I was six years old, in the first grade. My family was living in Madrid. It must have been November, because I remember the skies being dark, threatening rain, as the school day ended. Carl was my best friend, an American. His parents had sent a note through him to my parents, inviting me to come over after school that day. It was a Friday afternoon. Since he didn’t live far away, we walked to his house, excited for this opportunity to have a one-on-one visit after school.
We talked all along the way, planning what we would do, about his toys and what games we would play. And then we came to his front door. As Carl turned the knob, the door was yanked open by what I thought was the tallest, meanest man I had ever seen, and he was scowling directly toward me.
“He’s a nigger!” he screamed toward his frightened, startled son. “You brought a gaddammed nigger to my house! He’s not coming in here!”
And so herding his son past me into the door, he looked down at me.
“Go away, little nigger!” he sneered and slammed the door.
I was unprepared for it, but it was a defining moment in my life, a wound still tender to the touch of memory. I didn’t even know what a nigger was, but I knew it had to be something bad, something undesirable, something less than human. I stood there in shock, numbed and ashamed at the realization that I was something dirty and unworthy. Through the door I saw Carl’s dog in the house. The dog was allowed in, but I wasn’t, the reason being because I was that name he called me, whatever it meant. It was the first time I had ever heard the word in my life.
I walked away from the door, hurt and crying, traumatized by such meanness from an adult, who was the father of my best friend. I was six, and I had walked there with Carl, who knew the way to his house. But I had no idea how to get back to where I lived. By that time, it had started to rain, so I stood under a nearby carport for shelter.
I must have stood there for two hours, though it seemed like longer. The man’s angry voice and that word burned into my soul, redefining who and what I was. Notwithstanding, I survived the ordeal and life went by so that as I sit here, many years later, I am able to contemplate that memory and finally undo the damage done that day.
According to several dictionary definitions, the word Nigger is the most offensive word in the English language. Over time and the evolution of American idiom, the word has lost some of its sting, but to me and to those who have had similar or worse experiences, Nigger is much more than a word. It encompasses an ugly, hateful, centuries-old history. It seeks to redefine, dehumanize, limit and degrade individuals and an entire legacy.
Words are powerful. Words can create an institution, or a movement. In the denotative sense, they define us, while in the connotative sense, they stigmatize us. For that reason, we should be aptly guarded about what we allow anyone to call us, and we should be even more discriminate about what we call ourselves and each other. The real questions: who and what are we? Who do we allow to define us? What do we call ourselves? And why is this important? The answers are in history.
Throughout time, regardless of genealogy or culture, humans have found strength in clans, tribes, groups, societies, empires and nations. By combining their numbers, resources, talents, ideas and martial inclinations, the stronger, more resourceful, better disciplined and aggressive factions have been able to dominate their less organized and less aggressive neighbors. This tendency is innately human, played out from Nimrod to present on every peopled continent of the Earth.
The aggressors named themselves, their cities, nations and dynasties, because those who dominated owned the narrative and history. Those who controlled the narrative controlled the people. They also named and defined what they had conquered. In many cases, the conquered were called slaves.
Slavery was endemic to the Old World, where the conquered were subject to their victors. But the nature of slavery changed in Africa during the late 1400s, due to a partnership between two players. The Portuguese, who had established trading posts all along the Atlantic coast of Africa, then began supplying tens of thousands of slaves to Muslim merchants for sale in the Islamic Empire, and thus was the beginning of the commercial slave trade.
The biggest African slave suppliers, those who sold humans commercially, were the kingdoms of the Kongo and Angola. Benin and other African empires were also complicit in this immoral exploitation, but for many nations and peoples, it was a holocaust of staggering proportions. By some estimates, the total human loss to Africa over the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade ranges from 30 million to 200 million persons.
Some went to the Islamic empire, where the men were required to be castrated and women were lawfully subject to the carnal desires of their owners. Others went to Europe for lifelong servitude or to the West Indies for seasoning. The most unfortunate went to the Caribbean islands, where they were literally worked to death in three to five years, due to the harsh conditions at sugarcane plantations.
A good many however, were shipped to the British colonies in the New World, a place that would become the United States of America. Ironically, the first African slaves arrived in 1526 (in what is now South Carolina), but they did not remain slaves for long. They revolted and fled the colony, seeking refuge and freedom among Native Americans.
One hundred fifty years later, South Carolina, a colony principally involved in exporting Native Americans as slaves to the West Indies, became involved in the import of Africans to the colonies to work in tobacco fields. Virginia and other southern states quickly followed suit so that by the early 1700s, over 700,000 African slaves had been imported, and by 1860, the U.S. Census counted the slave population at over four million.
And when in 1865 the Emancipation Proclamation liberated these “Africans,” who after living in America for more than two hundred years were not exactly Africans anymore, the questions became: what are these people? Are they still Africans? What do we do with them? How do we protect the things we love and have become accustomed to from them? And finally, what do we call them?
After all, many had become married to or had otherwise mixed blood with Native Americans, and some were the direct descendants of white men through consensual and non-consensual interracial unions. Abolitionist, writer and orator Fredrick Douglass suspected that “my master was my father,” while most historians presently accept that Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, fathered six children by Sally Hemings, the Colored half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. At that time, the race of the mother determined what the child was called. Thus Fredrick Douglass was black, or a Negro, James Madison Hemings, the President’s son, was a Negro, and Walter Francis White was a Negro.
According to a Virginia law in 1792, any person with one-fourth or more African ancestry was considered a mulatto. An 1866 law decreed that every person having one-fourth or more African blood was to be deemed a “colored” person, and every person not a “colored” person having one-fourth or more Indian blood was to be deemed an Indian. A 1910 law reduced to one-sixteenth the minimum of African ancestry for “colored” persons.
But Sally Hemings was at least a mulatto, half-Negro, who bore children by a white man, making her children only one-quarter Negro, if that much. Sally’s mother, Betty, is described in 1847 by former Monticello slave Isaac Jefferson as a bright mulatto woman, and Sally mighty near white. So if Betty was a mulatto, then Sally’s children would have been only one-eighth Black, or octoroons, and certainly, being “mostly White,” they could not be called Africans.
It is obvious all the race-mixing that went on presented our Founding Fathers with a dilemma. What would happen if, because of the mixing, the result was thousands of slaves who were called Negroes, but who looked exactly like white people? If slaves were supposed to be black, what would happen if some of them started looking a little too white?
There were laws prohibiting interracial marriage dating back to Colonial times, but these laws did little to limit the types of activity that created mixed race offspring. Of course, the children were almost always the result of a union between a white man and a Negro woman, given the time. But when in successive generations there was a progression from African, to mulatto, to quadroon, to octoroon and beyond, the question became: where must we draw the line, a definitive line between black and white?
The “Problem” with Race Mixing
When the Africans and their descendants were called slaves, the offspring of those slaves, regardless of complexion, were born into slavery and were defined as such, with rare exceptions. However, when these slaves became free, many of their lighter-skinned descendants escaped the stigma and discrimination by passing themselves off as white and blending, or mixing, into white society. Realizing as much, some Whites, even the most liberal among them, took umbrage at the thought of “inferior African blood” spoiling their supposed “lily-white, untainted” bloodlines.
In the northern states during the early 1800s, where Africans were relatively free and the abolitionist movement was in full swing, anti-miscegenation laws were already in place, laws that prohibited interracial marriage and interracial sex, though the blood mixing continued in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Naturally, southerners argued that freeing African slaves would result in blood-mixing of preposterous proportions and the ruin of the white race.
Pro-slavery southerners further argued that freeing four million Africans would lead to former slaves uniting and attacking to exact revenge on their former masters. For both reasons, abolitionist legislators and leaders devised plans to remove freed slaves from the South, to export them to Canada or return them to Africa. But the underlying question that remained as the leaders on both sides realized it was impossible to rid the country of the Africans they brought and bought: if these people could no longer be called Africans and they could no longer be called slaves, what exactly would they be called?
Immediately prior to the Civil War, in 1857 the United States Supreme Court ruled that people of African descent brought into the United States and held as slaves (or their descendants, whether or not they were slaves), were not protected by the Constitution and could never be called U.S. citizens (Scott v. Sanford). After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation however, Republicans in Congress enacted several measures to secure the civil rights of former slaves and free Africans by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and culminating that effort with the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Yet even before a name could be assigned to naturalized Africans by those in management, or the government, the group would have to be defined and confined to that definition. And so the term Negro came into usage, meant to denote all persons of African ancestry, including those whose blood was mixed with Europeans or Native Americans. This change in effect did away with “the child taking on the race of its mother,” especially since some working class white women in the North were having children by the descendants of Africans.
In the wake of the Civil War and emancipation came the realization that the Negroes, many of whom were unwilling to be sent back to Africa or up to Canada, and Whites – indeed American society would be best off if there was a separation between negroes and whites. The “Separate but Equal Doctrine” provided that Negroes were entitled to receive the same public services and accommodations such as schools, bathrooms, and water fountains, but states were allowed to maintain different facilities for the two groups.
And so segregation was born, along with Jim Crow and the political disenfranchisement of the Negro, which included poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, residency and record keeping requirements – obstructions that made it difficult if not impossible for the majority of Negroes to vote on who would represent them and on issues involving their own interests. It was a de facto form of social colonization, purposed to isolate the group and to take away its voice.
The Negroes were in their place within the definition, but there was still the issue of race mixing, which threatened that definition. The more diluted that African blood became through mixing, the harder it was to control and define the degree of mixing that was actually taking place, and with it the definition of what Negroes were. But how was one to know who the Negroes were, with all the mixing going on? How could parents protect their children from marrying a Negro who was “passing,” a Negro who may have looked and behaved like a white person, and yet was the descendant of an African?
The U.S. Census Bureau and Racial Definition
The answer involved the creation and function of the birth certificate, which in the United States did not come into existence until 1900, in part for that very purpose. In 1900, the U.S. Census Bureau designed standard birth cards and certificates, ostensibly to improve the accuracy of vital statistics. Not surprising, birth cards, first issued in 1900, included the “race” of the child right after its name and gender. Finally, the government had a means to better define the Negro and to limit the degradation of that definition and its depiction.
And so it was circa the early 1900s that the Negroes in America became “Colored.” “Colored,” which implied a racial mixture, was to some one step above “Negro,” and “less offensive,” since negro meant “black” in Spanish. The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was established in 1909.
A government issued document that defined details of every live birth made it possible to enforce laws in a growing number of states that prohibited interracial marriage and interracial sex. Birth certificates allowed federal, state and local governments to accurately determine just who the Negroes, or Coloreds were, and to keep them in their place.
And then there was the “One-Drop-Rule,” which asserted that any person born with one single drop of black blood was to be considered Black. I have often mused that if the One-Drop-Rule was applied today, just what percentage of Americans would be considered “Black?” I invested hours of research into the notion, but I could not find a single study or analysis that examined what percentage of Americans had the least trace of African ancestry.
As of July, 2009, the U.S. Census estimated there were 41.8 million “African Americans” in the United States, making up 13.6% of the population, but the government obviously was not applying the “One-Drop-Rule,” and the American government has, over the years, played with racial definitions to advance their own narrative, which serves to suit their own objectives. More about that later.
The Racial Integrity Act, passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1924, required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth and divided society into only two classifications: white and colored. In supposition, South Africa and its apartheid policies may have been the model for such a law, which redefined and separated humans on the basis of race. The Boer South African government actually distinguished its Africans from its mixed-blooded Negros by defining as “colored” persons of mixed racial descent or of certain other nonwhite descent, distinguished from Blacks, Asians, or whites.
With such laws in place, racial mixing in America could finally be curtailed, or punished. And it was the ensuing anti-miscegenation laws that made celebrated American boxer, Jack Johnson, who was colored, a federal criminal, resulting from his relationships with white women, including marriage.
More than all else, the federal persecution and prosecution of Jack Johnson and the media-driven humiliation of the white women involved were purposed to send a signal to America: interracial mixing would not be tolerated, regardless of wealth, education or celebrity. The racial definition of “Colored” was meant to hold.
The “Colored” and Segregation
“Colored” held through the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. The “Colored” endured the Great Depression, which was worse for them, as they were the first to be laid off their jobs, had unemployment rates two to three times higher than whites, and received substantially less aid from government programs than other Americans. During those years, segregation became entrenched, though in 1941, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, caving to pressure from A. Philip Randolph and other Colored leaders, signed Executive Order 8802, desegregating the military and the Department of Defense.
Many of the New Deal programs enacted by the Roosevelt administration did little to benefit the Colored, or the Negroes, as the appellations were used interchangeably during the 1940s. For example, the Social Security Act, signed by the President, did not cover two-thirds of Negroes in the work force, causing the NAACP to protest, likening it to “a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.” Notwithstanding, it was in the wake of Roosevelt’s New Deals and his recognition of Negro leaders that the majority of Coloreds switched over from the Republican party to the Democrat Party, where most have remained since that time.
Until that time, most of the Colored population lived in the South. But a Great Negro Migration began in the 1940s, with in upwards of five million Negroes leaving farming and sharecropping in the Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana for industrial jobs in the big cities of the North, the East and the West. They abandoned the segregation, Jim Crow, poverty and lynching for the promise of better opportunities, jobs and the fulfillment of their American Dream.
However, some Negroes remained in the South for the very reason that so many left. “I am in Birmingham,” cited young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “because injustice is here,” because “what affects one directly affects all indirectly,” and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so the battle against segregation and the struggle for civil rights was waged by those who remained.
In the 1950s the battle lines were drawn at schools, lunch counters, department stores, water fountains, street cars and bus lines. In 1954, NAACP Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that racial segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, paving the way for integration victories.
During the Jim Crow era, the term “Colored” began to take on a pejorative sense, as it was used to designate the inferior facilities and other connotations associated with segregation. The “Colored-only” signs at inferior public services and accommodations were meant to enforce the inference that Colored people themselves were inferior. Because it was an appellation used by whites to implement de jure segregation, many Negroes began to resent being called “Colored,” one of the vestiges of segregation. To people in my parents’ generation, white people used the term “Colored” to remind Negroes of their proper places.
Civil Rights, Black and Afro American
After integration, Negroes set their sights on voting rights, which would not be easily won. Of course, the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified during the Reconstruction Era in 1870, provided that
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
While this amendment to the Constitution guaranteed Negroes the unrestricted right to vote, in the South, where the majority of Negroes in the United States still resided, Democratic legislators undermined the intent of the amendment, rewriting their state constitutions to include additional voting requirements, including poll taxes, literacy requirements and grandfather clauses (illiterate Whites, whose grandfathers had voted, were still eligible to vote). The goal was to limit, or nullify altogether if possible, the Negro vote.
In 2011, Republican legislators in state constitutions sought similar measures to disenfranchise voters (the requirement of a state-issued ID to be eligible to vote) in order to accomplish their unified goal, a stated goal: to make President Obama a one-term president. These new laws also sought to narrow the voting window and restrict absentee ballots, which if enforced would make ineligible more than five million voters who cast ballots in the 2008 election.
Beyond the states’ challenge to the Fifteenth Amendment guarantee, during the 1950s southern Democrats used threats, intimidation and violence to dissuade Negros from exercising voting rights. The Ku Klux Klan was born in the 1860s-70s as a result of White frustration during the Reconstruction Era.
The organization, which reached its peak with 100,000 members in 1924 (ironically the same year that Virginia passed its Racial Purity Act), opposed Niggers, Catholics, Jews… dope, bootlegging, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, unfair business dealings, sex and scandalous behavior. Yet by the end of World War II, their numbers had diminished to the Klan’s virtual irrelevance.
During the fight for voting rights of the 1950s-60s, the Ku Klux Klan reemerged to become the de facto enforcement arm of state and local governments, who sought to deny basic civil rights to Negroes. In one such instance, Birmingham police commissioner Bull Conner and his officers turned their heads, allowing the Klan to attack Freedom Riders for more than fifteen minutes before intervening. State governments, local governments and law enforcement were reluctant to react when the homes of determined voters were burned or bombed, when Negroes and civil rights activists were murdered or lynched by Ku Klux Klan members.
However, public sentiment began to turn against the Klan in the early 1960s, largely owing to Dr. King’s campaign of non-violent resistance in pursuit of justice and equality. In the meantime, support for a Voting Rights Act continued to grow so that in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Congress the draft of a bill purposed to better enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and to eliminate state sponsored restrictions and encumbrances that prevented Negroes and others from voting.
In the activist and militant environment of the 1960s, Negro youth began to embrace a new culture that they defined as “Blackness,” a culture that included music, language, food, lifestyle and politics. They rejected “Negro” and “Colored,” and for the first time since Africans came to North America, their descendants controlled the appellation. They called themselves “Black.” They took pride in their blackness and recognized the emerging political and economic power of the Black populace in America.
My grandfather from Mississippi once told me “if you called a man ‘black’ in my time, he’d most likely punch you dead-off in the nose.” During the 1960s however, “Blackness” became a source of cultural pride rather than a source of shame or a depiction of inferiority. Negro youth embraced their shared African heritage and sought to renew ties to the continent their ancestors had been ripped away from so many generations ago.
While the appellation “Afro American” was first used in 1890 in the Negro publication, Advance, it reemerged in the 1960s, as blacks sought a connection to their ethnic African roots. Blackness was the culture, but Afro American became the racial identity, though there were many who maintained they were simply “Black,” because “in our racist culture, Americans see all aspects of society in terms of “Black and White.” Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, “Black” was generally preferred to “Afro-American.”
What is “Black?”
The appellation “Black” endured during the 1960s,70s and 80s, but the effects of integration and the final repeal of miscegenation laws in 1967 resulted in a reevaluation of identity as it related to mixed heritage. Many blacks and whites from that generation still held to the One-Drop-Rule – “if you had any black in you, you were Black, period. Not half-Black or part-Black, but Black.”
Notwithstanding, the prevalence of interracial dating and marriage resulted in an increasing number of families and individuals who were “racially-mixed.” Because “Black” indicates a culture rather than a racial identity, it became an awkward and sometimes inappropriate way to identify and define the race of an individual.
If a young white woman had a single child by a mulatto black man and later married a white man and had children by her husband, would the first child in the family be called “Black” and all the others “White?” And what if the mulatto father and his family were never involved in the child’s life? What if the experiences and the values the child inherited were “culturally White?” Would the child be “Black,” just because there was a single black ancestor, perhaps two or three generations earlier?
In an interracial marriage involving a black person and a Mexican person or an Asian person, would the children automatically be considered “Black” because Black blood just somehow trumps other blood, because Black culture dominates all other cultures? Should the racially-mixed children be then forced to choose or to abandon or deny their non-Black heritage?
There are many families in America who have African ancestry and do not consider themselves “Black.” The Creoles in Louisiana are a mixed race people who proudly embrace their African ancestry as well as their French and Spanish heritage, but they consider their culture “Creole” rather than “Black.” By the same reasoning, there are millions of so-called “Hispanics” who openly acknowledge and celebrate their African roots, but they consider themselves “culturally Hispanic,” and “not Black.”
“African American” – A Tangled Web
During the late 1980s, black leaders searched for a defining term that would serve to include persons of African ancestry in America, who were the descendants of African slaves. Circa 1986, there were communities and leaders who began to use the term, “African American.” But it was not until 1988 during the Democratic Presidential primaries that then candidate Jesse Jackson publicly identified Blacks as “African American.”
Soon after, the news media and other institutions eagerly embraced the term and began using it to denote “Blacks in America.” “African American,” after all, was less a militant term, since it did not connote race as much as it did heritage. It was racially neutral.
The government of the United States of America defines “African Americans” as “having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa,” but the definition is vague. Would such a definition include the Creoles? Would it include the Hispanic “non-Blacks” with black skin and/or African heritage, or recent immigrants from Africa?
Beyond that, anthropologists and genetic researchers have confirmed the entire human race originated in Africa and that the first humans had black skin. Logically, that would make every American and African American.
The U.S. Census Bureau makes a more clear distinction. Maintaining the Office of Management and Budget’s guidelines, the Census Bureau defines “African Americans” as “black people born in the United States.”
DEFINITION OF BLACK OR AFRICAN AMERICAN
USED IN THE 2010 CENSUS
According to OMB, “Black or African American” refers to a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.
The Black racial category includes people who marked the “Black, African Am., or Negro” checkbox. It also includes respondents who reported entries such as African American; Sub-Saharan African entries, such as Kenyan and Nigerian; and Afro-Caribbean entries, such as Haitian and Jamaican.*
*Sub-Saharan African entries are classified as Black or African American with the exception of Sudanese and Cape Verdean because of their complex, historical heritage. North African entries are classified as White, as OMB defines White as a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.
According to this definition, black Sub-Saharan Africans living in the United States are considered African American, but Moroccans, Libyans, Egyptians and Ethiopians would be defined as White, regardless of complexion or ancestry. And the dark-skinned descendants of Africans who identify as Hispanic, the black Cubans, Dominicans, Brazilians, Puerto Ricans and Costa Ricans would also be defined as “not Black.”
The black-skinned descendants of all these “non-Blacks,” even though they were born in the United States and are thoroughly “Americanized,” would be considered “not Black,” unless of course, they have been arrested or they are sought after for committing a crime. Obviously, law enforcement in America does not share the Census Bureau’s distinction.
If perpetrator’s skin is black or that person looks “Black,” then a black person committed the crime. This unfairly skews data and statistics relating to crimes committed by Blacks as a percentage of Blacks in the U.S. population, and it misrepresents percentages of Blacks in prison populations.
If a black Cuban man robs a bank, and his image is caught on security cameras, the all-points-bulletin issued would describe the robber as a “Black male…” rather than a “Hispanic male…” In 2011, when a man who was a descendant of black-skinned “non-Black” Dominicans was arrested in New York for plotting terrorist bomb attacks, law enforcement described him as a “black male.”
Of course, the results of the U.S. Census are by no means scientific. They do not suggest an accurate portrayal of the racial make-up of the United States of America. The data are used by the political parties to determine congressional, state and local voting districts and by departments of federal and state governments to monitor various disparities and changes among groups over time.
The racial categories have little to do with genetic make-up or ancestry and more to do with self-identity. Thus the findings are subjective and the resulting statistics are specious and can be used to support premeditated biases. Respondents are asked to answer questions using pre-selected descriptors based on the government’s subjective criteria for assessing racial and cultural groups in America.
“African American” is perhaps a better group descriptor than “Black,” as millions of Americans with black African ancestors do not have black skin. But that would mean the term “African American” has less to do with race and/or culture than it has to do with an inclusive ancestry. As such, the meaning is vague at best and does not accurately define a distinct racial group in America.
Hispanic – A Government-Grown Minority
Self-enumeration with the U.S. Census began in 1960, where respondents were sent an “Advance Census Report” to be filled out without the aid of Census employees, who later picked up the forms and transferred the information to forms that could be read by Census computers. This self-enumeration meant respondents, when asked which racial group they identified with, were given the following choices: White, Negro, American Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Part Hawaiian, Aleut, Eskimo, (etc.). This self identity was subjective, making the Census more indicative of culture than race from that year on.
And yet “Hispanic or Latino,” which millions of dark-skinned descendants of Africans are called, is even more non-descript. The Census did not consider the category until 1960. It had never been included because those words do not identify a race at all. Rather, they indicate a shared culture of language.
By the suggested racial guidelines of the Census, Mexican Americans were White, and Central and South Americans were White, although there was room for these groups to self-identify as American Indians, along with a tribal name. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans were White.
In 1970, the ever-transforming guidelines and categories of the Census shifted to include the creation of a “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” question. Respondents were asked, “Is this person’s origin or descent –” with the following choices: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, Other Spanish and None of these. By lumping together into one group all persons with Spanish surnames, along with Spanish speakers and the Americanized descendants of Spanish speakers, the government had created a new minority for purposes of political expediency.
The 1980 Census and the 1990 Census added more ethnic sub-categories, including Asian Indian and Guamanian, though by that time there was a greater emphasis regarding “ancestry.” They included questions that would cause respondents to identify “Hispanic or Latino” origins, further defining the minority to include Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican Republic; Central American: Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Panamanian, Salvadoran, Other Central American; South American: Argentinean, Bolivian, Chilean, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Paraguayan, Peruvian, Uruguayan, Venezuelan, Other South American; Other Hispanic or Latino: Spaniard, Spanish, Spanish American, All other Hispanic.
Not surprising, by the 2000 Census, the “Hispanic or Latino” category was “the fastest growing minority in the country,” a group that included Blacks, Whites, Asians and mixed people from diverse and distinct backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. In many cases, the only connection they had was the Spanish language and histories relating to Spanish exploration.
It seems unfair to the group to deny the individuality and interests of sub-groups, since the peoples from Asia were able to identify under the “race” category as Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese and Asian Indian.
To suggest that the interests, concerns and challenges of the Puerto Rican community are similar to those of the descendants of Bolivians in America beyond a mere shared language is impractical. The ancestry is different and the culture is different, right down to the dialect of Spanish that they speak.
And how much in common does the descendant of a black-skinned Dominican have with the children of a fair-skinned Spaniard from Madrid? This category, more than any other, suggests the true intent of some the most powerful operators involved in the federal government of the United States, and that is to capitalize on and to politicize race, ethnic heritage and culture in America.
The Audacity of Unity
These government operators perpetuate racism, bigotry and class warfare by dividing and defining us, by categorizing us, labeling us and naming us, by comparing us and pitting one group and its opinions, interests and/or vulnerabilities against those of another. And what do they call it? Demographics – the numbers, all broken down, analyzed, trended and sold for the benefit of major corporations, big advertisers, the news media, insurance companies, political parties and government agencies. Sure, they avow they are acting for the good of the people, and on rare occasions, they do.
But these divisions and categories are meaningless to the average American, the awakening, still groggy ninety-nine percent – the true “fastest growing minority in America.” To this group, these divisions are tools and levers in the hands of the wealthy and the guardians of power that discourage and interfere with the concept of true community and unity.
As long as hard-working people, students, the elderly, the poor, the disenfranchised, the unemployed, the unfortunate, the laid off and the homeless of all races, cultures and ethnicities continue to be pitted against each other and manipulated to distrust and to blame each other, this ninety-nine percent minority will never realize and utilize its enormous potential for power and its ability to effect change.
And what is their goal? They are ordinary Americans who seek ideals and principles that are innately human. They want basic dignity, opportunity and fairness. They want the security of a home for quiet peace. They want safe, reliable schools and resourceful teachers who will train their children for success in a world that becomes more competitive each day. If they or their families get sick, they want to know that adequate medical care is available, without having to wager the health and well-being of a child, a parent or themselves against a mortgage, suffocating debt or financial solvency.
They want fairness and honesty from those who employ, police, adjudge and represent them. They want jobs and the opportunity to contribute to a greater community, and if absolutely necessary, to be thy brother’s keeper. These things have nothing to do with race or ethnicity and all to do with a healthy and successful community.
An American Culture
During the 1700s, a theory was advanced, suggesting that over time all the races, nationalities, ethnicities and cultures in America would eventually fuse or “melt” together to form one homogenous culture, a unique American culture. In essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea of America, he endorsed a society that merged
the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes, – of the Africans, and of the Polynesians, – [and] will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages.
And that has happened. America is more soup than salad. In language, food, libation, celebration, education, religion and tradition, the varied people and cultures have blended, shared, borrowed from, combined with and augmented each other. They have stood and fought together, bled together and died together for the shared idea of “liberty and justice for all.” They have melded together to create a nation and an edifying culture that truly is E Pluribus Unum, or “Out of Many, One.”
It has been a singular triumph, but most Americans just don’t get it yet. Why? Because there is a destructive culture in America in opposition to unity, a counterbalance that pits brother against brother, parents against children, believers against non-believers, man against woman, middle class against poor, Jews against Gentiles and black against white.
This counter-culture is perpetuated by the ever-pressing objective of some government operators who perceive an advantage in keeping people divided and at odds with each other. They understand how to capitalize on the innate tendency of some individuals to separate themselves, to divide and form groups, finding strength in numbers. They know natural human aggression will cause the powerful and more aggressive groups to dominate the weaker and peaceful groups. But they also understand the frightening power and potential of a united people.
Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
More simply put, the unity of people, groups, cultures and ideas is a threat to governments, who realize that a society in which groups fight each other, compete against each other, resent each other and do not trust each other need constant governance and meddling, while a united, considerate and cooperative people do not need government at all.
When people unite, governments lose power and control. And so when the ideals of America started to become realized, and racial and cultural lines became blurred, it became incumbent on the government to continually redefine the people, to re-categorize, to create new divisions, new groups and new distinctions for the purpose of confounding and discouraging unity.
But just who are the “government operators” who oppose the people and unity? Look only to individuals in the three branches of government, the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. Look to the bigots, the hate-mongers, the judgmental, the spewers of vitriol, the “red-meat” vendors, the intolerant and the divisionists – these operators, regardless of their rhetoric, are the instruments of big government and the wealthy. And because the media in America has lost its conscience, independence, objectivity and sense of purpose, the media has become the tool and mouthpiece for those anti-unity government operators.
Of course the operators within the three branches of government are most often the unwitting pawns of wealthy players who control the boards, the invisible one percent. These operators do not realize they have been carefully chosen, groomed, favored and financed by the rich and powerful, perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of disunity and divisions among the people. These manipulated operators, who understand that money is the mother’s milk of politics – these self-serving sycophants are willing to risk and ruin America in order to protect and to increase the wealth and power of their benefactors.
And so the wealthiest Americans are able to augment and enhance themselves at the expense of the middle class, the poor and arguably their own biggest benefactor, the federal government. Because this elite group dominates, they control the narrative – the debate in Washington, government regulation and taxation, employment and spending, military actions and foreign policy, the decisions of federal courts, and the actions of big city executives and those of the President. Because they own the media, they control the very perceptions of Americans, right down to how we self-identify and what they call us.
“Race” versus Culture
Despite all the attention Americans have been conditioned to pay to it, the whole idea of race is an illusion, ten microns (1/2545 th of an inch) thick. There is no such thing as race in humans, and there never has been. Scientifically, there is no taxonomic significance. Thus there is no English blood, no Gypsy blood, no Polynesian blood, no Latin blood or Black blood. The color of a person is literally superficial, involving how many melanin cells are contained within the stratum basale, a single layer of the epidermis that is merely one cell thick.
There is one race, the human race, which refers to the human species. And phenotypes –what individuals look like – can often belie their genetic make-up. Beyond that, phenotypes can be altered through cosmetic surgeries, tanning, tattooing or bleaching of the skin, through hair coloring, straightening or curling, by disease, mutations and acts of nature. Ancestry carries genetic implications, but “race” has become a more matter of perception and a way to divide people and alienate groups.
Culture however, is a different thing. Culture indicates a shared lifestyle, set of beliefs, history, shared challenges, language, sometimes a dialect, tradition, food, religion, music, dance and celebration. Culture teaches, validates and fosters continuity from generation to generation. It is private and inward, yet something to be proudly shared, explored by others and preserved. Culture accepts converts and embraces diversity. It reveres white hair and bald heads, and while it often involves complex ancestries or genealogies, it has little to do with race or stereotypes. “Race” describes, but culture defines. The conflicts in America are differences about culture and not about race.
The Mizrahi, the Ayhud and the Ashkenazi share a greater common culture, while their physical characteristics, skin color, hair texture and facial features could not be more diverse. “Black,” “White,” and “Asian” are not races. They are cultures, and within these cultures, there are many sub-cultures, such as Gullah, Latvian and Laotian. In America, there are many people with white skin who are “culturally Black,” who may or may not have had a recent black African ancestor. And there are dark-skinned people who are “culturally White,” not because they are traitors or pretenders, but because that is the culture they know, or identify with.
American President Barack Obama was the product of two cultures, “Kenyan” and “American Mid-West,” but he is “culturally Black.” His wife, children and extended family are Black, he attends a predominately Black church, shares the challenges of the Black community and self-identifies as “African American.”
On the other hand, Tiger Woods is also the product of two cultures, “Black” and “Thai,” but he is “culturally White” and does not identify as “African American” or “Thai.” And ironically, Ward Connerly, who does not identify as “African American,” actually grew up “culturally Black.” But he’s “Irish” if he says he is.
And so when the U.S. Census asks Americans to indicate a “culture or cultures” they identify with, the question has nothing to do with skin color, hair texture or facial features, and if Americans answer honestly, then Census results will not separate Americans on that basis, on the basis of so-called “race.” A white person who is culturally Black should properly self-identify as such, and an “Asian” who is culturally Mexican or Peruvian should be honest about his or her culture. In all fairness, any person who can self-identify as two or even three distinct cultures should indicate as much.
The Numbers Game
But the U.S. government and the U.S. Census have a problem with race, and they always have, all the way back to the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, when non-free Persons [Negroes] were counted as three-fifths of a person [60% a human]. The provision was contained in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution and remained in effect for eighty years. So from its inception, the United States government has played games with the numbers to achieve desired results, in this case a compromise between northern and southern states through their operators on a tax and apportionment deal.
In the end, the numbers do not reflect real truth when the methods are altered to produce specific, premeditated results. For this reason, all Americans should take the time to consider the implications of the numbers game these operators have played in hopes of altering or skewing the results of the 2012 general election.
On the national level, legislative operators representing a tiny minority issued directives to be introduced by Republican dominated state legislatures, which would enact measures meant to disenfranchise dark-skinned cultures, the youth and the elderly and deny the voting rights of five million people who voted in 2008.
How Dare They!
Recalcitrant in the wake of a landmark election that made a statement to the world, a significant indication that Americans could move past the division and racism perpetuated by government operators to discourage unity – in the wake of this election, the nation’s rich and powerful doubled down, confident they could rekindle the hatred and bigotry of the nation’s most troubling wounds and appeal to the lowest common denominators of insecurity, ignorance and resentment to once again divide and dominate. In the wake of a rare, percipient moment in America, the jingoistic one percent quivered in awe at the potential of the ninety-nine percent and launched an offensive to take their country back.
They went after the unions, the laborers, the elderly, the students and the educators, but the people held firm. They did away with limits on how much corporations could donate to political campaigns. They stirred their base and the media to acts and positions of outright prejudice, unfairness and injustice, but this time the people refused to yield to the manipulation. They went after the basic right of the people to vote, denied mortgage relief and chose to tax working people while they were willing to bring the country and world to ruin in order to prevent taxing the wealthy.
But when the banks, whom the people bailed out, who after posting record profits in an economy where most people still suffered, in an economy where the rich were getting richer and everyone else was getting poorer – when these financial institutions of the wealthy sought even greater profits from the flattened pockets of those who could ill afford to lose even more, the people revolted.
The people realized en masse, in the words of Edmund Burke,
No man [or woman], who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself [or herself] that his [or her] single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men [and women] combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
And so was born a movement, based on the principles of economic fairness, unity and a common national purpose. It was a movement embraced by millions of persons all ancestries and cultures, reaffirming the potential power of a united people, when they choose to associate. As they stood together, selfless protestors, through the brutality, pepper sprays and arrests by police departments, through harsh weather conditions and severe cold, through setbacks, criticism and pressure to bear by those who opposed them, they were a testament that the percipient moment they remembered from 2008 was real, that Americans could resist wedge issues and those who sought to divide, dominate and corrupt, financially and politically.
The fight has been ongoing, but to the dismay of those who thought to extinguish the enthusiasm or confuse the movement’s message, it will not flame out or go away. The movement has already made a difference and will affect the future as Americans move forward. The people have come to understand that their greatest strength lies in unity, liberty and justice for all.
Call To Action
Americans must strive to put an end to the “illusion of race” as we progress toward a “post-racial” society. Americans must refuse the government imposed implications of racial differences, abilities and inclinations. Yet at the same time, Americans must celebrate, treasure and preserve our individual cultural differences, our diversity and our unique traditions of language, food, music, dance, values, lifestyle and religion.
From this moment on, the people of America must strive to wrest control of the narrative from those who would define us, stigmatize us, divide us, and in doing so, dominate us. The people of America must determine what they call us, what we call ourselves and who and what we are. Form this moment on, we must be vigilant when filling out government sections on forms that perpetuate “racism” and divisiveness.
And as we look to the 2020 U.S. Census, we must reflect on a redefining moment in 2008 when our country and the world realized that the beginning of something significant had happened in America. In the 2020 U.S. Census, Americans must ignore requests by the government and its enumerators to identify in one of fifteen – fifteen different racial categories, as determined by the government. Because we are all of one race, the human race, we must instead go to the option on the form that indicates, “Some other race,” and we must write-in “HUMAN.” If we do this, then for the first time in America the people will control the racial narrative.
The Counter Arguments
Of course, there will be many who will say that such an insistence on racial reality would be short-sighted and would only serve to harm “racial” minorities in America. Naturally, these would be the same who repeat or rely on U.S. Census based racial profiles, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, such as
African American adults are twice as likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician; and
Although Hispanic children aged 19 to 35 months had comparable rates of immunization for hepatitis, influenza, MMR, and polio, they were slightly less likely to be fully immunized, when compared to non-Hispanic white children; and
Fifty percent of Asian Americans in comparison to 28 percent of the total U.S. population had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Among Asian subgroups, Asian Indians had the highest percentage of bachelor’s degree attainment at 64 percent.
But these profiles have little if anything to do with “race” and more to do with culture, economic conditions and access to health care. The fact that “African American adults” are twice as likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes has nothing to do with the color of their skin and more to do with diet, which is part of a culture, with economic conditions, which have been affected by a documented history of segregation and discrimination, and with access to health care and check-ups, which is lacking for millions of poor Americans.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides much needed assistance and insight into populations and communities. But even more accurate profiles, suggested results, and solutions could be achieved if the profiles were based on cultures rather than “race.” For example, the rate for immunizations for impoverished Mexican children in “welcoming” Arizona compared to those of Cuban children living in the South Beach area of Miami would be vastly different, just as they would be compared to those in Lincoln Park, a Puerto Rican working class area of Chicago.
By combining many cultures and communities together on the basis of a shared language to form a super minority that they have called “Hispanic” for political purposes, the government has done these many cultures and people a huge disservice. It is government-sanctioned stereotyping and prejudice on the national level. Clearly, the government does not lump all “Asians” together. All cultures should be entitled to their individuality, as part of a greater culture that is America. And so the Department of Health and Human Services needs to re-fit its focus, to narrow its analysis to cultures and communities rather than skin color, hair texture and physical characteristics.
A second argument for including “race-based” questions in the U.S. Census involves the enforcement of voting rights and civil rights. According to the Census,
Race is key to implementing many federal laws and is needed to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. State governments use the data to determine congressional, state and local voting districts. Race data are also used to assess fairness of employment practices, to monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education and to plan and obtain funds for public services
And what good did the government’s racial profiling do in 2011, when Republican led state legislatures enacted laws meant to force five million voters to sit out the general election of 2012? None at all, as the new laws did not target “race.” Rather, they targeted cultures – the cultures of communities where many people do not have state issued identification cards and transportation, communities where some have never owned cars, sought drivers’ licenses or traveled abroad, communities that might find it difficult if not impossible to vote within a narrower window of opportunity. Self-identifying on the “race” question line for the Census does not grant voting rights compliance to these communities, who are largely Black, Hispanic, elderly and students.
These laws were enacted ostensibly to reduce voter fraud, and yet the most egregious incidents of voter fraud occurring involved those who created and distributed false and deceptive voting information and campaign literature, literature listing the wrong date or time for the election, giving inaccurate information about voter eligibility, or promoting false endorsements of candidates. Within this context, there is a certain irony to the words of former presidential contender Mike Huckabee, when he joked in Virginia during 2011,
“One, get all those people who are going to vote for Bob out to the polls and vote. If they’re not going to vote for Bob, you have another job. Let the air out of their tires and do not let them out of their driveway on Election Day,” Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, said with a wide grin as rising laughter is heard on the video. “Keep ‘em home. Do the Lord’s work, my friend.”
In employment practices and for educational institutions receiving federal funding, it should be incumbent on the businesses and institutions themselves to compile and submit data involving the inclusion of all ancestries and cultures and to comply with federal requirements before receiving a single dollar from taxpayers. For programs where taxpayers and others are seeking government assistance, recipients should be required to provide specific and accurate cultural, ancestral and community data as a condition to receive the benefit, but the so-called “race” of a person should be irrelevant.
The Future of America
Perhaps after the 2020 U.S. Census, and perhaps even before, the people will realize the meaning of Dr. King’s words, that as Americans, we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. And perhaps we can make the most of that transformative moment in November 2008, when we all caught a brief glimpse of the shining America that the best of our Founding Fathers, our fallen soldiers, our ancestors, our history and that Dr. King dreamed for us, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [and women] are created equal.’”
So there I was, at six years old, standing in the cold, standing under a carport in Madrid in the pouring rain, the skies growing dark. By rote, I had memorized my home address and phone number, but I had been traumatized by the meanness of Carl’s father and by the name he called me, so I was afraid to ask anyone else for a ride. And finally, summoning courage that came from somewhere beyond me, I wiped my face, went back to the man’s door and knocked.
“I don’t have a ride home, and I don’t know the way. I need you to take me home,” I demanded.
He seemed angry at first, and then it seemed he melted in the light of decency as a rueful Carl watched in the background.
“You know your address? I’ll take you,” he mumbled, appearing resentful that he had yielded to his better self.
The short ride home was tense and silent. When he stopped the car, he looked over at me and said, “You gotta understand – when I was young, a group of black boys jumped me, beat me up real bad. That’s why I don’t like black people.”
I was six years old. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t accept it now. I only know the man was a victim of an America where it was acceptable to curse at a vulnerable little black boy, call him a nasty name and order him away from the door, an America where 3,446 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968, an America of Jim Crow and discrimination in employment, housing, schools and equal protection under the law, and an America that denied black people human dignity, decency and the right to vote.
In time I learned that “nigger” was not just another word or name – that during the 1950s and 1960s it was often accompanied by unspeakable violence, sanctioned murder and the gross mistreatment of black people – that is what made the word so foul. It was a conjuring word, and to speak it summoned all the evil, hate, violence and injustice of the bloody and wretched history that lied beneath it. It was a vile word, and those who spoke it did so to dehumanize, degrade and destroy the spirit of a people, a culture and an entire legacy.
That was his America, but even at six years old, I knew it was not mine. I imagined something better. I knew America and its people were capable of something better. I later grew up in an America that was indeed different from the place he knew. It was not perfect, not the America I dreamed, but it was better than his. Yet over time I realized in brief moments and instances where we, as a people, were headed.
Whether the people realized it or not, the American government itself fostered and fomented a culture of racism and prejudice as tools of control and manipulation. And so racism is an institution of America, necessary to divide and define, to create resentment and hate. A parent can teach a child to hate for one reason or another, but it was America’s institutionalized racism that gave a false rationalization to that hate.
While Carl’s dad had justified it in his own mind, and people probably let him get away with it because he was part of a racist culture, it was an irrational excuse, even to a six year old. Could I justify and rationalize then a hate for all white people because of what he did to me? Of course not.
America still has far to go, and it will take years to undo the legacy of perpetrated hate and division cultivated over three centuries. The wounds run deep and still seep, the scars are still sensitive to light and the mended bones still ache. When I went back to school, Carl and I never spoke again.
Power to the People
Yet the people have within their will the power to dismantle institutionalized racism in America at the fundamental level. They have the power to control the racial narrative, to create their own definitions and meanings, and that power lies in self identity: What We Call Ourselves
For the reader or the listener, if you take nothing else away from this essay, I ask you to reflect on it the next time you fill out the government section of a form requiring you to identify yourself according to the government’s premeditated definitions for race. If you have dreamed of a better America for yourself and for your children, write in “HUMAN.” It is the only accurate answer.
And in 2020, during the U.S. Census, please comply with the enumerators. Be as accurate as possible when answering questions about how many people live in your home, including names, date of birth, gender, relationship to the respondent, how many months each person has lived at the residence and whether or not the residence is rented or owned.
On Question 8, the ethnicity question, use that area to indicate your identification with a culture. If you are not “Hispanic,” check the box, “No, not of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin,” and then neatly write-in the cultural group or community you identify with in the space provided below, be it “Black,” “Hmong,” “Southerner,” “Croatian,” “American,” “Argentinean and Chinese” or whatever ethnicities or cultures you call your own. I imagine it will make the job of the U.S. Census Bureau a little more different the first time through, but they are smart over there. They will adapt and allow the people to define who they are.
But on Question 9, the race question, Americans must take a stand against racism. Because the bureau’s definitions for race are ever changing, inconsistent and praetorian, we must assume the question is not purposed to accurately portray the “racial” make-up of communities in America. Its true purpose is to divide Americans on the illusion of race and racial definition. For that reason, Americans must answer that question in the only way it can be answered honestly and accurately: check none of the boxes and write-in “HUMAN” in the space provided for “Some other race.”
Perhaps then, we will be able to set our sights on the last and most significant government definer, the birth certificate. And perhaps then, in a post-racial society, America will be able to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, perhaps then Americans will be able to strike off the shackles of racism and government that divide and diminish our nation and its ideals, and perhaps then
we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Dedicated to the continuing dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968)