(Re)defining Race: Addressing the Consequences of the Law’s Failure to Define Race

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Law, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2018-04-23 14:34Z by Steven

(Re)defining Race: Addressing the Consequences of the Law’s Failure to Define Race

Cardozo Law Review
Volume 38, Number 5 (June 2017)
pages 1817-1877

Destiny Peery, Associate Professor of Law; Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences (Courtesy)
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Modern lawmakers and courts have consistently avoided discussing how to define race for legal purposes even in areas of law tasked regularly with making decisions that require them. This failure to define what race is in legal contexts specifically requiring such determinations, and in the law more broadly, creates problems for multiple actors in the legal system, from plaintiffs deciding whether to pursue claims of discrimination, lawyers deciding how to argue cases, and legal decision-makers deciding cases where race is not only relevant but often central to the legal question at hand. This Article considers the hesitance to engage with questions of racial definition in law. Drawing on findings from social psychology to demonstrate how race can be defined in multiple ways that may produce different categorizations, this Article argues that the lack of racial definition is problematic because it leaves a space for multiple definitions to operate below the surface, creating not only problematic parallels to a bad legal past but also producing inconsistency. The consequences of this continued ambiguity is illustrated through an ongoing dilemma in Title VII anti-discrimination law, where the courts struggle to interpret race, illustrating the general problems created by the law’s refusal to define race, demonstrating the negative impact on individuals seeking relief and the confusion created as different definitions of race are applied to similar cases, producing different outcomes in similar cases. This Article concludes that definitions of race should be intentionally, rationally selected by lawmakers and/or the courts, creating racial definitions that make sense in the context of the law or policy requiring the use of race, that are tied to the reasons for implicating race in the law, and that are informed by evidence about how racial perception and categorization processes operate.

Table of Contents

    • A. Historical Colorblindness
    • B. Contemporary Colorblindness
    • C. Colorblindness in a Race-Conscious World
    • A. Historical Definitions
      • 1. Race Determination Cases
      • 2. Miscegenation Law
      • 3. Race Definition Statutes
    • B. Contemporary (Lack of) Definitions
      • 1. Refusals to Define
      • 2. Legacies of Definitions Past
    • A. Actual Versus Perceived Race, Ambiguous Plaintiffs, and Title VII
      • 1. Types of Misperceived Plaintiffs
      • 2. “Actual” vs. Perceived Race
    • B. Inconsistency and Confusion for the Courts
    • C. Determining Relevant Racial Definitions for Title VII
    • A. Social-Cognitive Origins of Race
      • 1. Cognitive Development and Use of Race
      • 2. Social Cognition: Perceptual and Conceptual Processes
        • a. Perceptual Process: Responses to Stimulus Characteristics
        • b. Perceptual Process: Contextual Effects
        • c. Conceptual Process: Use of Racial Labels
        • d. Conceptual Process: Use of Stereotypes and Prejudice
        • e. Interaction of Perceptual and Conceptual Processes

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Does It Matter If Black + White Equals Black or Multiracial?

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2015-08-31 01:24Z by Steven

Does It Matter If Black + White Equals Black or Multiracial?

Northwestern University News
Evanston, Illinois

Pat Vaughan Tremmel, Associate Director and Social Sciences Editor

According to a new Northwestern study, racial characterizations do matter.

EVANSTON, Ill. — “Is Barack Obama Black or Biracial?” a recent CNN.com headline asks.

The question of whether Obama should be considered black or multiracial has been a concern of the media throughout the campaign.

Should such racial characterizations of people like Obama — who have one black parent and one white parent — really matter?

According to a new Northwestern University study, they do matter.

The findings suggest that the immediate response of non-black study participants is to categorize a racially ambiguous person as black when it was known that one of the person’s parents was black and one was white.

In other words, when study participants knew of the person’s black-white ancestry, in comparison to not knowing of the parentage, they quickly adhered to the simplistic characterization of biracial people as black, said Northwestern’s Destiny Peery

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Ambiguity and Ambivalence in the Voting Booth and Beyond: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Racial Attitudes and Behavior in the Obama Era

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2010-02-16 21:20Z by Steven

Ambiguity and Ambivalence in the Voting Booth and Beyond: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Racial Attitudes and Behavior in the Obama Era

Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
Volume 6, Issue 01, March 2009
pages 71-82
DOI: 10.1017/S1742058X09090067

Destiny Peery
Department of Psychology
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Galen V. Bodenhausen, Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

The issue of race has followed Barack Obama since he emerged on the national political scene, continuing unabated throughout his successful 2008 presidential campaign. Although the issue of race is not always explicitly acknowledged or discussed by Obama himself, the implications of his successful candidacy for U.S. politics and the ways people in the United States think about race more generally have been of great interest to media pundits, social scientists, and laypersons alike. Race has been considered a substantial barrier to the electoral success of previous non-White political candidates; therefore Obama’s success requires reconsideration of how race can be expected to influence political outcomes in the future. In addition, his biracial identity also raises questions about how his role as a prominent cultural figure will affect existing racial categories in the United States. A review of social psychological evidence highlights the importance of understanding the ambivalence that characterizes contemporary racial attitudes, as well as the ways in which definitions of race and racial categories may be changing, in order to understand the impact that Obama could have on the future of racial politics. We conclude that Obama’s victory represents a large step in the direction of increasingly positive racial attitudes and more sophisticated public conceptualizations of race, but steady progress in the coming years is not guaranteed. We consider some of the opportunities and obstacles that may affect the trajectory of future gains in the struggle for racial equality in the Obama era.


President Obama considers himself a Black man with mixed racial heritage. His mother was a White Kansan, his father was Kenyan. Obama is now the president of the United States and the first person of color elected to the highest office in a nation previously led exclusively by White men. Obama’s electoral success has rightfully been regarded as an indication of important progress in the struggle for racial equality. Nevertheless, Obama’s success may raise more questions than it answers about the role of race in the United States. When Obama emerged on the national political scene and an entry into the 2008 presidential race became a possibility, the issue of race followed him. A full year before announcing his candidacy for president, but long after the rumblings of his possible candidacy began, pollsters were already asking people about Obama’s race (White 2006). What did they think his race was? Did it matter that he had a White mother? The media’s fascination with Obama’s racial identity reflects the historical and continued salience of race as a social category and the importance racial issues have acquired in U.S. politics.

Here we explore the implications of recent social psychological research on racial attitudes and behavior for understanding the politics of race in the Obama era. We begin with a brief review of evidence regarding the ambivalence underlying racial attitudes and discuss in particular the complex structure that is likely to characterize many White voters’ racial attitudes. As we will show, there is an ample empirical basis for assuming that the right question about racial discrimination is not whether it still exists, but when and how it exists. Next, we consider the important and intriguing question of how our understanding of racial bias is complicated when multiracial people, such as Obama, enter the picture. We consider whether such individuals are better positioned to avoid discrimination by potentially defying simplistic, habitual racial classifications. Finally, we consider the implications of these issues for understanding the changing landscape of race in U.S. politics and U.S. life…

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Research Report: Black + White = Black: Hypodescent in Reflexive Categorization of Racially Ambiguous Faces

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Reports, Social Science, United States on 2010-02-16 21:03Z by Steven

Research Report: Black + White = Black: Hypodescent in Reflexive Categorization of Racially Ambiguous Faces

Psychological Science
Volume 19, Number 10 (2008)
pages 973-977

Destiny Peery
Department of Psychology, Northwestern University

Galen V. Bodenhausen, Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences
Northwestern University

Historically, the principle of hypodescent specified that individuals with one Black and one White parent should be considered Black. Two experiments examined whether categorizations of racially ambiguous targets reflect this principle. Participants studied ambiguous target faces accompanied by profiles that either did or did not identify the targets as having multiracial backgrounds (biological, cultural, or both biological and cultural). Participants then completed a speeded dual categorization task requiring Black/not Black and White/ not White judgments (Experiments 1 and 2) and deliberate categorization tasks requiring participants to describe the races (Experiment 2) of target faces. When a target was known to have mixed-race ancestry, participants were more likely to rapidly categorize the target as Black (and not White); however, the same cues also increased deliberate categorizations of the targets as ‘‘multiracial.’’ These findings suggest that hypodescent still characterizes the automatic racial categorizations of many perceivers, although more complex racial identities may be acknowledged upon more thoughtful reflection.

After being told that Barack Obama’s mother was White and father was Black, a majority of White and Hispanic interviewees said they considered him multiracial (White, 2006). Does this result highlight the inadequacy of monoracial categories in understanding multiracial people, or does it merely reflect a superficial semantic distinction, with Obama still largely viewed and evaluated in terms of his Black heritage? The categories applied to multiracial persons carry important implications for their self-esteem and experiences of discrimination (Herman, 2004). Thus, it is important to understand how multiracial people are categorized by others…

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