The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America

Americans have been living with the idiosyncrasies of arbitrary racial classifications for almost five decades. These are now deeply entrenched and serve to drive political agendas while understandably fomenting divisiveness and resentment. That is the subject of David E. Bernstein’s impeccably researched book Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America.

In his review of the history of American racial classification, Bernstein, a professor of law at George Mason University, brings clarity to the contentious discrimination debate which began in earnest with the Statistical Directive 15 of the Office of Management and Budget of 1977, creating five inconsistent and haphazard racial categories:  American Indian or Alaskan Native; Asian or Pacific Islander; Black; Hispanic; and White.

2010 Census Bureau Data

There was “no inherent logic” to the classifications, nor to the practices deriving from them. For instance, today, Americans with origins in India or Pakistan are counted as Asian, but those from Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, the Middle East, and North Africa as White.  Ironically, Indians and Pakistanis are uncomfortable about being counted as ‘Asian,’ a term generally used in America for people from China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and the Philippines, all racially different from South Asians.

Since the “often-surreal world” of official racial classification is supposedly based on self-identification, Bernstein offers the example of the discomfort felt by his olive-complexioned, Israel-born wife, who identifies as none of the categories offered but as “Jewish,” “Sephardic,” and “Mirzahit.” Now to explain the italicized ‘supposedly’: self-identification is not universally respected. Since identity is linked to government benefits, affirmative action, and enforcement of civil rights, officials are allowed to guess ethnicity and race if a person declines to self-identify or if the declaration seems “patently false.” Who decides, and how?

In the introductory chapter, Bernstein lists a few egregious examples of the system failing people deserving government benefits and of undeserving people bending the system to their advantage. He follows that with a list of 17 questions under the broad rubrics of whether the standard categories are coherent; of how bi- or multiracial people should be classified; the boundary between white status and official minority status; and who counts as Hispanic. A sampling: If someone has always identified as white but a DNA test indicates African ancestry, can s/he claim to be Black, and does the percentage of African ancestry count? Should Hasidic Jews, with high rates of poverty and barriers to entering the mainstream, count as a minority? Is there a reason to classify European Hispanics, and no other European group, as a minority?

Bernstein writes about “identity entrepreneurs,” people who claim and leverage a minority identity for economic or other gains, even though that identity never resulted in their facing discrimination. He writes about race fakers such as the Malone twins and Rachel Dolezal, and the suspect Cherokee ancestry claims of Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). He also raises the complexities posed by people like Tiger Woods, who calls himself ‘Cablinasian’ and refuses to identify as African-American as that would ignore his own mother’s part in his ancestry; and Kamala Harris, who identifies as Black but can legally claim Asian and White identities as well.

At the outset, Bernstein clarifies that the book is not about affirmative action per se, but for obvious reasons he cannot avoid the topic entirely. The thrust is on the vague, unscientific racial categorization that government uses, how it came into being, and the strong political and cultural forces that support the status quo. Bernstein makes a strong case for reforming and ultimately abolishing these categories to move America towards separation of race and state.

While first publishing the classification, the OMB asserted it wasn’t “scientific” or “anthropologic” and wasn’t to be used to determine eligibility for government programs. All categories except Hispanic were based on race, rather than religion, national origin, or the protected classes under the 14th Amendment and civil rights laws. Only the Hispanic category – an American construct alien to people from Spanish-speaking countries – was based on ethnicity.

Bernstein says the classification wasn’t viewed then as particularly consequential. Later, it was required, and eventually enforced, that data collected by government agencies, universities, financial institutions, and medical care and research facilities be sorted under those categories. It also came into use for determining eligibility for affirmative action. So, it has substantive legal consequences.

It also has serious implications for science. Congressional legislation from the 1990s requires that companies receiving National Institute of Health (NIH) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) funds for research use those patently non-scientific classifications to ensure that the subject population included enough minorities. Expert input from geneticists is not required. So, a subject labeled ‘Hispanic’ could hail from Spain, Puerto Rico, or Venezuela, and a ‘White’ could be from Ireland, Greece, or even Saudi Arabia. And what about multiracial individuals, who are allowed to tick multiple boxes during self-identification? Judith Molt, an AstraZeneca scientist cited by Bernstein, says, “The genetic differences between two persons of the same race or ethnicity are just as great as between two persons of different race and ethnicity.” Relying on race-based conclusions, she adds, can compromise patient safety.

Examples abound of the lumping together of people with no clarity about or sensitivity to their inherent heterogeneity. Listed below are some of the discrepancies this creates:

. The legal definition of American Indian or Native American, for instance, is political rather than racial. The category is restricted to those with 1/4 or more Indian blood, enrollment in federal- or state-recognized Indian tribes or having cultural affinity with a tribe. But membership policies vary broadly among the tribes, complicating the issue.

. Blacks are defined as descendants of the black races of Africa. But it also includes Somalis, who are closer to Middle Easterners in genetic make-up. Rather than address genuine disadvantage, such a grouping puts together descendants of American slaves with fully 10% of the black population that was born abroad – people of Nigerian origin, for instance – that have higher incomes and levels of educational achievement.

. Asians, as defined, include Chinese and Indian Americans, who have average incomes and educational achievement way above Burmese and Malaysian Americans.

. The White category is uniformly assumed to be at an advantage. There is no consideration for disadvantaged Polish, Italian, Hasidic Jews, and Slav immigrants, not to mention Americans from the historically disadvantaged Appalachian Mountains region. This is because religion and national origin were never factored in as possible grounds for discrimination or disadvantage.

. The ill-defined Hispanic category, created by a committee of three individuals of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Mexican heritage, includes people of “Spanish origin or culture.” It excludes not only the Portuguese-speaking people of Brazil, but also Sephardic Jews of Spanish ancestry. It does not recognize that more than half of Americans of Spanish-speaking descent prefer to identify as white. Nor that Cubans and Puerto Ricans have completely different cultural experiences. The book devotes an entire chapter to this anomalous categorization.

Affirmative action implicitly discriminates against whites and Asian-Americans, presumed to be at an advantage, while blacks and Hispanics’ deficiencies in grades, abilities, business acumen, etc. are fallaciously attributed to “systemic racism.” Although the author does not address the issue, the consequence of this is that standards for college admission or employment are lowered for them, leading to realistic suspicions that they don’t qualify. A few disadvantaged white groups have pushed for affirmative action, but have been thwarted by black activists and the Left.

Bernstein concludes by wondering whether racial classification, a poor substitute for genetic differences, makes sense today, and if heightened race consciousness is good for America. The muddled domain of self-identification, he points out, is the result of a convoluted classification system that has entrenched itself because of political forces. He disagrees with fellow law professors writing from a Critical Race Theory perspective that “racial divisions will be a permanent part of the American landscape” and is optimistic that, like many older interethnic conflicts, they will fade into distant memory. But before that happens, the state must stop dividing people by race, given the “horrendous history” of Nazi Germany and South Africa. The government, as the late Justice Antonin Scalia said, must see people as just one race: American.

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