Our Insane Racial Classifications

Perhaps the saddest fact in a sad era is that we are officially a racist society. Our governments at all levels, along with all of our major private institutions, divide Americans into a bizarre schema of racial categories and treat them differently based on those classifications. The whole system is both crazy and corrupt.

Law professor David Bernstein is the author of Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America. Glenn Reynolds interviewed Bernstein at Glenn’s Substack site. You should read the whole thing; here are some excerpts:

Americans typically make two primary errors about race. The first is that the racial classifications we use in common parlance–Black, White, Asian, Native American, Hispanic—are somehow natural and arose spontaneously. Very few of us realize that the US government codified them in 1977 in a formal federal law called Statistical Directive No. 15. Before that, almost no one called people of Spanish-speaking descent “Hispanics.” What we now call “Asian Americans” were nothing like a coherent group; Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans had distinct cultures and significant history of inter-group conflict. Americans from India were typically classified as “white” or “other,” but a last-minute lobbying campaign resulted in them being added to the Asian American group.
Contrary to popular belief, “Hispanic” includes Spaniards, but not Brazilians. The government defines indigenous people from Spanish-speaking countries as having Hispanic ethnicity, but thanks to lobbying from Native American tribes, are not “Indians” and have no racial box that fits them. Arab Americans, Iranians, Armenians, and other people from Western Asia are white, not Asian or Middle Eastern (there is no such official classification).

People also assume incorrectly there is some sort of cut off, that you can’t claim “X” ancestry if, say, only your great-great-grandfather was “X.” But the Black/African American classification is defined as anyone with “origins in one of the black racial groups of Africa,” so the one-drop rule prevails. The Small Business Administration has concluded that a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors haven’t lived in a Spanish-speaking country for centuries can still claim Hispanic status.

Bernstein points out that ethnicity increasingly matters little in American society, but entrenched interests insist on racist classifications:

At the grassroots level, Americans are more tolerant than ever, and mixing socially and romantically in every possible way, rapidly creating a non-racial multi-ethnic American identity. But the elite has created and seeks to defend a whole intellectual, business, and educational infrastructure based on freezing people into classifications created without much thought (or foresight) in the 1970s.

Ultimately, the classification scheme owes its existence to the history of slavery and Jim Crow:

When the US government created our modern classification system in the 1970s, the country was still overwhelmingly black and white, about 81% white, 13% black. Around 5% were Hispanic, but the government traditionally considered this to be a “white” ethnic category. Given American history to that point, it’s not surprising that the bureaucrats who invented the system simply assumed that blacks and whites, respectively, would be pretty easy to identify, that they wouldn’t mix much, and that the division would likely be something close to permanent. Also, the statistics were meant primarily to be used for civil rights record-keeping. With “whites” not facing nearly as much discrimination as blacks, subdividing the white group was seen as unnecessary, though some experts advocated for doing so.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy failed to anticipate the massive immigration from Asia, Latin America, and Africa that would upset the classification scheme.

Last time I saw the Census bureau data, whites–bizarre though that category may be–ranked 17th among ethnic groups in median income, outstripped by Indian-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Ghanian-Americans, Nigerian-Americans, and others. The racist classification scheme that is now implemented by both governments and private entities is not just evil, but ridiculous.

A final interesting point: in oral arguments on the Harvard and North Carolina race discrimination cases, Supreme Court justices expressed interest in arguments beyond the obvious equal protection:

For the first time last fall, the Supreme Court, hearing oral argument in the Harvard and UNC affirmative action cases, seemed to question not just the constitutionality of affirmative action preferences, but whether the classifications themselves are unduly arbitrary and thus illegal.

Racism is deeply embedded in our governments, our universities, and nearly all large corporations. It will not be easy to uproot, but we can hope that the Supreme Court’s upcoming decisions will start America down the path of unwinding racist classifications.

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.