Race doesn’t fit in a checkbox

Race doesn’t fit in a checkbox

Arkansas Times
Little Rock, Arkansas

Gene Lyons

Lamentably, the Boston Marathon bombing re-opened some of the most poisonous arguments in American life. Specifically, are the Tsarnaev brothers “white”? It’s a meaningless question.

Some hotheads couldn’t wait to declare all Muslims suspect. Certain thinkers on the left (David Sirota, Salon) argued against collective guilt while oddly lamenting that “white male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated” for the crimes of Caucasian psycho killers.

Should they be?

Anyway, I’d previously treated the theme of ethnicity as destiny in a column about which racial ID boxes President Obama should have checked on his 2010 census form.

Everybody knows Obama’s mother was a white woman from Kansas, his father an exchange student from Kenya. But there’s no box labeled “African-American.” So the president checked “black.” He could also have checked “white,” but chose not to.

This decision disappointed a unique student group at the University of Maryland, although most understood it. Recently profiled in the New York Times, the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association could with equal accuracy be called “Students Whose Mothers Were Asked Insulting Questions by Busybodies at the Supermarket.”…

…But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Maryland group strikes me as entirely benign. Asked which boxes she checks, vice-president Michelle Lopez-Mullins, age 20, says “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”…

…Anyway, back to President Obama, who’s written books about his mixed inheritance. It appears to me that along with his great intelligence, Obama’s mixed background helped make him an intellectual counterpuncher — watchful, laconic, and leery of zealotry, a born mediator.

Like a man behind a mask, Obama watches people watch him.

Checking the “black” box on the census form, however, was the politically canny choice. Americans aren’t far from the days when absurd categories like “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” could determine people’s fate. Sadly, had he checked the “white” box too, many voters would have resented it.

My own choices were simpler. Raised to think of myself as Irish before American — all eight of my great-grandparents emigrated during the late 19th century, hunkering down in ethnic enclaves within walking distance of salt water — I was taught that there was a proper “Irish” opinion on every imaginable topic…

Read the entire article here.

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