Saturday, March 28, 2009

Colour Theory

This is a topic that, unlike user-pay heathcare, I know in advance is controversial, so please note that I'm not telling anyone you're counting your population wrong, or that any colour of person should count more or less than any other. I'm just documenting what surprises me, and admitting the misconceptions of this one anonymous aviatrix. We touched on this earlier in a discussion in another post's comments, I believe.

I'm in a town of approximately ten thousand people. I looked it up on Wikipedia to see what people do here, what the industries are, or if there is any local history I should know about. There isn't much, but the article says the local population is within a few percentage points of fifty percent black and fifty percent white. And it says that only 1.5% of the population is composed of two or more races.

Wait, what? That's 150 people of mixed race in the whole town, a stunningly low rate of interracial mixing in a place where people of the two races clearly work and go to school together. It stretches credibility. This was once a cotton-growing, slave-owning area, so there have been black and white people living close together here for a couple of hundred years. Let's say that seven generations ago, when the slaves were freed, the population contained only pure white and pure black people, and that just one couple ever dared to breed outside their race. Assuming that two of their kids lived to produce kids, and so on for each generation, a single interracial couple in 1860 would produce the progeny to match the census claim, with no other interracial children being born or coming to the town.

I know for sure that there were interracial couples as far back as the 1860s. There was a speaker at the museum whose great-great-something-great-grandfather was a white slave owner and whose great-great-something-great grandmother was a black slave. I don't believe there was only one such ancestor in this town. Not to be too indelicate, but rape and drunken accident alone would bring the total higher than that. The possibilities, I concluded, were:

  • a) Wikipedia is in error
  • b) Almost everyone of mixed race leaves or does not have children
  • c) The vast majority of people of mixed race either lie on the census or do not know about their ancestry

Option (a) is no fun, so I'll assume that the answer is a combination of (b) and (c), which implies that being of mixed heritage carries such an extreme stigma here that you are socially ostracized or worse unless you can hide the admixture and claim to be descended from solely one race or the other.

While I was hypothesizing on the social hierarchy that would make it less acceptable to be partly descended from the dominant race than not at all, someone laughed at me and swept it all aside. In the United States, he explained, if you have enough African ancestry for it to be visible in your features, you are legally black. You can even be legally black if people can't tell by looking at you. Mixed race, he said, applies only to people who are, for example, part Pacific islander and part Caucasian, or maybe part Cherokee and part black. But if your mom is white and your dad is black, or vice versa, you're black.

I'd heard of the "one drop rule" but I thought it was historical, not a current definition. There does need to be a definition here, because in the US there are still some affirmative action opportunities for blacks, such as scholarships or quotas. For comparison, in Canada there are financial benefits to being a status Indian, so there are rules about who gets status, i.e. 1) the child of any two status Indians retains Indian status, and 2) the child of one status Indian and one non-status person also gets a status card, but only if the status parent did not get his or her card according to part two of the rule. It's called the second generation cutoff.

The probable result of the Canadian rule is that after a number of generations there won't be anyone left who is a status Indian. First nations folk aren't particularly racist in my experience, so if they are living in an area where people of other races are present, which is just about everywhere now, there is a chance they'll have children with someone who doesn't have a status card. But the result of the American rule is almost the opposite: with continued intermixing of the great American melting pot, eventually almost everyone will be able to trace some ancestry to Africa. And no one will be bothered by it.

Modern science tells me that I am ultimately of African descent, but, as far as I know, all my African ancestors walked out of that continent before recorded history, and their descendants trekked further north into Europe before settling down to breed my documented ancestors.


mattflaschen said...

"Wikipedia is in error"

If you want to verify this, almost all of Wikipedia's demographics are from the U.S. Census. To see for yourself to got American FactFinder ( and look up the town yourself. For instance, check out the stats for Atlanta

"Almost everyone of mixed race leaves or does not have children"

It may indeed the case that a substantial number left (possibly replaced with other mixed race people from elsewhere, who can more easily lie about their racial background) due to being ostracized.

"The vast majority of people of mixed race either lie on the census or do not know about their ancestry"

I think this is the largest factor, and I would say the latter subfactor is much bigger.

All in all though, I think this is a less controversial topic than how to spell color.

david said...

A little over 20 years ago, I was filling in an application for a U.S. graduate scholarship (Mellon Fellowship, I think) when I hit a question asking me to identify my race.


For me, as for most Canadians (at least in the mid-1980s), that was an intensely personal and rude question -- outside, perhaps, of a census, nobody *ever* asked us about race, *ever*. I understand that things were and are different in the U.S.

They also asked if I was a Vietnam vet.

Ward said...

>>> The probable result of the Canadian rule is that after a number of generations there won't be anyone left who is a status Indian. First nations folk aren't particularly racist in my experience, so if they are living in an area where people of other races are present, which is just about everywhere now, there is a chance they'll have children with someone who doesn't have a status card.

I'm only familiar with the natives around here (Vancouver) and only directly know about some of the ones living in North Van. But you're ignoring all the natives that live on reserves or near them. There are lots in North Van, and they mostly marry other natives. _And_ have a lot of kids. We know one family fairly well, a big extended clan, and all the married couples had big families - 3, 4, 5 kids. One girl was only about 22 and already had 4 kids and wanted to get her tubes tied. I don't know whether the population of status indians is stable, but I'd bet that it is in North Van.

Ward said...

And in Vancouer, of course, the predominant mixing of races is Chinese and Canadian.

Scoon said...

In Australia, quite a lot of government forms for benefits etc have a question to allow people to self-identify as Aboriginal or Torres-Strait Islanders, however it is always very clearly marked that this question is voluntary.

Within the community, being identified as an Aboriginal is again largely up whether you identify yourself as such, however the government does, like the US, require a definition as we also have specific scholarships and benefits etc.

Doing a quick internet search I came up with this interesting report from the Parliamentary Library about the methods and evolution of the legal definitions around being an Aboriginie.

Interestingly enough, two of the three criteria for being such relate to whether a person identifies themselves as one, and if other members of the Aboriginal community identify them as one as well. Which leads in to the fascinating story of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who changed her name in order to strengthen her Aboriginal identity.

Astroprof said...

In the US, we often fill out forms with multiple choice questions permitting only a single answer. When reporting race, people are often supposed to "pick one" from a list. The last census allowed people to pick more than one, but you had to read the instructions carefully to realize that you had that option. Years of practice filling out forms that required picking only one race likely influenced how people responded to the question. Since all racial data of this sort is self reported, then the data reported is subject to this sort of sampling error.

A further hypothesis would be that people may feel that it is in their best interests to claim one race as dominant. For college students, there are scholarship opportunities for minorities. These are available to minority races, but not to mixed race unless the applicant claims to be predominantly minority. So, that means that if one parent is white and the other black, a person may wish to claim themselves as black in order to secure their role as a minority in the eyes of others.

As a note, this extends into politics as well. Even our own president is mixed race (one white parent and one black parent), but is generally regarded as black.

Linn said...

As a contrast, this widely accepted mostly north-american concept of human "race" just rings grotesque in my ears. It makes me think of dogs or horses. "Race", indeed. In Sweden we don't keep official track of people's "race" or skin colour, that's just absurd. In fact the very word "race" ("ras" in Swedish) is utterly politically incorrect and outdated. I get physically uncomfortable whenever north americans bring up the word and I was STUNNED the first time I went to America and had to state my "race".

Unfortunately, this doesn't mean Scandinavia is racist-free or anything, but I think disuse of the word "race" is a little bit along the way to getting there.

dpierce said...

In my experience, people in the US only describe or report themselves as being "mixed race" when all of the following conditions are met ...

1) Their parents must be of clearly different races. Mixing at the grandparent level and beyond doesn't count. (Although it's fashionable to tell the world that you're "1/8th Cherokee". Native heritage is deemed "cool".)

2) The mixing must be socially acceptible in your sub-culture. This is a gross generalization, but outside of metro areas, black-white mixing is stigmatized. On the other hand, white-Asian mixing can be flaunted. White-hispanic mixing is typically benign.

It's important to note that the difference between races also sometimes carries strong differences in culture. And those cultural differences self-reinforce across generations. In many small towns, blacks and whites might as well live on different planets. Move to a big city, and people start to identify themselves less with their race, and join cultural circles that bridge races.

The strong military culture in the US has created a lot of inter-mixing. Americans have brought back countless "foreign brides" from overseas, and military culture is in general more color-blind than the United States at large. The military service would be an example of a culture that supercedes the culture of your race.

Anonymous said...

Here in the UK there's no one-drop rule, and if you look like a white person you are one. If you don't, you still might be: how many people care whether an Albanian counts as white or not?

Colour is yesterday's issue. If you're black and you go around saying East Europeans shouldn't be allowed to come here, that's today's issue and you're still a bigot.

N6349C said...

Until the last census in 2000, I don't think it was even an option to self identify as "mixed race". The majority of US blacks have at least some white blood due to the frequent practice among slave holders and their hired slave masters of raping their female slave to breed more slaves (I struggled with the right word, but it was surely "rape" as consent didn't enter in). Look at Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (his slave and mother of most of his children). Come to that, even as white anglo-saxon of almost pure Viking heritage, my ancestors still came from Africa....

In 2010 I will self identify as mixed-race, even though that mixing seems to have last been several hundred thousand years ago.

chephy said...

Case in point: Obama. He is referred to as "black" by everyone, despite being half-black and half-white.