MRBlog | Creating Race


By Thomas J. Whitley

We can definitely define the race of people.

So said North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory back in May in his argument that transgender people cannot be considered a protected class. In one sense, McCrory’s understanding of race is completely wrong. For he appears not to understand that race is a social construct and thus believes it possible to determine ones race simply by looking at the color of their skin or their country of origin.

And yet, in another sense, McCrory is absolutely right. For our government can definitely define race, and that is precisely what they do. Indeed, states have long been in the business of defining race. The latest example of this is the White House’s proposal to add a new racial category to our system of racial classification: Middle East and North Africa, or MENA for short.

Under our current system, people from this part of the world are considered “white” in the U.S. This classification poses problems for a number of people, including many from the Middle East and North Africa who do not self-identify as “white.”

“What it does is it helps these communities feel less invisible,” said Helen Samhan of the Arab American Institute, which has been advocating the change for more than 30 years. “It’s a good step, a positive step.”

Classification may be a political act, but classification can also mean representation, and this is what some are hoping to gain. Indeed, a new racial category would have far reaching ramifications affecting affirmative action, employment, housing discrimination, desegregation, and voting rights.

Some will take issue with the MENA category using one’s location of origin to define race, but that is the only constant in the government’s definitions of its racial categories. Definitions for all five of the current racial categories begin, “A person having origins in…” And yet location alone is not enough. The “American Indian or Alaska Native” category, for instance is defined as “a person having origins in any of the original people of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment” (emphasis added). Here one’s race is not only connected to their location of origin but also to their ongoing political and communal affiliations.

For many, their operational definition of race is tied to skin color and not location of origin. And they would be forgiven for this as it appears that location in the United State Census Bureau’s definitions is not much more than a thinly-veiled stand in for skin color. Even so, the Census Bureau does try to show that it understands the social nature of race.

The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. In addition, it is recognized that the categories of the race item include racial and national origin or sociocultural groups. People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture, such as “American Indian” and “White.” People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.

Location as a proxy for skin color is a problem in the Census Bureau’s understanding of race, but it is only a symptom. The problem at the heart of the government’s understanding of race is its belief that it knows it when it sees it. In other words, the government’s understanding of race begs the question.

It is recognized that the categories of the race item include racial and national origin or sociocultural groups.

Didn’t the Census Bureau learn that you cannot use a word in its own definition? Asserting that the category “race” includes “racial and national origin or sociocultural groups” does nothing to define or explain race. Including “the Black racial groups of Africa” in the definition of the “Black or African American” race is not a definition. Rather, it is evidence that the government treats race as a given. The Census Bureau can give lip service to the social construction of race, but they still think they know it when they see it.

The introduction of the MENA category to our racial classification may well have positive impacts, particularly with regard to anti-discrimination efforts. But it is still an arbitrary classification that matters only because we give it meaning. When we speak of race, we are not merely describing the world as it is; we are creating the world as we wish it to be. This is especially clear as the government looks to create a new race. So, Pat McCrory was right; the government can definitely define the race of people. The question is, should they?