Separate but Equal Boxes for All Colors

August 12, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Michael Jackson sings, ''It don't matter if you're black or white.'' He obviously does not work for the federal government.

To the feds, it matters a great deal whether you are black or white. Or ''Hispanic,'' ''American Indian,'' ''Alaskan Native,'' ''Asian or Pacific Islander'' or ''other.'' Those are the racial-ethnic boxes federal agencies have asked us to check off on various forms for the census, health research, demographic trends, civil-rights compliance and other functions.

But if you want to know just how amorphous, imprecise and arguable our common racial classifications can be, just take a glance at the steady stream of requests and demands the government gets to change them again.

Many African-Americans want to be called ''African-American'' instead of ''black.'' Many Hispanics, having won the addition of ''Hispanic'' to official government lists even though it is more an ethnic grouping than a race, now want to be called ''Latino.''

In America, the racial is, in many ways, political. Poignant requests have come, for example, from the parents of racially mixed children who have requested a ''mixed'' category so their children will not be forced to choose between two racial identities, an act many see as tantamount to denying one parent or another.

But many black politicians, civil-rights activists and identity-movement supporters object to consecrating the ''mixed'' label because it could dilute black voting numbers in reapportionment. Besides, it also is reasoned, American custom and tradition have declared that one drop of black blood makes one ''black.'' After years of having that work against black opportunity, many black leaders object to doing away with it at the very point in history when it is working to whatever modest degree to even the playing field.

''Hispanics'' were singled out for special attention in the era of President Lyndon Johnson, who sympathized quite deeply with the plight of low-income rural Mexican-American children he had taught in his rural Texas youth.

Northern urban Democrats were all too happy to lump Puerto Ricans under the ''Hispanic'' umbrella and, once Richard Nixon became president, Republicans were just as happy to sweep heavily Republican Cuban-Americans in, too.

But, what, one might ask, about Brazilians? Can they properly be called Hispanics despite the fact that their heritage and national language are Portuguese?

Such questions have caused federal officials to open this hornet's nest again with a nationwide review of the way the government classifies race and ethnicity. Public hearings in Boston, Denver and San Francisco and an open mailbox have produced dozens of complaints and suggestions. Proposals for new racial categories have ranged from the sensible (''African-American,'' ''Native Hawaiian,'' ''Arab American'') to the senseless (''German-American,'' ''Middle Easterner,'' ''Cape Verde'').

Cape Verde? Some people seem to have a pretty broad idea of what race is. So does Sally Katzen, administrator of the -- take a deep breath -- Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget in the Executive Office of the President, the agency charged with deciding racial classifications for all other federal agencies.

''I think many people are taking this opportunity to issue a call to be recognized,'' said Ms. Katzen. ''They hope that having their race or geographic origins included would reinforce a sense of self-identification and affirmation in our democracy.''

If you think addition of your particular favorite ethnic group will result in special benefits or protections, sorry, you'll have to go through Congress for that.

But not even Congress dares venture into the fundamental, vexing question raised by these periodic government reviews: What constitutes race?

Is it, for example, a matter of appearances? Usually. But for every characteristic you can name (skin color, hair texture, nose shape, lip fullness), you can find somebody who is an exception to the rule.

Is it a matter of heritage? That varies from one culture to another. While one drop of African-descended blood can make you black in America, a survey of blacks in Brazil came up with more than 40 different words to describe what color they were. Sometimes the heritage question leads to ludicrous complications like the two white Boston brothers who became firefighters under an affirmative action plan after proving that one of their great-grandmothers was part black.

Is it a matter of consciousness? Offspring of mixed marriages tell that, as much as they try to avoid denying either of their racial heritages, American society forces them sooner or later to choose whether to be black or white.

Small wonder that some have suggested that the federal government stop using racial classifications at all, since they often serve to preserve divisions instead of bringing Americans together.

That may be a tempting thought, but it comes about 400 years late. We didn't get into this confusion overnight and we won't get out of it overnight. Perhaps the best we can do in our racial and ethnic confusion is to make the most of it, without making too much of it.

8, Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.