Ralph Eubanks has spent much of his adult life pondering, in books and articles, the meaning of his complex racial heritage. The complications involve a family history across generations of white and black intermarriage, made more difficult by geography; Eubanks, his parents, and his grandparents lived in the American South, where miscegenation laws were in effect until appallingly recently. The absurdity of these laws is illustrated by the experiences of his mother and aunt, whose father was white and mother was black. Their birth certificates listed them as white, but they chose to identify themselves as black, and when they married black men, each had to change her birth certificate to get a marriage license.
Eubanks had previously delved into his past using historical research, oral history, and memoir. But once the completion of the human genome proved that whites and blacks share 99.9 percent of their genetic material, he turned to science to test his own genetic makeup, participating in a class at Penn State where all of the students agreed to DNA testing.
He was not surprised to find that his own background was roughly half African, a bit less than half European, and the rest Native American or Asian. But it was the surprising genetic results for many people in the class, whose backgrounds were more mixed than they suspected, that led to his conviction that race is more a social construct than a biological fact, and that our racial categories are hopelessly simplistic.
As it happens, and as Eubanks graciously acknowledges, the eminent sociologist Amitai Etzioni came to similar conclusions in the SCHOLAR six years ago (well before there was any prospect of a mixed-race president), in an article we called “Leaving Race Behind.” Etzioni argued that the growing Hispanic population in the United States, which for the most part does not identify itself by color, gave us a chance to break down the old racial categories. He proposed that the government itself take the lead by eliminating racial identifications from the U.S. Census. Etzioni also maintained that even if a consensus arose to make the government colorblind (and Eubanks admits that just getting most Americans to talk frankly about race is unlikely), we should not abandon efforts to address the historical injustices caused by racial prejudice. He then offered a commonsense approach to righting those wrongs.
My fear is that we will go about this backwards, beginning with the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in college admissions. Our next step toward a colorblind society should not be blindness to the harm racial categories have caused.
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