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Check Here For Racial Oppression
A new book highlights just how fuzzy government-sanctioned racial categories are in the United States
(Unlocked 8/24/2022. If you enjoy this, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. -Jesse)
I haven’t been completely honest with you people.
Although I was heralded as this newsletter’s diversity hire by virtue of my Moroccan origin story, I’m stone-cold lily white. Well, at least according to the United States government.
You’ve probably encountered questions on forms asking for your race and ethnicity. The options you had were likely limited to American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, White, or (if you’re lucky) Other. I’ve always struggled with how exactly to answer this. Sometimes I checked the African American box, because I am from Africa, after all. But sometimes that option only said Black, and I’m probably not dark enough to qualify. It took years before I randomly stumbled upon a list of what each category meant. That was when I found out that “white” encompasses not just people with origins in Europe, but also everyone from North Africa and the Middle East, meaning I was, bureaucratically speaking, white. That was my racial awakening moment. I was no longer ashamed for ever having liked Limp Bizkit.
If you’ve ever wondered where these categories came from, there’s an unambiguous answer: May 12, 1977, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Directive 15. Exactly how these categories were formulated and how they were applied is the subject of Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America, a fascinating new book by David E. Bernstein, a professor at George Mason University School of Law.
Bernstein is not a fan of the Directive 15 classifications, and as much as I’m going to emphatically concur with his trash talk, I need to acknowledge they were borne from a genuine desire to solve a genuine problem. Since even before this country’s founding, there was an obsession with properly sorting individuals into discrete racial classifications, largely for the purpose of subjugation (who may be enslaved, who may immigrate, who may own property, who may vote, etc). The need for classification remained even with the civil rights movement, except the purpose was to ameliorate past subjugation. Combating racial discrimination in education, employment, and housing cannot happen without tracking race.
The problem is that prior to 1977, the categories the government used were all over the place, depending on the federal agency in question. Some agencies distinguished Puerto Ricans from “Spanish-Americans” (euphemism for Mexicans), some tracked Jews, some classified Asian Indians as white, and some had no Asian category at all. As imprecise as the Directive 15 categories might be, they introduced much-needed uniformity within the federal government.
But as Classified repeatedly demonstrates, bureaucratic inertia has calcified these arbitrary categories into a formidable landmass, and this obscure government bulletin has seeped into and subtly transformed our country’s conversation on race. Indeed, Bernstein argues these classifications are self-perpetuating and “encourage people to think of themselves as members of racial and ethnic categories that were invented or at least officially established and promoted by the government.”
For one thing, the categories are not consistently delineated. Some are geographic (Asian), some are cultural (Hispanic), and others are racial (Black). To illustrate some of the absurdities, consider what box someone indigenous to Brazil would check. The most obvious answer, Hispanic, is not necessarily correct because some federal agencies do not include Portuguese cultural heritage within the definition. Further, Hispanic is explicitly heralded as an ethnicity designation that is separate and distinct from race (it’s anyone’s guess what the difference between the two is — Directive 15 doesn’t say — and many forms have eventually collapsed the two questions into one). Lastly, American Indian would not apply either, because lobbying by federally recognized tribes has relegated this definition to include only North American indigenous people.
Besides under-inclusion leaving people behind, you also have over-inclusion. Some categories are so vast that they are rendered nearly meaningless. The Asian category includes everyone from Nepal, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, and the Philippines as well as members of ethnic groups like the Māori and the Hmong. This group covers about 4.5 billion people — that’s almost 60% of the world’s population shoehorned into a single category for government purposes.
As I came to realize when trying to figure out my “official” race, “white” also explicitly encompasses everyone from North Africa and the Middle East. The infamously lawless and remote area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border serves as one of the demarcation lines between oppression and privilege.
Directive 15’s categorizations are necessarily a product of political lobbying, and sometimes the lack of precision is intentional. Arabs and Jews1 are, by definition, included by the government as occupying the exact same racial space as French and Germans — white — but a campaign to introduce a MENA (Middle East and North Africa) category had little political support. Jewish organizations are understandably averse to any government attempt to track their ethnicity because of… historical reasons. Some Israeli American organizations, meanwhile, also objected to Jews being lumped in with a mostly Arab MENA category. The climate of suspicion around Arab Americans after 9/11 also conjured up fears of the data being used for persecution, particularly when the Census helpfully compiled statistics on where large numbers of Arab Americans lived for the Department of Homeland Security. It’s hard to view these fears as misplaced when the Census also helped fill Japanese internment camps during World War II.
So what are these racial categories even for? Answering that question can help elucidate our present state of confusion.
The central issue is that categorization performs double duty. When we say someone is of a given race, we’re not just making a relatively boring descriptive claim about their ancestry, we’re also conjuring up the broader social and legal ramifications of occupying that particular social category. When we label an American as black, we are referring to things like their African lineage and darker skin, but also indirectly referencing how their opportunities and advances in life might be curtailed because of that label.
Problems arise when our two understandings of categorization bleed into each other. Attempts to solve problems within the (much more complicated) social category territory very often get distracted by debates over descriptive claims. There is something roughly similar going on in the “what is a woman?” debate, which uses a descriptive claim — an even clearer one — to clumsily try and solve social category disputes.
The most cogent illustration for how race categories metastasize into a distraction is by examining government-mandated “minority preferences.” In the early 1980s, Congress tasked some federal agencies (primarily the Small Business Administration and Department of Transportation) to set aside a portion of their grants to businesses that are “owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.” These programs are usually referred to by the moniker Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, or DBE. Almost immediately, “socially disadvantaged” was interpreted to refer only to racial discrimination, and the relevant regulations declared that any enterprise owned by a racial minority would be presumptively deemed “disadvantaged.” Bernstein does not directly provide an explanation for this peculiar shift, but in all likelihood proving whether someone has been “socially and economically disadvantaged” for each individual applicant would likely have been too administratively burdensome to be practical. Yet this also meant the opportunity to have a nuanced investigation into the question of disadvantage was entirely quashed by just checking the right box.
Funding under DBE programs and the like influences hundreds of billions of dollars of annual government spending, and so naturally legal disputes followed any DBE certification. Classified is replete with (very hilarious) examples of how this method of classification can be abused. There’s Robert Earl Lee, the county employee who changed his name to Roberto Eduardo Leon, and sought a promotion based on his minority status (he claimed to have found a Spanish grandfather). There’s the white business owner, Taylor Orion, who found out from a DNA test that he was 4% sub-Saharan African. He applied for DBE grants as a “Black” owner, but a state official rejected his application based on his photograph. Orion responded by citing his recent NAACP membership and Ebony magazine subscription as evidence of his commitment to the black community. He ended up qualifying for state DBE funding, but not federal.
The most jaw-dropping examples in the book involve courts figuratively pulling out the calipers when ascertaining whether someone is Hispanic enough. In one case, a woman who spoke fluent Spanish and whose grandparents were born in Spain was deemed not sufficiently Hispanic in part because of her blonde hair and blue eyes. Her business partner, meanwhile, was considered Hispanic based solely on his claim that he could trace his ancestry to the Sephardim — a group of Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula around the late 1400s. Whether Algerians can be Latino is not just a funny meme, but is, from the point of view of federal regulations reliant on the guidance of Directive 15, a serious question.
Bernstein’s major problem with the current system is evident: Because “disadvantaged status” gloms on to entire categories of people uniformly, anyone within those categories will be entitled to legally sanctioned benefits, regardless of how much discrimination those individuals have endured (including, hypothetically, none). Racial categories end up obscuring a huge amount of Lived Experience™ variation among the subcategories they encompass.
Nigerian immigrants are a prime example: They are a remarkable success story, ranking very highly in terms of income, education, and employment advancement. Relatedly, Bernstein notes that in 2004 as many as two-thirds of Harvard University’s “black” undergraduates were estimated to be West Indian or African immigrants, or children of biracial couples. This is not to imply that Nigerian immigrants face no discrimination, nor should immigrants be viewed as a representative sample (anyone with the financial resources to relocate to another country is likely to be different from many of those they left behind). However, from a basic fairness perspective, do we necessarily want a 22-year-old Nigerian American who grew up middle class, the child of a doctor and an accountant, and who sailed to and through a top-tier university, to gain the benefits originally conceived of as flowing to descendants of slaves? The heterogeneity of the black American experience is partly why American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) was coined in the first place — to carve out this group as having been particularly harmed by the most brutal incarnation of institutionalized American racism.
Bernstein also points out how the high stakes of racial categorization encourage turf wars between non-white groups. In 1989, Chinese American businessmen were temporarily successful in lobbying the San Francisco government to exclude Indian American competitors from a minority funding program, arguing that Indians’ history of immigration to this country was too recent for them to have experienced meaningful discrimination (of course, Chinese businessmen would remain eligible regardless of when they immigrated). The exclusion lasted two years before it was repealed.
Classified plainly conveys how incoherent America’s racial taxonomy is — as Bernstein puts it, “[t]he classifications are not precise, consistent, or comprehensive.” This incoherence, on its own, is not necessarily a cause for concern. The categories we ended up with do a decent enough job painting a broad-brush picture, especially for a country with 330 million people. The problem occurs when the incoherence (and by extension, the fluidity of identity) is combined with real-life tangible benefits. The parade of academics of putative Native American descent who are outed as frauds is too embarrassing to list. The National Native American Bar Association highlighted its concerns over fraudulent “box-checking” and pointed out that law school students appear to be Native American at a ten times higher rate than what Census data would predict.
There is an apparent reluctance by progressive activists to admit that, under certain circumstances, there are benefits of claiming minority status. This is most baffling when the very goal of minority benefit programs is… benefiting minorities. The reluctance to confront this reality only weakens any political support behind campaigns to remedy historical harm. After all, there is no contradiction between acknowledging that some groups might suffer marginalization on average, but also that not every individual within that group suffers from marginalization. It’s okay to advocate for slavery reparations, for example, while also advocating against giving Kamala Harris a spot in line.
Bernstein’s a highly opinionated guy — he’s a frequent contributor to the conservative/libertarian Volokh Conspiracy legal blog — but you couldn’t necessarily tell from just reading this book. You can surmise, based on reading in between the lines, that he is firmly against preferential treatment based on racial minority status. But his opposition is not at all absolute. In fact, Bernstein goes out of his way to explicitly affirm compensatory efforts for groups like ADOS and Native American tribes who were specifically affected by past public and private malice. The distinction is that he does not support a presumption of oppression solely based on demographic membership. The avalanche of examples on display throughout the book highlights this thesis plainly.
So am I still white? If you’re asking to determine my membership within the arbitrary phenotypic classification system we call race, the answer will depend on which definitions you deem valid. But if you’re asking as a tangential way of determining whether I am or have been marginalized, oppressed, or discriminated against, just ask that directly.
Yassine Meskhout is a contributing writer at Singal-Minded. You can read more about him here. Questions? Mayonnaise recipes? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or me at email@example.com. The image is from here.
I acknowledge the imprecision of using a linguistic and religious group designator to talk about race.