Racial categories have always been fluid, never the fixed categories that became an obsession in the modern world. Jefferson Fish’s blog at Psychology Today effectively argues that race is largely a social construct. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/looking-in-the-cultural-mirror
In 1890, the term “race” was first used in US census questionnaires. Amongst the choices were white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese and Japanese. Four decades later, mulatto disappeared. Instead, anyone who had any black ancestry was listed as black.
While these categories have some usefulness, mainly in the medical field, they have been largely used as means of social control and often as a means of discrimination and bigotry. Race can also be used in a positive way. Racial identifiers can aid in providing compensation for past abuses heaped on groups of people. Affirmative action acknowledges how history reaches into the present and continues to disadvantage particular groups.
Although court cases have rendered preferences based on race difficult to implement, many institutions can and do use race as one of the criterion to promote diversity.
But real-life events may make racial classification less than useful. 2000 census figures showed 2.4 percent (6.8 million) of the population declared themselves multi-racial. Preliminary figures from the 2010 census show a clear upward trend.
The NY Times recently focused on race and college admissions. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/14/us/14admissions.html The article focused on Natasha Scott whose father is black and mother Asian. When applying for college, she said, “I just realized that my race is something I have to think about. It pains me to say this, but putting down black might help my admissions chances and putting down Asian might hurt it.” She continues, “My mother urges me to put down black to use AA”—African American—“to get in to the colleges I’m applying to. I sort of want to do this but I’m wondering if this is morally right.”
Scott asks a good question and received this reply when she posted her thoughts on the electronic bulletin board about college admissions: “You’re black. You should own it.” As far as I can tell from the article, Scott never disowned being black. But by declaring herself black, she would disown her Asian background. The only reason she would do this was to increasing her admission chances. Was she willing to play the charade and betray herself in order to get into the college of her choice?
The pressure to engage in this kind of deception is great. Fortunately for Scott and other interracial students, many colleges now allow respondents to check more than one box. While this solves the moral conflict of individuals, it has the downside of neglecting the persistent and pernicious fact of racism. Affirmative action was meant to address the impediments caused by past practices that became institutionally embedded.
In March, the black unemployment rate increased from 15.3 to 15.5 percent, while the white unemployment rate stood at 7.9 percent. During the recession, blacks lost jobs quicker than whites and haven’t regained them since. In 2009, blacks made up 39.4% of the prison population. Race and poverty are tied together today, as it has been in the past. And that is the rationale for affirmative action.
The time has come to switch the focus from race to poverty. Poverty can be measured and addressed more directly and objectively than can race. It is the poor who need assistance, whatever their color, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity. The Obama children won’t need help in getting into college and the president and his wife won’t need assistance in finding work when they leave the White House.
I think about the two school systems that abut my university, Uniondale and Hempstead, and the school district in which I live, Westbury. These three districts rate at the bottom of every academic achievement measure in Nassau County. These schools are overwhelming black and Hispanic. They also take in some of the poorest areas on Long Island. Rather than focusing on the racial composition of the schools, it would be far better to address the underlying economic issues that beset the schools.
Top students from Uniondale and Hempstead should, in my opinion, receive full scholarships from Hostra, which, as a nonprofit institution doesn’t pay property taxes, the revenue source for the public schools. I think it is a moral duty to return something to these two schools and scholarships to their top students would be a sincere effort.
Racial diversity is important but far more important is economic diversity on campus. It is perhaps the most important thing a college can do to help break the link between poverty and race.