Utopian visions of racial admixture
Ethnic and Racial Studies
Volume 37, Issue 10, 2014
Special Issue: Ethnic and Racial Studies Review
C. Matthew Snipp, Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor of Sociology
Stanford University, Palo Alto, California
In a world unbounded by racial divisions, the choice of a lover, a spouse and the children that come from that union should transcend the schemes devised by others to oppress and exploit. Racial admixtures, to the extent that they blur and obscure entrenched ideas from the past, are things to be celebrated and embraced. Both of these books, as different as they are, embrace the essential value of racial admixture but from very different perspectives, for very different reasons, and with very different emphases.
The United States of the United Races traces the history of interracial relationships in this country. Carter begins his narrative with a close reading of the French author Hector St John de Crèvecoeur. Crèvecoeur penned a very popular work titled Letters from an American Farmer that was intended to describe everyday life in the new nation. Carter’s discussion makes it clear that Crèvecoeur was an opponent of slavery and portrayed it in the vilest possible terms. However, Carter takes Crèvecoeur’s opposition to slavery and tries to make something more of it. Carter writes:
Crèvecoeur’s most important legacy… suggested that true Americans cast off the old ways of their ancestors and consented to a new way of life based on equality. In this, mixture was a positive. The American was new and mixed, just as the society was new and mixed and the way of life was new and mixed. (26, emphasis added)
Carter’s insistence that Crèvecoeur’s abolitionist leanings represent an early endorsement of racial amalgamation is a logical leap for which he provides no justification.
Taking a benign view of this logical lapse, a reader could conjecture that important links in this argument fell victim to an editor’s delete key. However, I dwell on this point because it is the first instance of something that happens in other parts of the book. That is, Carter wishes to convince us that the proponents of racial amalgamation, the formation of intimate personal relationships across racial lines have been a thriving social movement throughout the nation’s history. In places, Carter’s ebullient embrace of this theme causes him to stretch a point that sorely tests a reader’s credulity.
In a similar though subtler fashion, Carter situates the movement for racial amalgamation within the larger movement to abolish slavery. Chapter 2 is titled ‘Wendell Phillips, Unapologetic Abolitionist, Unreformed Amalgamationist’ and focuses on the life of a single abolitionist to assert the centrality of interracial marriage within the movement, invoking the affairs of Frederick Douglass with white women as additional evidence. Carter is careful to point out that ‘racial amalgamation’ was a controversial position and one that could incite violence. This chapter vacillates between making interracial marriage a focal point of the movement to abolish slavery and acknowledging that this was an extremely unpopular position. Nonetheless, the narrative of this chapter too often seeks to make us believe that the freedom to form interracial intimate relationships was one of the core objectives of the abolitionist movement. To be sure, there were abolitionists who subscribed to this view. Carter delivers evidence that at least one existed, but the argument in chapter 2 does little to dispel the view that this was little more than the lunatic fringe of the abolition movement…
…What is Your Race? takes on a problem in US public policy that seems poised to only grow more serious over time. Namely, the USA has a set of public policies anchored to a racial classification system with categories that are increasingly out of step with a twenty-first-century experience and understanding of the American racial order. Prewitt has written a policy brief that consists of three parts: (1) it begins by laying out the origins of the existing system; (2) it then turns to the growing problems connected with the status quo; and (3) it concludes with recommendations for modifying the existing system along with a strategy for deploying these recommendations. The book contains eleven chapters and it would not be unfair to say that the first nine chapters are a prologue and justification for chapters 10 and 11. However, before turning to the final and most important chapters of this book, the first nine chapters deserve notice.
The official racial classification used by the federal government does not emanate from the Census Bureau. It is instead, a product of the Office of Management and Budget and articulated in a document known as Directive No. 15 (revised October 1997). Prewitt is well aware of this fact and, indeed, discusses this document at length. However, the focus of this book is on the way that the US Census Bureau collects information about race, and the recommendations that he makes are most applicable to the Census Bureau. This is not surprising partly because Prewitt is a former Census Bureau director. He writes with an insider’s deep knowledge about the workings of this complex organization. More significantly, the Census Bureau is arguably the single largest producer of data about race in the nation. Much if not most of what Americans know about race in their nation originates at the Census Bureau.
Prewitt begins by presenting a concept that he calls ‘statistical races’. Statistical races were first created by the Constitutional mandate that a census be taken every ten years. Constitutional language embedded whites and African American slaves, and excluded American Indians in the first census taken in 1790. In every census since, race has been a prominent feature. Prewitt acknowledges that racism and prejudice are indeed social realities that frame the everyday lives of Americans. However, statistical races, he argues, are classificatory artifacts manipulated to serve public policy interests…
Read the review of both books here.