Race -- It's a Political, Not a Personal, Reality

September 12, 1995|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "Color is not a human or personal reality,'' the late, great African-American author James Baldwin once wrote. ''It is a political reality.''

Seldom is that more apparent than it is in cases like that of Thallieus Massey and his wife Melissa Meyer of Miami. Mr. Massey is of African and Native American descent. His wife is white. They want their son, Jordan, 7, to appreciate all three of his heritages.

In August, just before the school bells were about to ring, they won a partial victory. The state agreed to add ''multiracial'' to Florida's school-registration forms. That's a partial victory because the Meyer-Masseys still are fighting for Jordan's right to select all three of the races that apply to his background.

Still, they're making progress. So is the rest of the multiracialist movement. Almost a dozen states have passed or are considering similar legislation and, in a bow to national pressure from organizations of mixed-race parents, the U.S. Census will test a new ''multiracial'' category in a mini-survey next year in preparation for the next national count in the year 2000.

All of which is causing deep consternation among African Americans who would like to keep the count the way it is. For example, Wade Henderson, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Washington office, questions whether the census is ''the appropriate place'' to make a change that has such profound legal and political implications.

Others flatly denounce the proposed change. African Americans cannot afford to stop identifying as black people, it is reasoned, as long as we are struggling against discrimination based on our identification as black people.

Some critics will go so far as to accuse biracials and their parents of simply ''not wanting to be black.'' They will wake up, it is said, as soon as they get smacked in the face by white racism.

Besides, said one friend of mine, ''how far back do you go?'' If you go back a few generations, almost all of us African Americans have some white or Native American or some other blood in us. Just look at us.

He has a point. Even in the 1920s, the Census Bureau was estimating three-quarters of African Americans could claim at least some white blood. If all of us claimed to be ''multiracial'' there would hardly be anyone left to check the ''black'' box.

It is here, ironically, that the multiracialist movement exposes the fundamental myth of race: It is less a physical fact than what Baldwin called it, a political fact.

Physically, there is no single characteristic -- not brown skin, not curly hair, not thick lips, not brown eyes -- that is either universal among black people or unique only to us. It is only the ''one-drop rule'' -- the uniquely American notion that one drop of black blood in your family tree makes you black -- that holds the rainbow of African American people together as a people.

It is the ultimate irony that this notion, invented by slave masters to increase the numbers of their slaves, is now embraced most fiercely by African Americans, mainly to boost our numbers in a country where numbers translate into political clout.

As far as I am concerned, speaking as an African American who plans to continue checking the ''black'' box, my response to those who do not want to check it is: Let them go. If they don't want to be simply ''black,'' that should be their right. Of the biracial people I know, some will check the box, some won't. That should be their decision, not someone else's.

However, I would question whether, once they have made that choice, they still should be counted toward anyone's affirmative- action goals. Nothing personal. I simply question whether anyone who does not want to be counted as ''black'' should be allowed to benefit from programs that were tailored and intended for those who do. I don't think you should be able to have it both ways. Perhaps such a compromise would appease opponents of a new ''biracial'' or ''multiracial'' census category.

I hope it also would forestall the rising, mostly conservative movement that wants to go the other way and do away with all of the government's racial classifications.

Sorry, folks. Wiping out racial counting would gut all affirmative-action and racial-redistricting efforts overnight, but that would hardly solve the nation's racial dilemmas. Quite the contrary, sticking our statistical heads in the sand would only make them worse.

''When I discover who I am, I'll be free,'' said Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Amen. Americans need to discover who they are. Everyone needs to be allowed to make that discovery individually. Otherwise, what was all that civil-rights marching about, anyway?

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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