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The New Colored People: The Mixed-Race Movement in America.

Jon Michael Spencer. New York: New York UP, 1997. 220 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by

Katya Gibel Azoulay Grinnell College

The New Colored People: The Mixed Race Movement in America is a political, often speculative, critique of "multiracialists" and their demand for official recognition as a separate racial category. Jon Michael Spencer carefully maps out the logic of the multiracialists, candidly discarding biases when finding validity in some of their arguments. Justifiably, his attention is on the negative implications of the multiracialist movement for Black America. Unfortunately, the comparison with Coloured people in South Africa is not so illuminating as scholars might hope.

Broad-based petitions to increase available racial classifications highlight the legacy of nineteenth-century theories of racial typologies. White obsession with miscegenation intensified with the rise of social Darwinism as scientists legitimized popular misbeliefs about blood and heredity. Spencer's early concession, however minimalist, that "race has some relationship to biological make-up" is excessive. Asking rhetorically whether mixed-race people exist, Spencer answers "Yes - not so much because they can be seen (as of yet) but because they can be defined." This serves as a departure point for providing an overview of the multiracial movement from the late 1970s.

It is not incidental that both spokespeople of and media attention to the census movement have focused primarily on black/white racial identities, Tiger Woods notwithstanding. In 1967 the Supreme Court overruled state laws prohibiting interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia). In the intervening years, interracial marriages reportedly have more than doubled. The problem with statistics and discussions of "intermarriage" is that traditionally these have referred almost exclusively to unions between whites and those designated "not white." 1993 estimates suggested that twenty percent of these marriages were between Blacks and whites; read differently, approximately eighty percent of interracial marriages are not between Blacks and whites. In this context, for African Americans the multiracial movement - however infuriating - may be less threatening than Spencer speculates.

The goal of organizations like the American Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans (AMEA), headed by Carlos Fernandez ("half Mexican and half white"), and Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally), whose founder and executive director Susan Graham is the white (Jewish) wife of a black television anchorman, is to oblige public recognition of mixed-race people. In the sixties, appropriation of race labels functioned as an explicit strategy for mobilization and political activities. In the nineties, a politics of self-definition has emerged as part of a public conversation about identities.

Spencer admits a shift in his opinion about the motives of many of the multiracialists. He accepts as valid their goals for an eradication of the fear of miscegenation and a recognition of the complexity of multiple heritage by transcending racial boundaries, and he acknowledges that the movement is not necessarily propelled by the desire for a disassociation from black identities. Spencer remains suspicious of people like Susan Graham who want the government to define as multiracial one "whose parents have origins in two or more of the above [existent] racial and ethnic categories." Such a narrow and limited definition negates the significant reality that most African Americans - particularly light-skinned blacks - are "multiracial."

Beginning with the U.S. Census of 1850, the category "Mulatto" appeared (quadroons and octoroons were temporarily added in the 1890 Census). These intermediary categories were primarily based on appearance and common knowledge. Census-takers were instructed to mark the color of "Free Colored Persons," and Mulattoes were not limited to persons of white and black biological parents, as Susan Graham demands. In this context, Spencer wisely interrogates the logic, motives, and interests of the "mixed-race movement."

Spencer provides a brief background of Statistical Directive No. 15, which standardizes racial and ethnic classifications that facilitate a uniform reading of data used to track demographic shifts and develop public policies. The link between distribution of government resources and demarcating recipients is a political issue: Critical are the criteria for how groups are defined, those who are officially recognized as members of these groups, and, thus, the groups' size.

Spencer gives voice to some of the people who chafe under the limited scope of current monoracial classifications and anticipates the averse political effect this may have on governmental policies toward African Americans. He quotes biracial sociologist Reginald Daniel, who recommends that "we must devise a means of statistically enumerating individuals who identify themselves as multiracial in a manner that does not negatively affect the measuring of African American demographics, potentially undermining already besieged policies designed to redress the continuing effects of past racial inequities."

Unfortunately, Spencer's comparative use of South Africa is not well established. Historically the status of "mixed-race" people has presented an administrative and political problem for racial oligarchies, but the situations of South Africa and the United States differ significantly. Keeping in mind that Afrikaners fine-tuned segregation/st policies of their British predecessors, a careful reading of the sophisticated vocabulary of apartheid reveals pronounced discomfort in relying on biology and genetics in differentiating population groups. The minimal interest in "mathematizing" ancestral heritage reflected an expedient means of preserving the fragile alliance between white Afrikaners and Anglos on the basis of white supremacy, while simultaneously accentuating ethnicity and language under the guise of preserving cultural groups (i.e., to protect Afrikaner hegemony).

After the 1976 Soweto uprisings, many (classified) Coloured South Africans aligned politically with Black Africans (who were classified into separate "national" groups by language, thus legitimizing territorial apartheid or the policy of Separate Homelands). Black came to signify a named political identity for Coloureds, Africans, and Asians, particularly youth activists. Spencer accurately argues that, while Black Americans "may be caught between devotion to white cultural forms and black cultural substance," nevertheless they "are not racially marginal like the coloured people" in South Africa, and yet he underestimates the profound significance of this observation. The racial binary which characterizes the U.S. is distinct, and in terms of culture - a very unstable concept - black, brown, beige, and white Negroes are very American. American culture has been shaped and colored by this diversity of people of African descent.

Spencer provides little new ground for Black Americans. The contradictions in the language of race may prompt white Euro-Americans to reconsider their own articulation of ancestral heritage under the overburdened label "white." In the final analysis, the mixed-race movement is about interrogating and naming subjective personal identities. Spencer appropriately reminds us to address the more substantive issue of finding structural solutions to the legacy of racial discrimination against people of African descent who have white and other ancestry.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Azoulay, Katya Gibel
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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