street.

The future belongs to people who emulate Tiger Woods’ attitude towards race, or take it a stage further by denying the intrinsic or fundamental significance of race altogether. After being fêted as a great black golfer, Tiger Woods stated that he was not black but Cablinasian (as in Caucasian-Black-Indian-Asian). If I have done my research correctly (I am not 100% sure of the details), Woods’ father is half black, one quarter American Indian and one quarter white. His mother is half Thai and half Chinese. Why can’t he just be an American, without any racial epithet – even Cablinasian?

The process driving the less history-burdened, and less-exclusionist form of racial identification and self-identification exemplified by Tiger Woods is the rapid growth in the number of people with mixed-race or multi-racial ancestries. It is one of the great blessings of globalisation. I am a beneficiary of this process myself, through my children.

My son was adopted from Peru, my daughter from Bolivia. They both have brown skin and pitch black (son)/dark (daughter) hair. Both my children are multi-racial – of mixed race. My daughter’s most likely ancestry is part Aymara Indian and part white European, probably Swiss. My son is also part Indian (probably one of the nations subjugated by the Incas) and part white European. His features are more oriental, however, than those of even full Peruvian Indians. So there could be a Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese or Korean ancestor somewhere down the line. When he was a baby, the locals in Lima used to call him ‘Chinito’ or ‘little Chinese’. In most of South America, any man from East Asia or of East Asian origin is called ‘Chino’ – this befell even the former President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, who was of Japanese origin. What does all this make my children, in the racial pigeonholing stakes? The correct answer is: whatever. Who cares?

We moved from the US to the UK in 1994. My son went to his first party in the UK, at the age of four, in the then racially very homogeneously white village of Great Gransden, 14 miles west of Cambridge. I hung around to make sure he would be OK in this unfamiliar setting. He came to see me after a while with a rather confused look on his face. “Daddy, that boy there called me a blackie”. “Oh”, I replied, not very articulately, “so what did you reply?” “I told him I wasn’t a blackie, because I am a brownie”. And so of course he was. And is. And will be.

I told my son he was quite right; that the other boy was either ignorant, because he did not know the difference between black and brown, or that the other boy was trying to insult him, because there were people who considered skin colour to be important and also considered some skin colours to be better than others. That was wrong, it was bad, but it did happen. The boy probably had just been parroting his parents. My son should never accept this kind of nonsense or put up with it. But he should also never respond by retaliating in kind.

Since 1997, we have lived in London, first in the Isle of Dogs, now in South East London. One of the great pluses of London is its incredible variety of people – all races (and all combinations of races), all cultures, all religions, all ethnic backgrounds mix and mingle – most of the time peacefully but at times, unfortunately, violently. The pupils at the primary school on the Isle of Dogs attended by my kids for a few years, were over 70% of Bengali background. The rest were mainly from Vietnamese, Chinese, and a variety of African backgrounds. The only white kids were those of the teachers and a few children representing the remnants of the old white working class – a group that had been decimated when the docks died. The school was a haven of tolerance, respect, good manners and learning. It can be done.

My children consider the multi-racial, multi-cultural society of London to be the norm. In early September 2006, my wife and I were teaching a course in Kiel, northern Germany. The children were with us, and a good time was had driving around Schleswig-Holstein and southern Denmark. My daughter, then just 13, turns to me as we walk along the harbour in Kiel and says: “Daddy, what’s wrong with this place? Everyone is white”. I hadn’t noticed, but she was quite right. The contrast with London’s melting pot or racial and ethnic cauldron was stark. We had a long talk about race and racism that evening over dinner.

I tried to explain to them that race matters if and only if enough people believe that it matters.(It is an example of what economists call a ‘bubble’ – something not explained by objective fundamentals but by self-validating, arbitrary beliefs (that’s not how I put it to them!)). If people everywhere believed race was irrelevant, it would be irrelevant. It would be like hair colour or eye colour among white people. All people are made in God’s image and are equal in God’s eyes. Recognise that race matters in the world and that racism continues to be rife, but remember that God is colour blind, or rather, that She likes all colours equally. Know with your head that race matters and how it matters in the world, but always deny its relevance in your heart and soul. Etc. etc.

Even though race is a fundamentally irrelevant category, when it is deemed relevant by a sufficient number of people, injustice and violence can be perpetrated in the name of racial superiority. That injustice and violence then becomes part of history, part of the individual and collective memories of people and nations. It can become embedded in a culture. It takes time, courage, determination and imagination to overcome such legacies. If Obama’s election could help bring us closer to a USA in which race was no more important than hair colour or eye colour, I would vote for him. I am, however, afraid that he is still too much a prisoner of the mindset of the past to make much of a difference here.

I believe that within a few generations, globalisation will have killed off not just racism but race as a relevant category for self-identification and social pigeonholing. That is not, unfortunately, the world we live in now. My children are likely to encounter prejudice and discrimination at some points in their lives. In the US, where they are classified by the social security system as ‘hispanic’ (probably the dumbest category ever invented by ethnic/racial taxonomists), they could even encounter some positive discrimination, under what remains of the affirmative action laws.

I hope I have taught them to stand up for themselves – for their universal rights as free human beings. They should fight discrimination directed at themselves or at others; they should reject positive discrimination for themselves. They should always contest the relevance of ‘race’ as an explanation for any action or measure, private or public.

My father, on his first visit to the USA in 1954 or 1955, got into trouble when on his immigration service entry-form he wrote ‘human’ in the space left open for ‘race’. In the end, the immigration official simply crossed out what my father had written, replaced it with ‘caucasian’ or ‘white’ and let him through. My parents brought us up race-blind, but not blind to the reality of racism and racial prejudice. They had lived through World War II. More than 80 percent of Dutch Jewry was murdered by the Nazis because of some half-baked theory of racial purity and superiority. The reality and destructive power of racism, especially when allied with the institutions of the state, was very well understood by them.

I have followed the example set by my father by steadfastly refusing to enter information on race whenever this was requested in a census form. Both the US census and the UK census demand that information. Even the LSE Human Resources departments wants to know which race I am. As a social scientist, I regret the loss of a data point. As a human being I refuse to answer a question that it is morally wrong to ask.

There are other reasons for not providing information on race (or ethnicity or disability) in the census. That is the legitimate fear that this information will be abused either by the state or by some other party that gains access to this information. There is no such thing as confidential information. Guarantees to that effect aren’t worth spit. So anyone who loves liberty should leave those entries in the census blank.

With a bit of luck, globalisation will continue to mix and re-mix the human gene pool. A world in which a growing proportion of humanity is, according to the old racial metrics, of mixed race or multi-racial, ought to be a world where the concept of race itself ceases to be relevant for self-identification, as well as socially, culturally and politically.

Race: human. That’s the bottom line.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website