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Colorblind America Is Still an Illusion

September 01, 2003|J.P. Gownder

Colin Powell is not black. Nor is Halle Berry. Tiger Woods, with an Asian mother and mixed-race African American father, isn't black either.

At least, this is the reductionist assumption underlying Proposition 54, the so-called Racial Privacy Initiative, on the Oct. 7 ballot. The initiative would prohibit any government agency in California from collecting data on race, ethnicity, color or national origin.

Supporters argue that, among other things, there's no longer a rationale for collecting racial data because the number of mixed-race citizens is growing. They claim that "a remarkable blurring of racial lines" has rendered the concept of race meaningless. And they say that by asking Californians about their race, the government "sanctions racial classifications," forcing an increasingly multiracial populace into traditional categories of "hyphenated Americans." Yet neither race nor its effects will be dissipated by a ballot measure that seduces with a simple message of a "colorblind society."

Race-mixing has undeniably changed the racial landscape. Web sites like www.mixedfolks.com allow people of mixed heritage to post photos and share their stories while reading about neither-black-nor-white entertainers like Mariah Carey and Vin Diesel. Many Latinos hail from complicated mixtures of African American, Native American and white ancestries. The simple dichotomy of black and white no longer captures the entire story of race in America.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 09, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Proposition 54 -- A Sept. 1 commentary incorrectly stated that Proposition 54 prohibits "any government agency in California" from collecting racial and ethnic data. There would be exceptions for some medical and law enforcement reports.

But despite race-mixing, fixed notions of race persist, and strongly. In some cases people of mixed race freely choose to identify themselves with their minority group heritage. In others, lingering social prejudices choose for them.

Halle Berry has said that, as a child, schoolmates would taunt her about her mixed heritage, asking, "Why is your mommy white and you're not?" Yet in 2002, she accepted the Oscar for best actress with obvious joy at being the first African American woman so honored, her white mother applauding in the audience. In her acceptance speech, she thanked other black actresses and said, "This moment is so much bigger than me."

Berry's chosen identity differs from that of Woods. Some African Americans disagreed when Woods described himself as "cablinasian," a word he constructed to reflect his Caucasian, black, Native American and Asian heritage. He dismissed critics by saying, "I don't want to be the best black player or the best Asian player. I want to be the best golfer ever."

Yet society has often ascribed a racial identity to Woods based on his appearance. In 1997, white golfer Fuzzy Zoeller called him a "little boy" and suggested that he not order fried chicken or collard greens at the champion's dinner. Perhaps this is why Colin Powell, responding to the Woods controversy, said, "In America, which I love from the bottom of my heart and soul, when you look like me, you're black."

Still, Proposition 54 sponsor Ward Connerly, whose heritage is black, Irish, French Canadian and Choctaw, wonders, "If our population continues to blend at the current rate, but now is not the time to end racial categories, what conditions ought to be present before ending them?"

First, society should see further progress in economic and educational equality. Unemployment among blacks is 11.1%, compared with 5.5% for whites. African Americans lag whites in attainment of college degrees 17% to 29%.

Attitudes on race-mixing itself must improve. A 2001 poll asked Americans whether, considering everything, they thought it better for people to marry someone of their own race. Among blacks, 21% said yes. Among whites, 46% felt it better to marry other whites.

Rather than a colorblind society, the initiative would render the government blind when trying to analyze and address the inequities that still plague people of color. Its "don't ask, don't tell" approach assumes that all people of mixed race can afford to be like Woods. But it's the view held by Berry and Powell that still resonates most strongly among the multiracial, who recognize the barriers still to be overcome.

J. P. Gownder writes about race and politics.

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