Obama’s Election and the Double Standard
PublicFriendsFriends except AcquaintancesOnly MeCustomClose Friendsgifts1See all lists…friendsBrooklyn, New York AreaAcquaintancesGo Back
PublicFriendsFriends except AcquaintancesOnly MeCustomClose Friendsgifts1See all lists…friendsBrooklyn, New York AreaAcquaintancesGo Back
PublicFriendsFriends except AcquaintancesOnly MeCustomClose Friendsgifts1See all lists…friendsBrooklyn, New York AreaAcquaintancesGo Back
Where Are Louisiana’s “Race Flagging” Files?
Almost every student of racial and ethnic stratification in the United States has heard of Mrs. Susie Guillory Phipps, and how the overwhelmingly white (slightly more than 1/32) Louisiana native unsuccessfully sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records to change the racial classification on her birth certificate from “colored” (now defined as “black”) to white (1982-83). In 1983, the State Supreme Court denied her motion and upheld the state’s right to classify and quantify racial identity. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case and thus left standing the lower court’s decision. These students are left with the false impression that Mrs. Phipps descended from privileged whiteness to degraded blackness and are never told or encouraged to address the following questions:
It is and was impossible for Louisiana’s government to keep African ancestry out of the white population. Only an idiot does not realize this. Mrs. Phipps was not ordered by the state to change the “white” designation on her other documents. She was still the mother of “white” children and had twice married “white” men as a “white” woman. Mrs. Phipps was only one of many thousands of mixed whites whose “tainted drop of Negro blood” successfully penetrated the charade of white racial purity. Moreover, Latinos and Arabs (who are nearly all part-black) and anyone whose ancestors did not have the misfortune to be born or die in Louisiana could happily declare themselves “white” in that state, with no telltale documentation for its racist government to trace. Why was Louisiana obsessed with forcing the “black” classification on its native residents while observing a gentlemen’s agreement to look the other way when it came to “Negro blood” they couldn’t document so easily, even if that “blood” was obvious (as is often the case with Latinos and Arabs)?
Why did the media never tell Americans that other Southern states, such as Virginia, were notorious for doing the same as Louisiana?
Why did the mostly sympathetic mainstream media trumpet the headline “Who is black?” and not “Who is White?” Why didn’t they point out that, in the name of white racial purity, Louisiana was harassing predominate whites with small amounts of “black” ancestry while the federal government was classifying as “white” Latinos and Arabs with buckets as opposed to drops of “black blood.” If biological purity is the objective, why did they accept this discrepancy? Why did they promote it?
Above all, they are never told that Mrs. Phipps is a hero for defying Louisiana’s version of the Nuremberg Laws. Thanks to her, Louisiana elites were at least forced to change their racist law stating that someone with more than 1/32 “black blood” could be legally defined as “black” (based on the racist assumption that miscegenation “improves” the “inferior” black race and degrades the “superior” white race) to the more vague but cowardly standard of a “preponderance of the evidence.” Speaking of the Nuremberg Laws, what would happen if a state government were to keep files on the genealogies of its citizens with Jewish ancestry, denying them classification as “whites” and assigning them to unwanted and inaccurate racial classifications? Wouldn’t the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) be on their asses and never let up? The answer is that such files exist in Louisiana, but because they were persecuting whites with “black blood” instead of Jewish blood, American liberals and conservatives say nothing against them.
In the very valuable but little publicized book, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana by Virginia R. Dominguez (Rutgers University Press, 1986), we learn for the first time about the secret files the state government of Louisiana kept on white families of mixed or suspected “black” ancestry:
In 1938, in Sunseri v, Cassagne (191 La. 209, 185 So. 1 – affirmed on rehearing in 1940, 195 La. 19, 196 So. 7) – the Louisiana Supreme Court proclaimed traceability of African ancestry to be the only requirement for definition of colored. In 1949, Naomi Drake assumed the post of supervisor and deputy registrar of vital statistics at the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Statistics, and she figures prominently in the cases filed against the bureau through the mid-1960s.
Armed with the traceability criterion established by the court in 1938, she followed the practice of race-flagging, pulling out a birth certificate that lists a baby as white but bears a name common to blacks. Such birth certificates are checked against a “race list” maintained by the Vital Records Office. If the name appears on the “race list,” then a further study of genealogical records maintained by the Vital Records Office is conducted (a description given to the New Orleans States Item, June 5-16, 1978, by a Dr. Doris Thompson who had been assistant secretary of the State Department of Health and Human Resources, of which the Bureau is a part). pp. 37-38
If the bureau determined through study of its genealogical records that the person in question had any African ancestors, the applicant was then informed that a certificate would be issued only if it declared the person to be colored. If the applicant refused to accept such a certificate, the bureau in turn refused to issue a certificate. There is evidence that between 1960 and 1965 a minimum of 4,700 applications for certificated copies of birth certificates and a minimum of 1,100 applications for death certificates were held in abeyance by the bureau under the supervision of Naomi Drake (188 So. 2nd 94)…
Individuals petitioned the courts to force the bureau to change the racial labels that appeared on the birth or death certificates of members of their families. They presented evidence that purported to prove that these people were white despite the imputations of bureau genealogists. In each case, the bureau questioned the authenticity of much of the evidence adduced, or the nature of the evidence introduced during the proceedings. Plaintiff’s job was to dispute the authenticity of the document(s), prove that (s)he was the child of a different marriage or of a sexual union resulting from a parent’s remarriage or concubinage, or dispute the meaning of the specific social label that in the eyes of the bureau implied Negro ancestry. p. 44
Why aren’t these victims of Louisiana’s racist “purity” laws as well known as the victims of the Nuremberg Laws? Moreover, why was this practice continued long after both the federal government (including the U.S. Supreme Court, which had refused to hear Mrs. Phipps’ case) and Louisiana’s state government had officially overturned the “Jim Crow” racial segregation laws and pledged themselves to promoting a society of racial equality?
The fact is, however, that the practice of race-flagging and withholding certificates continued long after Naomi Drake’s departure from her post. We have no way of estimating the number of applications for birth or death certificates withheld since the mid-sixties (this information is now considered confidential and is carefully guarded by clerks and bureaucrats), but other indices are telling. Twelve mandamus proceedings against the bureau have been initiated since Drake’s official departure. Also on May 26, 1977, Wayne Parker, at the time registrar of vital statistics, admitted to me in an interview that in 1977 the bureau employed two full-time clerk investigators to handle only cases concerned with racial designation, and that the bureau spent some six thousand man-hours in 1976 exclusively on race cases. Parker estimated that between sixty and a hundred surnames were regularly flagged by the bureau and checked in a special file room against fairly extensive genealogies kept by the bureau on the many branches of these families. Thompson (cf. New Orleans States Item, June 5-16, 1978) estimated that 250 names of “white” families with partially black ancestry were kept at the bureau. p. 49
It should be pointed out that one does not actually have to have any African ancestry in order to be a victim of “race flagging.” Few Americans know, for example, that words such as “colored” or “mulatto” were often used as synonyms for non-white and often included people with no African ancestry at all:
…Especially problematic is the use of the term mulatto. As the Louisiana Court of Appeals acknowledged in rendering its judgment…U.S. censuses did not provide many alternatives for racial identification. This meant that the term mulatto was often applied loosely. The late nineteenth century census records allowed only five options: white, black, mulatto, Chinese, or Indian…Limited lexical options meant that the term mulatto was used to denote anyone who did not appear all white or all black. p. 49
Again, why has the American Civil Liberties and other organizations supposedly concerned with privacy and civil liberties shown no interest whatsoever in demanding that Louisiana reveal the location of these files, explain why they are keeping them and how they are used. How are Louisiana genealogical files any more legitimate than the FBI’s COINTELPRO files on political dissidents? I would say that the Louisiana “race flagging” files are even less legitimate, since the only “crime” its victims were suspected of was having the wrong ancestors.
I strongly suspect that the strange silence of the ACLU and other supposed defenders of liberty and rights has a lot to do with the fact that the American black intelligentsia is overwhelming in favor of promoting a “one drop” myth of blackness and eagerly engages in character assassination against mixed whites they accuse of “passing for who they really are.”
White Slavery, Maternal Descent, And The Politics Of Slavery
NOTE: W.A. Plecker, acting as Virginia’s first Registrar of Vital
Statistics, was determined to “mark” all Melungeons as not-white. Here is
one of many articles and essays that he wrote and published on behalf of the
American eugenics movement, a movement with haunting similarities to
Hitler’s genocide against European Jews and Gypsies. The views expressed
below are those of W.A. Plecker and his racist colleagues; they are
presented here to illustrate the hostility and vigor he showed in
persecuting mixed-ancestry Americans. An excellent discussion of Plecker’s
dubious “legacy” can be found in Pocahontas’People by Helen Rountree.
VIRGINIA’S ATTEMPT TO ADJUST THE COLOR PROBLEM*
W. A. Plecker, M.D., FELLOW A.P.H.A.
State Registrar of Vital Statistics, Richmond, Virginia
* Read at the joint session of the Public Health Administration and Vital
Statistics Section of the American Public Health Association at the
Fifty-third Annual Meeting at Detroit Michigan, October 23, 1924. This copy
from The American Journal of Public Health, 1925.
When two races live together there is but one possible outcome, and that is
*the amalgamation of the races. The result of this will be the elimination of
the higher type, the one on which progress depends. In the mixture the lower
race loses its native good qualities which may be utilized and developed in
the presence of a dominant race.
The mongrels are superior in mental power to the lower race. They are more
cunning and more capable, but they lack the creative power of the higher
race, and cannot sustain a lasting civilization that will rank with the best
of the world.
History affords many examples. Egypt in the day of her greatness was white.
But the white Pharaohs began to extend their dominion south into the negro
land, and to bring back multitudes of captives for laborers and soldiers,
special mention being made also in their records that women in large numbers
were included. Interbreeding with these negroes began and continued through
many centuries until the country became largely negroid.
The climax was finally reached when one of the Pharaohs took to himself a
negro wife and his mulatto son Taharka succeeding to the throne. The color
line had vanished and with it Egypt’s greatness. Assyrian invaders met with
no effective resistance. From that day to this Egypt has been a mongrel
nation, incapable of initiative, and now dependent upon foreign protection
India affords a parallel example. Four thousand years ago the invasion of
India by Aryans occurred. These came into contact with a mixed population of
white-yellow- black composition. The conquerors attempted to prevent their
own amalgamation with the natives by establishing a rigorous caste system,
which was not like the present one based upon occupation, but upon color.
This system failed, and though caste is still in force in India the reason
for it no longer exists.
Modern South Africa is a melancholy example of what may occur when the
intermixture which inevitably results is hastened by fanatical religious
teaching and misguided legal interference from the mother country. Major E.
S. Cox, who spent years in that region and in other countries studying race
conditions, in his book “White America,” (White America Society, Richmond,
VA) gives a graphic account of the struggle made by the determined colonists
against the imposition. They lost out, and the population of Cape Colony
province is today largely mixed, showing how quickly this condition results
when the natural process is speeded up by negrophilism and the law.
Let us return now to our own country, and, as we are considering Virginia,
to that state in particular.
There are about twelve million negroes; of various degrees of admixture in
the Union today. Of the population of Virginia, nearly one-third is classed
as negro, but many of these people are negroid, some being near-white, some
having actually succeeded in getting across into the white class.
The mixed negroes are nearly all the result of illegitimate intercourse.
The well known moral laxity resulting from close contact of a civilized with
a primitive race makes illegitimate intermixture an easy matter. This is
illustrated by the fact that the illegitimate birth-rate of Virginia negroes
is thirty-two times that of Rhode Island, while the District of Columbia
rate is thirty-seven times, and that of Maryland forty-six times.
In the days when slavery was still a blight upon our state, it was quite a
common occurrence for white men to father children born to the negro
servants. The history, as related to me, of at least one colony of people
known as “Issue” or “Free Issue,” now spread over several counties, is that
they originated in part in that manner.
It was considered undesirable to retain these mulattoes on the place,
bearing the family name, and a number from one county were given their
freedom and colonized in a distant county. These intermarried amongst
themselves and with some people of Indian- negro-white descent, and received
an additional infusion of white blood, either illegitimately or by actual
marriage with low-grade whites.
At present these people are claiming to be white, or Indian, and under the
former law when a person with one-sixteenth negro blood could be declared
white, they were able in some instances to establish their claim legally.
These mixed breeds are not classed as white by the people of the community,
and they will not associate with the genuine negroes. Five hundred or more
in number they thus constitute a class of their own, and a serious problem
in that county and others to which they migrate. If refused classification
as white they claim to be Indian, and as such have been accepted in the
birth reports to avoid listing them as white.
In a recent test case, the court upon evidence submitted from our birth
records reaching back to 1853, and from the testimony of old residents,
decided that these people under the new “Racial Integrity” law cannot be
permitted to intermarry with whites.
Another large colony which extends over into North Carolina probably has a
similar origin. We have also compromised with these, and accept certificates
as Indians, which indicates to us that they are not white.
In another county are about forty descendants of an illegitimate mating of
a negro man and white woman four generations back. All of these have
formerly succeeded in being classed as white. though under the new law our
office has supplied to the clerks who issue marriage licenses, school
authorities, commonwealth’s attorneys, physicians and local registrars, a
complete family tree, with the injunction to class them as colored.
Similar conditions exist in other localities, though not yet so far
advanced. A case was recently discovered where a white man married a mulatto
woman (probably in another state), and now has nine children, four of them
being reported to our office as white. Investigation revealed the fact that
two other women bearing the same family name had mated with white men and
were raising large families of children.
Another man whose birth was reported in 1878, both parents being registered
as colored, had the court declare him a white man under the one-sixteenth
law; married a white woman, and has four children reported as white by
The question of their color was referred to our office by the school
authorities when the facts were discovered, and the white school advised
under the new law not to receive them, though they engaged a lawyer to
These examples illustrate the fact that even in Virginia where the
questions of race and birth receive as much attention as anywhere in the
country, the process of amalgamation is nevertheless going on, and in some
localities is well advanced. Complete ruin can probably be held off for
several centuries longer, but we have no reason to hope that we shall prove
the one and only example in the history of the world of two races living
together without amalgamation.
In Mexico, much of South America and the West Indies the process is
practically complete, the mixture being Spanish or Portuguese, Indian and
negro. Some portions of southern Europe have undergone a similar admixture.
Immigrants from these lands to this country, while really negroid, are
classed as white.
Several South American countries, or portions of them, still retain a
considerable degree of race purity, which is being maintained by European
The immigration law recently passed by our Congress will stop the legal
admission of Mongolians and will check much of the negroid immigration from
elsewhere in the old world, but it will not prevent negro and negroid
immigration from other parts of the western hemisphere. It is estimated that
there are today from 500,000 to 750,000 Mexicans in the state of Texas
alone, and that Mexicans compose more than half of the population of .
But it is possible to stop the legal intermixture, and that Virginia has
attempted to do in the above mentioned law, which defines a white person as
one with “no trace whatsoever of blood other than Caucasian,” and makes it a
felony punishable by confinement for one year in the penitentiary to make a
willfully false statement as to color.
Clerks are not permitted to grant licenses for white persons to marry those
with any trace of colored blood. It is needless to call attention to the sad
plight of a white person who is thus imposed upon or of a white woman who
under such circumstances would give birth to a child of marked negro
characteristics, as will occur from time to time under Mendel’s law.
The new law places upon the office of the Bureau of Vital Statistics much
additional work, but we believe it will be a strong factor in preventing the
intermarriage of the races and in preventing persons of negro descent from
passing themselves off as white.
We are greatly encouraged by the interest and cooperation of physicians,
local registrars, clerks, school authorities, the general public, and even
the midwives. Our success during the first four months of the enforcement of
this law, in securing more accurate statements as to color on our birth
certificates and in correcting previously existing errors is far beyond our
The states which now permit free intermarriage of the races, as listed in
“American Marriage Laws”, (Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 1919) are:
Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan,
Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York,
Ohio, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and
Wyoming. The most urgent need is the speedy adoption by these states and the
District of Columbia of a law forbidding the intermarriage of the white and
The white race in this land is the foundation upon which rests its
civilization, and is responsible for the leading position which we occupy
amongst the nations of the world. Is it not therefore just and right that
this race decide for itself what its composition shall be, and attempt, as
Virginia has, to maintain its purity?
This is working no hardship and no injustice upon the other races; for the
same effort tends at the same time to maintain the purity of their races as
That the mongrel races are liable to perpetuate the undesirable qualities
of both their constituent stocks is abundantly demonstrated by a study of
the larger and older of the mongrel groups in Virginia, as well as upon a
study on a far larger scale in various other parts of the world.
The colored races therefore should be equally zealous in preventing both
the legal and illegal admixture of the races. We are glad to say that the
true negro of Virginia is beginning to appreciate this point and is agreeing
to the wisdom of this movement. Our chief trouble is with some of the
near-whites who desire to change from the colored to the white class.
Virginia Health Bulletin, November 1925
Vol. XVII, Extra No. 12
Shall America Remain White? *
By W. A. Plecker, M. D.
From the Booklet:
THE NEW FAMILY AND RACE IMPROVEMENT
Fifth of NEW FAMILY SERIES
Bureau of Vital Statistics
State Board of Health
* Read before Section on Public Health, Southern Medical Association,
Eighteenth Annual Meeting,
New Orleans, La., Nov. 24-17, 1924.
The negro as a laborer is valuable, and if it were possible to preserve the
race in purity with him in our midst, he would be a great asset. Because
this cannot be done, and because the mixed breeds are a menace and not an
asset,we have them as the greatest problem and most destructive force which
confronts the white race and American civilization.
Both remote and recent history of many nations shows that in none of them
have white and colored races lived together without ultimate amalgamation,
and without the final deterioration or complete destruction of the white or
We behold with awe the evidences which we now find in Egypt of the
wonderful civilization of the past, when that country was white. The
Pharaohs extended their conquest south and brought back as captives large
numbers of negro men and women. Intermixture of the races began and
progressed to such a point that one of the Pharaohs took as wife a negro
woman whose son succeeded to the throne. This was about the time when
Jeremiah the Prophet
warned Israel to break with Egypt and affiliate with Babylon. His warning
was disregarded, Egypt was as a broken staff upon which to lean. The fall of
Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity resulted.
Egypt, then a mongrel nation, soon went down before Assyria and is today a
feeble and helpless nation of brown-skinned people devoid of initiative and
dependent upon white leadership and protection.
Four thousand years ago, India was ruled by Aryan conquerors, who
instituted an elaborate caste system to prevent intermixture of the races.
This system failed and the few survivors who might be called white are now
looked upon as curiosities.
South America and Mexico were subdued by Spanish and Portuguese
adventurers, who began at once to raise up a mixed breed.
Indians would not make docile slaves, and negroes in large numbers were
Much of South America and Mexico is today inhabited by a mongrel race of
white-black-red mixture, one of the most undesirable racial intermixtures
known, as I can testify from my own observation of similar groups in Virginia.
Professor A. E. Jenks, of the University of Minnesota, and his assistant,
made a house-to-house study of families the result of mixed marriages, the
marriage records not even showing the color of the man and woman. These
people have in Minneapolis an organization known as the Manassas Society,
membership in which is dependent upon the intermarriage of a negro man and
white woman. Already 200 such families are included in this society, with
Similar conditions exist in many parts of the North and West. That
condition alone, if unchecked, will in a few centuries legally mongrelize
that portion of our country.
If we turn our eyes southward, we find a different but even more serious
None of our Southern States permits the intermarriage of whites and pure
blacks, but all except Virginia and perhaps two others allow the
intermarriage of whites with those of one-sixteenth or one-eighth negro blood.
This serious situation calls for the speedy enactment of laws based upon
that of Virginia, which defines a white person as one with no trace
whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian and forbids the intermarriage
of whites with those with the slightest trace of negro blood.
Clerks who issue marriage licenses are required to assure themselves that
both parties are white, according to the new definition, when that fact is
claimed and are instructed to withhold the license, when in doubt, until
satisfactory proof is submitted to them.
The enforcement of the law naturally falls upon the Bureau of Vital
Statistics, to which are reported the births, deaths, marriages and divorces
of the State, all of which require a statement as to color. Our office has
accepted this task and has undertaken seriously, as far as possible, to
secure from all sources the truth as to this point.
Circular letters have been sent to all clerks physicians, local registrars,
undertakers and midwives, with copies of the law, urging them to use all
possible care to furnish us with correct statements.
School authorities have been reached through their journal, and the public
is being instructed by newspaper articles and lectures.
Much interest has been aroused and many cases of mixture are being called
to our attention.
When this condition is found on the birth certificate if the mother has
other children, we refer back to previous births to the same parents and
make the certificates agree. We have thus caught a number of families in the
act of passing over from the colored to the white class, some of their
children being already recorded as white and some as colored.
Our custom is to notify the head of the family that this situation cannot
be allowed and that if one of his children is colored, they are all colored.
The case is different, however, when the process of intermixture has so far
advanced that communities of mixed breeds have been formed, particularly if
they have or claim to have some intermixture of Indian blood.
Virginia Health Bulletin, November 1925
Vol. XVII, Extra No. 12
Discussion (by other doctors)
From the booklet:
THE NEW FAMILY AND RACE IMPROVEMENT
Fifth of NEW FAMILY SERIES
Bureau of Vital Statistics
State Board of Health
Dr. A. T. McCormack, Louisville, Ky. – I had the opportunity of going to
Panama, where every race had contributed something, and the negroid
influence was predominant, and where degeneration of all races had been more
rapidly brought about by that element. I think it of extreme importance to
white civilization to prevent the contamination.
Dr. W. A. Evans, Chicago, Ill. –Dr. Plecker calls attention to the fact
that, independent of the strength or weakness of the strain, when strains
are crossed there is begotten a something which fails to have the
characteristics of either parent stock. That is well recognized in animal
The health officer, whether working in epidemiology or not, who does not
recognize racial hygiene and racial peculiarities, the advantages and
disadvantages of mixing these stocks, is failing in the responsibility that
rests upon his shoulders.
Dr.Geo. Dempsey, New Orleans, La. –
No mixture of Japanese, Chinese, negro, etc., has ever attained the high
pinnacle for which the white race is known.
Dr Carl F. Raver, Charleston, W. Va. — During slave days it no doubt was
advantageous, from a commercial standpoint, to produce as many offspring of
negro parentage as possible and many slave owners must have encouraged the
mixing of the races.
This produced the mulatto. Now it is this mulatto, or his offspring, that
is causing all the trouble. They do not wish to be classed as negroes and,
if light enough in color, try to pass as white and marry into white
families. Every possible means should be used to prevent this. The strongest
weapon is public opinion. Public opinion allowed the mulatto to become
started as an institution. It condoned the situation.
The Indian Escape Hatch
By William Javier Nelson
Although discussion of “racial” classifications among Latinos in the U.S. would seem to be out of the realm of the overall theme of whiteness, the concepts found in the sociology of social change provide another vantage point. Social change sociologists often point to conflict between two rival parties and show how that conflict can affect a third, seemingly unrelated one. Thus, the conflict between the United States and Mexico over territory in the Southwest resulted in large scale European settlement in that region — with significant consequences for the Native Americans already there.
The conflict between persons in the U.S. labeled as “black” and “white” has been well documented. It is my contention that the conflict between these two groups also affects a third group (Latinos) in the United States.
Whites have attempted to maintain an acceptable physical type by controlling the entry into their ranks of various people of color, such as Asians, but their overriding desire for exclusion has focused on the avoidance of sub-Saharan African (“black”) ancestry. Marvin Harris and Conrad Kottak have described the “hypodescent” rule, which has historically been applied to the offspring of Europeans and Africans in this country.(1) Under the hypodescent rule, any offspring between a parent of a higher caste (“white”) and a parent of a lower caste (“black”) is relegated to the social status of the lower caste parent. Thus an “interracial” marriage of a black and a white automatically produces a black.(2) Moreover, in most of the U.S., anyone suspected of having any African ancestry is liable to be labeled as black. Among other things, this practice has had the purpose of eliminating African ancestry from the white population.(3)
One rarely hears North American whites claiming African ancestry. However, many of them have admitted having American Indian ancestry without jeopardizing their membership in the “white race.” North Americans of note claiming Indian ancestry while self-identifying (and being classified by U.S. society) as white include Will Rogers, Cher, Dan Rather and James Garner. This reticence on the part of whites (who control most cultural, economic and political resources in this country) to embrace African ancestry is not lost on Latinos. The dynamics of discord and rejection which have been on-going between U.S. whites and blacks have put Latinos in a position where their African ancestry must be dealt with — and African ancestry has always been a part of the fabric of Latin American life.
Esteva-Fabregat’s excellent book on the race-mixing process, which began in Ibero-America over five hundred years ago, was careful to include Africans, as well as Indians and Spaniards.(4) Nor are Esteva-Fabregat’s impressions in any way novel. A variety of historians, sociologists and anthropologists, ranging from Pierre van den Berghe to Magnus Morner to Carl Degler to Charles Wagley have in the past chronicled the process of Latin American race mixing and the African contribution to it.(5) The heaviest concentration of African ancestry in Latin America has historically been in the coastal areas of South American and the Caribbean. Countries like Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, as well as the territory of Puerto Rico, have not only histories of African presence but visible vestiges of African presence in the physical appearance of many of the people.(6) Moreover, African presence was not limited to the aforementioned areas. Mexico also had a sizable African input. According to Aguirre Beltran, in 1810 there were almost as many Afro-mestizos as Indo-mestizos.(7) In “white” Argentina, Leslie Rout has detailed the large percentages of persons of African origin (who were later absorbed into the population of Indians, creoles and later European immigrants).(8) Clearly then, African ancestry exists among Latinos. It has, however, been minimized in mass U.S. culture. When one moves away from specialists like Aguirre Beltran and Esteva-Fabregat and into the realm of “popular scholarship” geared for mass consumption by a U.S. audience, African ancestry seems to fade from importance and the Indian genetic contribution (which is more acceptable to North Americans) is emphasized. According to Richard Schaefer, writing in a college survey text on race relations, “The Chicano people trace their ancestry back to the merging of Spanish settlers with the Native Americans of Central America.”(9)
The popular mass-oriented magazine Hispanic is careful to emphasize the Indian and Spanish antecedents of Latinos. When an occasional person appears who deviates from this ideal, the editors of Hispanic are quick to disclaim that the person is a “black Hispanic” (implying that other Hispanics have few, if any, African origins).
Ironically, Latinos provide one example in which the hypodescent rule does not operate in the U.S. Many Latinos, particularly from localities like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela have African ancestry but (because of the overall brown-skinned nature of the population of Latinos in general) this African ancestry does not necessarily make someone significantly deviate physically from another person who may be a brown-skinned descendant of Indians and Spaniards. Moreover, since the holders of this African ancestry are not appreciably cordoned off into a separate world, as are North American blacks, they are liable to act and feel like other Latinos.(10)
Esteva-Fabregat’s description of race-mixing in Latin America chronicled a process whereby African ancestry became interwoven in a complex matrix.(11) Aguirre Beltran’s analysis of African ancestry in Mexico is noteworthy not so much because of the extent of African ancestry depicted but the way in which that ancestry became woven (along with the Indian and the Spanish) into the fabric of the Mexican population.(12) An anonymous painting of colonial Mexico gives 16 different racial possibilities resulting from Indian, African and Spanish mixture. The majority of the 16 cells contained persons with African ancestry.(13) It is important to note at this point that the hair texture of a person with 33% African ancestry may be the same as a person with no African ancestry at all. One of my English-as-a-Second-Language students once told me that his grandmother was very dark with kinky hair –the student himself, a man with heavy, wavy hair, was indistinguishable from his fellow Mexican classmates (and, significantly, he was not rejected outright because of that ancestry).
When a man from the Dominican Republic (for whom African ancestry has possible cultural significance but little political significance) enters the U.S., a decision must be made concerning his African ancestry. If his hair is straight, he has an excellent chance at passing off his dark complexion as that of “Indian” (even though the Spaniards destroyed most of the Indian population seventy-five years after the Discovery). If his hair is kinky, his African ancestry, more apparent, will become a significant part of his life in this country. In both cases, the Latino is forced to “pick a side.” Not surprisingly, given the white track record on African ancestry, many Latinos ignobly negate a significant portion of their heritage.(14) At present (possibly because I am Latino), I tend to place the blame for this not on the Latino who is trying to cope with life in a new culture but on the white-dominated U.S. society which is bent on cordoning off blacks into their own, private world.
In many Latin American countries, African ancestry is far more interwoven (both culturally and genetically) in the fabric of everyday life. In the U.S., on the other hand, “black” and “white” terms are meant (as the names suggest) to be absolute, connoting total placement in one (but never both at the same time) of two conflict groups. I have not run across many mulatto North Americans confiding in me, “I’m really half white.” Nor have I encountered many North Americans labeled as white who have confessed to having African ancestry, although R.P. Stuckert has estimated that a sizable percentage of them do have it.(15) In the U.S., African ancestry is not treated simply as an indication of a point of origin — rather, it is something that converts the holder (of whatever percentage of African ancestry) into a person who is 100% black, and therefore 100% in a “genetically-defined” out-group. Latinos with African ancestry, highly cognizant of this dictum, will be so treated — unless they can use the Indian escape hatch.(16)
1. Marvin Harris, Patterns of Race in the Americas (New York: Walker, 1964). See also Conrad Kottak, Anthropology: the Exploration of Human Diversity (New York: Random House,1978), 50-60.
2. Ibid. See also William Javier Nelson, Racial Definition Handbook (Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company, 1982), 32-35. Also Nelson, “Racial Definition: Back-ground for Divergence,” Phylon 47, no. 4 (December, 1986): 318-326.
3. Nelson, Racial Definition Handbook, 32-35.
4. Claudio Esteva-Fabregat, Mestizaje in Ibero-America, translated by John Wheat (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995). See the earlier chapters with descriptions of the formation of mestizo (Indian/Spanish) sexual unions, mulatto (African/Spanish) unions and zambo (African/Indian) unions. According to Esteva-Fabregat, it was the absence of Spanish women (as opposed to a lower degree of inherent racism), which spurred the massive amounts of mixing in Ibero-America when compared with Anglo-America.
5. Magnus Morner, Race Mixture in the History of Latin America (Boston: Little Brown, 1967). Carl Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York: MacMillan, 1971). Pierre van den Berghe, Race and Racism: a Comparative Perspective (New York: Wiley, 1967). Charles Wagley, Race and Class in Rural Brazil (Paris: UNESCO, 1952).
6. Esteva-Fabregat, Mestizaje.
7. Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, La Poblacion Negra de Mexico, 1519-1810 (Mexico D.F.: Ediciones Fuente Cultural, 1946), 237.
8. Leslie B. Rout, Jr. The African Experience in Spanish America, 1502 to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
9. Richard T. Schaefer, Racial and Ethnic Groups, 5th edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 274. Even some excellent monographs fall prey to limiting their scope of Mexican ethnicity to Indian — even when they are talking about the poor and the powerless. See John A. Britton, Revolution and Ideology: Images of the Mexican Revolution in the United States (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1995).
10. Because of the color gradient, Latinos are less likely to experience the kinds of different realities based upon membership in the white or black groups, as is common in the U.S. See William Megenney, “The Black Puerto Rican: an Analysis of Racial Attitude,” Phylon 35, no. 1 (January 1974): 83-93. Because of exposure to the North American black/white dichotomy, many Puerto Ricans are succumbing to the practice of racial dichotomizing into “black” and “non-black” groups on the island before even getting to the U.S. mainland. See Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, Puerto Rican Americans, 2nd edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1987), 100, 105-106. I have purchased a recent packet of computer software describing Puerto Rico in which the population is divided into “black” (20%) and “white” (80%) groups.
11. Esteva-Fabregat, Mestizaje. In reading Esteva-Fabregat, one comes to see that part of the reason for this is the greater complexity and variations of encounters between and among groups, as compared to Anglo-America.
12. Aguirre Beltran, La Poblacion Negra. See also van den Berghe, Race and Racism, chapter on Mexico.
13. The painting depicts persons from various “racial” groups cohabiting with each other and the resulting offspring. The following “racial” designations are given, where African ancestry is present: Mulatto, Morisco, Chino, Salta Atras, Lobo, Gibaro, Albarozado, Canbujo, Sanbaigo, Calpamulato, Tente en el Aire, Noteentiendo, Torna Atras. I did computations of percentages of African, Spanish and Indian ancestry of all 16 categories and, for some of the categories, the percentages needed nine or ten decimal places. This painting only depicts 16 categories — a much higher number of combinations is possible.
14. During 22 years of interviewing experience with Latinos in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, the only ones who have admitted African ancestry to me have been those with kinky hair — and one light-skinned/straight-haired gentleman: Ramon “Chino” Casiano, who is a well-known percussionist. On the other hand, I have heard many references to Indian ancestry among Latinos in this area. Local Spanish teachers are highly prone to highlight this Indian background in their classes. I am a member of a local language teacher collaborative which meets monthly during the school year, and have been for a number of years. When I told a local Spanish teacher of the information on the African presence in Mexico compiled by Aguirre Beltran, she vehemently denied any such presence in Mexico.
15. R.P. Stuckert, “African Ancestry in the White Population,” Ohio Journal of Science 58 (1958): 155-160.
16. Many Latinos are not even satisfied with being of partial Indian origin, since even Indians are non-white: they want pure whiteness, much like North Americans. See Roberto Rodriguez, “Latinos Explore and Grapple with Black Identity,” Black Issues in Higher Education 7, no. 26 (February 23, 1995): 22-24.
Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children–and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.
Regardless of the legal criteria established for being a white person, it is a fact that many white people remained enslaved under the partus rule. A most telling observation is that of Mary Boykin Chesnut, a South ern aristocrat and wife of James Chesnut, Jr., U. S. Senator from South Carolina. An entry in her diary for March, 1861 reads, “Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children–and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.” Particularly noteworthy is her choice of the word “exactly.” Imagine how it must have been for plantation mistresses to see day in and day out white slave children who looked the same as their own white children. Worth noting here is that when Ben Ames Williams edited Chesnut’s diary for publication in 1905, he changed the word “exactly” to the word “partly.”From the wording of the original quotation, one may infer that it was quite common in antebellum households to have white children and white slave children who all looked like each other.
Other accounts of white slaves were published during or after the Civil War. Reverend John H. Aughey lived in the South for eleven years and had both white and black congregations. He told of preaching to slaves, some with red hair and blue eyes, a third of whom were just as white as he was. Dr. Alexander Milton Ross attended a slave auction in New Orleans where many of the slaves were “much whiter” than the white people who were there. In Lexington, Kentucky, Reverend Calvin Fairbank described a woman who was going to be sold at a slave auction as “one of the most beautiful and exquisite young girls one could expect to find in freedom or slavery….being only one sixty-fourth African.” After the Union had won the Battle of New Bern, North Carolina in 1862, Major General Burnside assigned Vincent Coyler to be superintendent of the poor. Coyler expressed disbelief at the complexions he saw. “The light color of many of the refugees is a marked peculiarity of the colored people of Newbern. I have had men and women apply for work who were so white that I could not believe they had a particle of negro blood in their veins.”
The memoirs of Chesnut, Aughey, Ross, Fairbank, and Coyler were published during orafter the Civil War. Many other accounts were published all through the period before the Civil War in which travelers and visitors to the South made note of the white slaves they saw on plantations and at slave auctions. Their expectation, of course, was to see slaves who were black or brown. On seeing white slaves for the first time, they often expressed surprise at how white those slaves really were. All of the accounts which follow were readily available to antebellum readers in the North.
John Ferdinand Dalziel Smyth was an Englishman who visited America during the early 1770s and had his memoirs published in 1784. While in Maryland, he took notice of “female slaves, who are now become white by their mixture. There are at this time numbers of beautiful girls, many of them as fair as any living, who are absolutely slaves in every sense.” Another eighteenth-century traveler was Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville, a Frenchman who came to America in 1788. While visiting a school for Negro children in Philadelphia, he saw “an octoroon, whom it was impossible to tell from a white boy.”
Dr. Jesse Torrey mused on his interesting first experience with white slavery. His book, published in 1817, contains the following account: “While at a public house, in Fredericktown [Maryland], there came…a decently dressed white man, of quite a light complexion, in company with one who was totally black. After they went away, the landlord observed that the white man was a slave. I asked him, with some surprise, how that could be possible? To which he replied, that he was a descendant, by female ancestry, of an African slave. He also stated, that not far from Fredericktown, there was a slave estate, on which there were several white females of as fair and elegant appearance as white ladies in general, held in legal bondage as slaves.” Several years later, an English traveler in the South named Isaac Holmes spoke of the promiscuous sexual intercourse white men had with slave women which ultimately produced white slaves. Holmes made the observation but did not pass judgment. “To an Englishman, it may appear strange, that a white man, of any feeling, should be willing to become the father of slaves; but he does not look through American spectacles; for in the United States there are many, who, by education and association, are gentlemen, that are guilty of this shameful practice; and the consequence is, that in some instances there are slaves who are perfectly white.”
Captain Frederick Marryat was a British naval officer and novelist who traveled throughout the South in 1837 and 1838. His account at Louisville, Kentucky, is noteworthy. “I saw a girl, about twelve years old, carrying a child; and, aware that in a slave State the circumstance of white people hiring themselves out to service is almost unknown, I inquired of her if she were a slave. To my astonishment, she replied in the affirmative. She was as fair as snow, and it was impossible to detect any admixture of blood from her appearance.” In another experience with white slavery, Marryat came across an advertisement for a local runaway slave which read in part, “Said boy is in a manner white, would be passed by and taken for a white man. His hair is long and straight, like that of a white person.” Being a foreigner and not understanding the concept of a “one drop” mulatto, Marryat commented, “The expression of, ‘in a manner white,’ would imply that there was some shame felt in holding a white man in bondage.” The expression in the ad was a description, not a value judgment.
Reverend Francis Hawley of Connecticut resided in North and South Carolina for fourteen years. His thought-provoking account from 1839 offers this telling observation: “It is so common for the female slaves to have white children, that little or nothing is ever said about it. Very few inquiries are made as to who the father is.”
That same year, Lydia Maria Child wrote,
“A Missouri newspaper proves that a white man may, without a mistake, be adjudged a slave. “A case of a slave sueing for his freedom, was tried a few days since in Lincoln county, of which the following is a brief statement of particulars: A youth of about ten years of age sued for his freedom on the ground that he was a free white person…. Upon his trial before the jury, he was examined by the jury and two learned physicians, all of whom concurred in the opinion that very little, if any, trace of negro blood could be discovered by any of the external appearances. All the physiological marks of distinction, which characterize the African descent, had disappeared. His skin was fair, his hair soft, straight, fine and white, his eyes blue, but rather disposed to the hazel-nut color; nose prominent, the lips small, his head round and well formed, forehead high and prominent, ears large, the tibia of the leg straight, and feet hollow. Notwithstanding these evidences of his claims, he was proved to be the descendant of a mulatto woman, and that his progenitors on the mother’s side had been and still were slaves: consequently he was found to be a slave.”
The narrative of the fugitive slave William W. Brown was published in 1847. Brown related how slaves in Hannibal, Missouri were boarded on a vessel bound for the New Orleans slave market. One among them was “a beautiful girl, apparently about twenty years of age, perfectly white, with straight light hair and blue eyes. But it was not the whiteness of her skin that created such a sensation among those who gazed upon her–it was her almost unparalleled beauty. She had been on the boat but a short time, before the attention of all the passengers, including the ladies, had been called to her, and the common topic of conversation was about the beautiful slave-girl.”
Fredrika Bremer was a Swedish novelist and humanitarian who visited the United States from 1849 to 1851. During a trip to Georgia, she attended a slave market in Augusta and commented on a number of children she saw there. “Many of these children were fair mulattoes, and some of them very pretty. One young girl of twelve was so white, that I should have supposed her to belong to the white race; her features, too, were also those of the whites. The slave-keeper told us that the day before, another girl, still fairer and handsomer, had been sold for fifteen hundred dollars.” Elsewhere she observed “a pretty little white boy of about seven years of age sitting among some tall negro girls. The child had light hair, the most lovely light brown eyes, and cheeks as red as roses; he was, nevertheless, the child of a slave mother, and was to be sold as a slave. His price was three hundred and fifty dollars.” Also seen were “the so-called ‘fancy girls,’ for fancy purchasers. They were handsome fair mulattoes, some of them almost white girls.” Traveling the United States about the same time as Bremer was an Englishman named Edward Sullivan. As a foreign visitor in the South, Sullivan was uncomfortable with slavery not being based on color. “I have seen slaves, men and women, sold at New Orleans, who were very nearly as white as myself…. Although it is not actually worse to buy or sell a man or woman who is nearly white, than it is to sell one some shades darker, yet there is something in it more revolting to one’s feelings.”
Other accounts from the 1850s also tell of experiences at slave auctions. While in Richmond, an English barrister named Charles Richard Weld observed a woman and her two little children being offered for sale. The three were to be sold together. “She was a remarkably handsome mulatto,” Weld wrote, “and her children were nearly, if not fully, as white as the fairest Americans….but as no eloquence on the part of the auctioneer could raise them above 1100 dollars, the lot was withdrawn. I was informed the woman alone would have realised more than this amount, but there is a strong aversion against purchasing white children.” (This aversion was not universal as illustrated by the Bremer account above and others.) During his visit to New Orleans, Reverend Philo Tower attended a slave auction and observed a young woman who was “one of the most beautiful, I think, I ever saw, aged from sixteen to twenty. Though thinly and cheaply dressed, none could be insensible to her beauty. She was much whiter than many, nay, than most of the Anglo-Saxon ladies; of medium size, well developed, beautiful black hair, black and sparkling eyes that pierced wherever they darted….rudely drawing the covering from her neck and shoulders, [the auctioneer] exhibited a bust as plump and purely white as the snow-tinged image of Venus.” She was sold for two thousand dollars.
Charles Mackay, a Scottish journalist, visited a slave auction where he had the following memorable encounter:
“One man–who to my inexperienced eyes seemed as white as myself, and whom I at once put down in my own mind as an Irishman, of the purest quality of the county of Cork–got up from his seat as I passed, and asked me to buy him.”
“I am a good gardener, your honour,” said he, with an unmistakable brogue. “I am also a bit of a carpenter, and can look after the horses, and do any sort of odd job about the house.”
“But you are joking,” said I; “you are an Irishman?”
“My father was an Irishman,” he said. At this moment the slave-dealer and owner of the depot came up. “Is there not a mistake here?” I inquired. “This is a white man.” “His mother was a nigger,” he replied. “We have sometimes much whiter men for sale than he is. Look at his hair and lips. There is no mistake about him.”
Mackay was a Scotsman who had experienced a virtually white, brogue-speaking Irishman as a slave. Feeling disgusted, he related that he “longed to get into the open air to breathe the purer atmosphere.” A similar reaction to that of Mackay was had by a Mr. C. (identified only by this first initial) who visited a slave auction in Georgia with his friend, New England physician Charles G. Parsons. The following is their particularly eloquent and telling account:
“We saw a handbill in the bar-room in which forty-four female slaves were advertised for sale. Stepping out into the street, we found those girls sitting on the sidewalks. At the farther end of the row was a very beautiful girl, apparently perfectly white, and neatly dressed. The moment Mr. C. looked at her, he exclaimed, ‘What do you think that white girl is sitting there with those negroes for?’ “
“I presume she is a slave, sir,” said I.
“That can’t be!” replied Mr. C.,– “just look at her! Why I never saw a prettier girl in my life.”
Now Mr. C. had heard that likely quadroons are held as slaves and sold in the market; but he had never believed that a young lady, so entirely American, so elegant in form and feature, so intellectual in appearance, with pure blue eyes, and the perfect red and white Caucasian complexion, was in the same degraded condition as the African girl….he was unprepared to believe it, when I said to him, “she is a slave, sir!”…Still incredulous, Mr. C. stepped up to the drover and asked, “Is that white girl a slave, sir?”
“That’s not a white girl; she is a nigger, sir,” replied the drover…
“What do you ask for her?” inquired Mr. C.
“I was offered 1800 dollars for her last night. I want 2000 for her.”…
“Why can that white girl–“
“That isn’t a white girl; that’s a nigger, sir, I tell you,” interrupted the drover, contemptuously. At the same time he removed a woolen cap from her head, which exposed the light brown hair, and added, “you see her hair is waved.”
This is regarded as evidence that African blood is mingled with the white. Mr. C. had now become excited, and he exclaimed– “Well, then, can that white nigger do more work than one of your black niggers, that you ask so much more for her?”
“Oh no;” replied the drover,–and perceiving that Mr. C. did not comprehend the superior value of female beauty to physical ability in a slave, he added– “but you know she is a high priced fancy girl.”
“By heavens!” vociferated Mr. C., “‘t is too bad!” and turning to me with his clinched hands raised towards the heavens, he added, “I will never say another word against the abolitionists, so long as God lets me live!”
With so many white slaves throughout the South, it is not surprising that curiosity would exist as to their ability to escape North and there pass into white society. Such an inquiry was made by Frederick Law Olmsted, a reporter for the New York Times who traveled extensively throughout the slave states. During a visit to a plantation in the spring of 1854, he recorded a dialogue he had with two overseers. One of them pointed out a slave while she was working in the field and said,
“That one is pure white; you see her hair?” (It was straight and sandy.) … It was not uncommon, he said, to see slaves so white that they could not be easily distinguished from pure-blooded whites….
“Now,” said I, “if that girl should dress herself well, and run away, would she be suspected of being a slave? (I could see nothing myself by which to distinguish her, as she passed, from an ordinary poor white girl.)”
“Oh, yes; you might not know her if she got to the North, but any of us would know her.”
“By her language and manners.”
“But if she had been brought up as [a] house-servant?”
“Perhaps not in that case.”
“The other thought there would be no difficulty; you could always see a slave girl quail when you looked in her eyes.”
Olmsted also took note of white slaves in a group of people of color he saw in Richmond who were dressed in Sunday finery. “Nearly a fourth part seemed to me to have lost all African peculiarity of feature…. There was no indication of their belonging to a subject race, except that they invariably gave way to the white people they met.”
As explained earlier, the term mulatto could be used to denote a person who looked white in appearance. The term quadroon (or quatroon), even though literally one who was three-fourths white, when used in New Orleans could mean the same thing. Visitors to that city commented on the virtual whiteness of many of the so-called quadroons. Isaac Holmes, an Englishman who traveled in America for four years, recollected that “although the term quatroon would infer a person of three-fourths white extraction, yet all between the colour of a mulatto and a white acquire in New Orleans this appellation. Some, indeed, are to all appearance perfectly white.” George William Featherstonhaugh left from Maryland and toured throughout the slave states. He also saw the New Orleans quadroons. “A woman may be as fair as any European, and have no symptom of negro blood in her,” Featherstonhaugh stated, “but if it can be proved that she has one drop of negro blood in her vein s, the laws do not permit her to contract a marriage with a white man; and as her children would be illegitimate, the men do not contract marriages with them.” Reverend Philo Tower from New England wrote of “the life of a mulatto girl, or a quadroon, as they are called” with some having “clear, beautiful white skin, with rosy cheeks, making the very perfection of loveliness and beauty…forbidden by the rules of society to hold rank above the lowest, blackest slave.” The actor George Vandenhoff said of the New Orleans quadroon, “Some of them showed no tinge of their descent at all; but could boast complexions–notblondes, certainly, but–of Anglo-American whiteness. Yet, all these girls had in their blood the fatal taint of Africa’s sun; though, in some, it was diluted, by admixture, to an infinitesimal point, that required the nicest eye to detect it–if, indeed, it could be detected at all.”
Although the first-person eyewitness accounts of white slaves throughout the South have an element of redundancy running through them, it is imperative to keep in mind that they were all contained in books which were readily available to antebellum readers in the North. Travel accounts made for popular reading, and these books, many of them by famous writers of the day, were no doubt read to a great extent. White slaves as seen through the eyes of others brought the issue of white slavery to the awareness of many Northerners who would not have been conscious of it otherwise.
Return to top
In addition to travel accounts of white slaves, newspaper advertisements for white runaway slaves made the issue of white slavery that much more real. Although originally appearing in newspapers in the South, they were also collected and published in abolitionist and other literature in the North, literature that was particularly geared toward people interested in ending slavery. Lydia Maria Child published The Patriarchal Institution in 1860 in which she included four pages of advertisements for white runaway slaves (PLATE 1) William Jay proclaimed that “people at the North are disposed to be incredulous when they hear of whiteslaves at the South; and yet a little reflection would convince them not only that there must be such slaves under the present system, but that in process of time a large proportion of the slaves must be as white as their masters. Were there no other sources of information respecting the complexions of the southern slaves, the newspaper notices of runaways would most abundantly confirm our assertions.” The advertisements cited by Jay include the words “white man,””white boy,” quite white,” and “clear white.” Reverend Charles Elliott included similar advertisements in his book, Sinfulness of American Slavery. During 1855 and 1856 the American Anti-Slavery Society published a series of pamphlets, one of which was entitled White Slavery in the United States. Three of its eight pages list newspaper notices for white runaway slaves. The Suppressed Book About Slavery! written by George Washington Carleton in 1857 also contains many such advertisements.
White slavery was read about in the accounts of travelers who visited the South and in Southern newspaper advertisements for white runaway slaves. Another source of information concerning white slavery was articles in newspapers. A notable piece entitled “White Slaves,” concerning a white woman and her two children who were offered for sale at a slave auction, appeared in 1821 in a Maryland newspaper, the Niles’ Weekly Register. “This woman and children were as white as any of our citizens, indeed we scarcely ever saw a child with a fairer or clearer complexion than the younger one….there was something so revolting to the feelings, at the sight of this woman and children…it brought to recollection so forcibly the morality of slave-holding states–that not a person was found to make an offer for them.” Even though many in the South expressed an aversion to buying white slave children, the feeling was certainly not universal. In fact, for some, the pretense of a white mulatto child was unnecessary and children known to be completely white were bought and sold outright. William Chambers traveled in Kentucky and Virginia in 1853 and noted that “it is understood that numbers of purely Anglo-American children pass into slavery….many of them are carried to the markets of the south, where a good price for them can be readily obtained.” The “White Slaves” article is interesting from another standpoint because it questioned the partus rule. In referring to the white children no one wanted to purchase because of their white color, the article stated, “The legal maxim of par. seq. vent. has made them slaves for life, and the same maxim will make the offspring of these children slaves. Who can think of this and not shudder? Can there not be, ought there not to be, some limitation, some bounds fixed to this principle? We trust we shall not see a second attempt to sell them in this town.” An editorial comment followed. “White is the fashion in the United States, and surely some measure should be adopted to cause the color to be respected, seeing that we depend so much upon it!” What makes this article so unusual is that it was originally published in Kentucky and was reprinted in Maryland–both slave states. Of course, back in 1821 the organized abolitionist movement had yet to really be established and things were relatively calm between North and South. Such an editorial was no doubt dismissed as harmless dissent. As tension mounted in the decades which followed, however, publishing an article which questioned slavery being based on the partus rule, the immutable legal principle held universally throughout the South, would have been unthinkable. The Chicago Daily Tribune, a popular newspaper, had an interesting article entitled “A White Slave” in an 1856 issue. A white female slave had escaped from Missouri and was given refuge by two Germans in Illinois. Slave catchers captured the girl and arrested the Germans despite their claim that they thought her to be free because she was white. One German escaped, the other was jailed. Quoting from the Quincy Republican, the newspaper which first reported the story, the Tribune declared, “You see the legitimate, the unavoidable fruits of the Slave system in our sister State….Do you wish to incur for yourselves or your friends in the Territory the penalty of five years imprisonment in the Penitentiary, for the extraordinary crime of being unable to distinguish between a white free woman and a white slave?”
Antislavery newspapers published and read in the North contained articles and accounts of white slavery gleaned from Southern newspapers as well as other references. One interesting item which consistently appeared during the mid and latter 1850s in the newspaper the Anti-Slavery Bugle was an advertisement display-ing a list of American Anti-Slavery Society pamphlets, each dealing with a particular aspect of the slavery issue. White Slavery in the United States (PLATE 2), the second title on this list, was concerned exclusively with the enslavement of white people in the South. The constant repetition of seeing the words “white slavery in the United States” week after week after week no doubt had a subliminal effect on readers. Items concerning white slaves and white slavery were often printed on the front page. A sampling of such articles includes “A White Girl Kidnapped and Sold as a Slave” which involved being lured to New Orleans under false pretenses; “White Woman Sold as a Slave” where Violet Ludlow was sold several times despite her legitimate claim that she was white; “A White Girl Nearly Sold Into Slavery” which related how an orphan named Madeline, “aged about nine years…a lovely girl, delicately formed, white as the purest of Caucasian race,” was to be sold at auction but was reprieved with the intention “that a Jury shall pass upon her blood.” “The Sally Miller Case” told readers about how eleven jurors found the defendant to be a white German girl, “while one insisted on believing her to be a colored woman, a slave by birth, and rightfully the property of the demandants.” An untitled piece related the story of how a young white boy was kidnapped and was about to be auctioned off when his father appeared on the scene, grabbed him, and exclaimed, “My child a slave? a slave? Have you dared to seize and sell awhite child?”
There were other interesting accounts as well. An article entitled “Curious Case of White Slavery” appeared in the National Era, wherein a teenage girl with white parents was sold as a Negro slave by her father and was rescued by her mother. In speaking of Georgia where the event had occurred, the newspaper said, “This fact proves that white slavery in Georgia is not so uncommon that a case of it is likely to excite any remark….Slavery has no ‘prejudice against color.’ ” Another piece was entitled “Woman, Apparently White, Surrendered to Slavery” and had to do with a woman named Pelasgie who was claimed as a fugitive slave even though she had been living as a free person for more than twelve years. In “An Arkansas White Girl Sold as a Slave,” Alexina Morrison’s lawyer argued that she “had not claimed her freedom because she had brown hair, or fair skin, or blue eyes, but because she had been born free, and was kidnapped.” Likewise, in “White Slavery in Alabama,” readers were told of a white girl from Georgia named Patience Hicks who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Three different accounts were presented in an article entitled “White Slavery.” In the first, a seven-year-old white boy named Washington was placed in the care of a Negro woman when his mother became ill. He was subsequently kidnapped and sold into slavery. In the second, an aristocratic Virginia couple had an illegitimate love-child named Eliza who was placed in Negro quarters and raised there from infancy. She was subsequently sold as a slave. In the third, a white girl was purchased out of slavery for $400 and then freed.
Ellwood Harvey, a Pennsylvanian, attended a slave auction in Virginia with some friends and wrote of his visit in a letter which was printed in the Pennsylvania Freeman. The Anti-Slavery Bugle republished the letter, a part of which read, “A white boy, about 12 years old, was placed upon the stand. His hair was brown and straight; his skin exactly the same hue as other white persons, and no discoverable trace of negro feature in his countenance. Some coarse and vulgar jests were passed on his color, and $5.00 was bid for him, but the auctioneer said ‘that is not enough to begin on for such a likely young nigger!’–Several remarked they ‘would not have him as a gift.’ Some said a white nigger was more trouble than he was worth. One man said it was wrong to sell white people…. He was sold for about $250.” Earlier in the letter, Harvey wrote that “my friends were not abolitionists before, and pitied my credulity when I told them the horrors of slavery; but one week in the Old Dominion has added two staunch adherents to our cause. I wish every proslavery man and woman in the North could witness one slave auction.”
The preceding accounts of white slavery from the abolitionist press were only concerned with examples of white people being white slaves. As documented in the last two chapters, however, this issue became more and more of a threat to the white populace in the North as Southern power grew, and many publications, abolitionist and otherwise, which addressed white slavery started to include political commentaries as well. This additional aspect notwithstanding, the abolitionist press was a powerful force and had impact because of the size of the abolitionist movement. In 1838 James G. Birney who was the corresponding secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society observed that the organization had 1,300 chapters with about 109,000 members. Henry Wilson, a politician and author who detailed the rise and fall of Southern political power, stated that in 1840 at the height of the abolitionist movement there were some 2,000 organizations with a membership of about 200,000. That of course was 200,000 formal members, those who paid dues and participated actively. Many others, perhaps in the many hundreds of thousands, were to various degrees empathetic to the abolitionist cause but did not formally join. Both formal and informal antislavery advocates read the abolitionist press. The abolitionist newspapers in which accounts of white slavery appeared were widely read.
If anyone had doubt about the existence of white slaves, the picture “EMANCIPATED SLAVES, WHITE AND COLORED” in an 1864 edition of Harper’s Weekly would have been proof (Frontispiece). The article in Harper’s was entitled “White and Colored Slaves.” All of these slaves were set free by General Benjamin F. Butler in New Orleans and were attending a school for emancipated slaves when this picture was taken. The article went on to name and describe each individual. The descriptions of the white slaves were as follows: “Rebecca Huger is eleven years old…. To all appearance she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood….Rosina Downs is not quite seven years old. She is a fair child, with blonde complexion and silky hair…. She has one sister as white as herself…. Charles Taylor is eight years old. His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky….this white boy…has been twice sold as a slave…. These three children, to all appearance of unmixed white race, came to Philadelphia last December.”Harper’s Weekly was very popular, having a circulation of around 200,000 before the Civil War.
Why was the character of Archy Moore depicted as a white slave? Why was the title changed from The Slave in 1836 to The White Slave in 1852? Art imitates life. Hildreth’s choices were in accord with public concern over white slavery. White readers could readily identify with the trials and tribulations of a slave who was as white as they were. Before the first word in the book was read, the impression of the title alone enabled empathetic readers to emotionally experience the words, “The White Slave” (PLATE 4).
There were two distinctly different ways of looking at white mulattoes–socially and physiologically. Socially, a white partus slave looked as white as any white person but was considered a black person because he or she had “one drop” of black blood from a distant black female ancestor who was a slave. Such was the case when Mr. C. was told, “That’s not a white girl; she is a nigger, sir.” Physiologically speaking, however, white partus slaves were white people because all traits of their remote black ancestry had disappeared. The Northsaw these white slaves as whites. The South saw these white slaves as blacks. An 1857 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune commented on racial classification in the South. “The southern census takers, it is notorious, returned all persons as blacks who, were not morethan half white. Those who possessed straight hair and Anglo-Saxon features they set down as mulattoes, many of whom were as white-skinned as their owners.” The actual number of white mulatto slaves is unknowable because all shades from “one drop” to those showing some discernible degree of black admixture were classed together as mulattoes without any distinction as to color.
The Great ‘White’ Influx
Regardless of color, two-thirds of immigrants choose that designation on census replies. For some, it’s synonymous with America.
By SOLOMON MOORE and ROBIN FIELDS
The Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
July 31, 2002
Zarmina Khalili says she never considered herself white until she moved to the United States 15 years ago.
Race was a nonissue in her native Afghanistan, she said. There, the basic distinctions were tribal, between Tajiks and Pashtuns. Khalili knew where she stood: She was a Tajik.
In America, it wasn’t so clear. The census forms that came in the mail asked Khalili, 42, a Canoga Park homemaker, to place herself in one of six racial categories. She picked “white.” Though she is fair-skinned, it wasn’t entirely a matter of color, she said.
She regarded white as synonymous with American, with belonging, with fitting in.
In identifying herself that way, Khalili joined a growing number of newcomers who are stretching traditional U.S. racial definitions and counterintuitive as it might seem, making white among the most diverse of demographic categories.
The 2000 Census counted 28 million foreign-born residents. Two-thirds identified themselves as white. In 1990, half of the foreign-born population checked “white.”
Another sign of change: In 1990, immigrants made up 5% of all white Americans. By 2000, the foreign-born accounted for 9% of the white population.
Latinos, the nation’s largest immigrant group, are driving those numbers. Almost half checked the “white” box in Census 2000.
“What white traditionally meant: the WASP, the blond hair, the California drawl, the Hells Angels motorcycle riders, is being overlaid with new images of white Russians and Armenians … Iranians, North Africans and Latinos,” said USC demographer Dowell Myers.“White is the most polyglot category, and it’s morphing.”
Recent newcomers are expanding the meaning of “white” much as Southern and Eastern European immigrants did a century ago, when many Americans still viewed the word as signifying Anglo-Saxon heritage.
The latest arrivals are also upsetting conventional wisdom, which held that the percentage of white Americans would inevitably dwindle over time. About 75% of the U.S. populace defines itself today as wholly or partly white. Many demographers expect the same will be true in 50 years, despite continued immigration from Latin America, Asia and elsewhere.
“There’s been this idea that demography is destiny and that America is going to be a nonwhite nation,” said Peter Skerry, author of “Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority” and a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It ain’t necessarily so.”
Why do so many recent immigrants choose a white identity?
White Means Inclusion
For earlier generations, the value of doing so was clear. They were coming to a place where nonwhites suffered systematic discrimination. Even today, many immigrants say they equate whiteness with opportunity and inclusion.
But a growing number, influenced heavily by Latino culture, say they see race as fluid and whiteness as an unbounded territory they can enter and exit at will.
Yareli Arizmendi, a Mexican American actress, said she used to be typecast as “the gangbanger’s mother” or “the excitable Cuban woman.” So she stopped specifying her ethnicity at auditions. Recently, she landed the part of a Jewish lawyer on an episode of the television series “NYPD Blue.” No one guessed her roots until she mentioned them to a hairstylist on the set.
“I am a Latino,” said the actress, who lives in Hollywood. “But I am white too, and I don’t want to be pegged as ‘the other.’ ”
In Mexico, where Arizmendi was born and raised, “we never asked: ‘What are you? What percentage Negroid? What percentage mongoloid? Are you Latin American or Mayan or Aztec or European or Moorish?’ ” she recalled. “Because a lot of us are all of these things.”
Other mixed-race people are embracing a similar sort of racial flexibility, choosing white as their primary race. A 1995 federal schools survey found that 17% of the children with an African American parent and a white parent chose white as their primary ethnicity. Among children with one Asian American parent and one white parent, half considered white their primary race.
In the past, people of mixed race were almost uniformly counted as minorities, not as whites.
Even siblings with identical racial backgrounds sometimes make different choices based on personal experience. David Chau, 22, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, has a Jewish mother and a Chinese American father. He considers himself white. “White fits me best, I guess,” he said.
His older sister, Jen, sees herself as a minority: Jewish and Asian. “I honestly don’t know what white means,” she said. “I don’t know what a white experience is.”
Debate about racial categories and their meaning revives each decade when the U.S. Census Bureau asks American households about themselves.
In the first national headcount, in 1790, government enumerators placed people in four slots: free white males, free white females, slaves, and “others,” a category that included free Native Americans.
Today, people fill out the survey themselves, choosing from six options for race: white; black or African American; American Indian or Native Alaskan; Asian; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; and “other.” In 2000, for the first time, respondents could check more than one category.
The census allows Latinos the most room for layered self-definition. Since 1980, the survey has treated Hispanic ethnicity apart from race, asking about it in a separate question and indicating that Latinos can be of any race. The Hispanic category is meant for people who trace their origins to a Spanish-speaking nation.
The choices Americans make about their racial identities have far-reaching consequences. More than 60 federal agencies use census data to distribute government funds. State legislatures use the numbers in redrawing congressional districts. The Justice Department consults the census in looking for patterns of racial discrimination. Businesses base crucial decisions on the data, ranging from where to open stores to how to market soft drinks.
In doing so, they give bedrock permanence to racial identities that may be ephemeral or subjective
People who pick Hispanic as their ethnicity and white as their race often are communicating that they feel “functionally white,” said Ian Haney Lopez, a UC Berkeley law professor.
For example, Latinos living in affluent, suburban parts of the Los Angeles area tended to call themselves white in Census 2000. By contrast, 50% or more of Latinos living in several of the region’s urban barrios picked “other” as their race.
The sensation of being white waxes and wanes, and not just for Latinos. Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, FBI agents came to the home of Khalili, the Afghan immigrant, to ask questions. Her 15-year-old daughter was harassed at school.
“Until Sept. 11, I just felt like this was my own country,” Khalili said. “Now it’s different. I feel like a minority.”
That same uneasy feeling might have shivered through an Irishman in the 1850s or a Slav passing through Ellis Island in the 1920s.
Go back far enough in U.S. history and many Americans who see themselves as white could have been considered minorities at one time. To Benjamin Franklin, for example, “white” referred only to those of Anglo-Saxon descent.
“Spaniards, Italians, French,
Russians and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal body of white people on the face of the Earth,” Franklin wrote in a 1751 essay, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind and the Peopling of Countries, Etc.”
Like Franklin, early U.S. laws regulating marriage, property rights, citizenship, voting and other facets of life viewed whiteness as a hereditary attribute. But the laws employed varying, often conflicting, standards for determining who had it. Someone could be deemed white for purposes of citizenship, but nonwhite under marriage laws—and thus barred from marrying a white.
Between the Civil War and World War II, Japanese, Arab, Afghan, Armenian, Indian and other immigrants sued in U.S. courts, trying to prove themselves white and therefore eligible to enter the country, hold jobs or become citizens.
Courts gave contradictory rulings. In 1910, an immigrant from India named Dolla was pale enough to convince one court that he was white. Ten years later, the Supreme Court ruled that another Indian immigrant was not.
The unprecedented wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century made the racial identity of newcomers a more contentious issue than ever, as traditionalists declared the national identity under siege.
A 1911 congressional commission sought to quiet the controversy by cataloging the identities of the immigrant flood. It issued a “Dictionary of Races or People” that put Slavs, Poles, Italians, Russians and others in 45 nonwhite racial subgroups. This prompted intense opposition from immigrants, especially Jews, who were placed in a “Hebrew” category.
Many immigrants feared ostracism if the dictionary’s distinctions became policy or law. Ultimately, the government discarded the categories. People with diverse origins came to be seen, and to see themselves, as white.
Mexican Americans became part of a similar debate as the United States expanded west in the 19th century, absorbing sizable Latino populations. After the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, census enumerators counted people with Spanish surnames as white. That practice continued until 1930, when a separate “Mexican” racial category was created. Mexican Americans successfully lobbied to have the designation dropped in 1940. Once again, enumerators classified virtually everyone with Spanish surnames as white.
The discrimination visited on African Americans gave immigrants a powerful incentive to be identified as whites.
“They were coming into a society where slavery was synonymous with skin pigmentation,” said Joel Perlmann, a senior scholar at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute at Bard College in New York. “It had nothing to do with preserving their own culture.”
In the expansion of whiteness, African Americans have remained conspicuously apart. They are the group least likely to intermarry with other races and most likely to live in segregated communities and attend segregated schools, according to census and other research data.
“Everyone else has taken their positions in relation to that duality,” said Noel Ignatiev, a history instructor at the Massachusetts College of Art and author of “How the Irish Became White.” “Everyone can assimilate into white America, except ‘homie.’ ”
But some scholars say African Americans’ historical exclusion spurred them to a powerful political and cultural unity. The solidarity they achieved during the civil rights movement of the 1960s is being emulated today by Latinos, said Todd Boyd, a USC pop culture professor and the author of “Am I Black Enough For You?”
“We took those crumbs and transformed it into a distinctive culture,” he said. Even African Americans who could “pass” as white because of their appearance or cultural background choose not to, Boyd said. “Now there’s no reason to shy away from it;it’s ours.” (That’s a typical “black” lie.)
Latinos have adopted a similar strategy, but with a twist, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“To the extent that being white means being American, we are white,” Vargas said. “But at the same time, we don’t have to deny being Latino as much as before because we’ve had a significant civil rights movement, and politically we’re still one bloc.”
The question “Are you white?” puzzles many second- and third-generation Americans. Many say they simply don’t think about it.
“Whites live in a society that was created for them, that caters to them, where they are the norm. They fit,” said Matthew Kelley, publisher of Mavin, a multiracial affairs journal in Seattle. “So to a lot of people being white is almost indefinable. It’s just this kind of comfort that you don’t recognize unless it goes away. It’s like describing air.”
When whites try to define whiteness, they often find the experience uncomfortable, even disturbing.
“For me, being proud that you’re white is like some kind of Nazi thing,” said Tom Radu, 43, a general contractor from Monrovia. Radu is of Swedish and Romanian ancestry and is married to a Mexican American woman. He describes their 19-year-old son as a “whitesican.”
Jim Stewart, 49, who works with Radu, remembered an odd conservation with his father about race.
“I told him: ‘You’re half-white and half-Sicilian,’ ” recalled Stewart. “Like a half-hour later, he came up to me and said with all seriousness: ‘I’m pretty sure Sicilians are considered white.’ It mattered so much to him that he was thinking about it all that time.”
Some whites yearn for a more distinct identity, in effect seeking to go back to a time before their families joined the mainstream.
“For many white Americans, white is not enough; there is no unifying white experience,” said Diena Simmons, producer of a 23-episode PBS documentary titled “Ancestors.” “They want to say they are Jewish, or Polish, or Ukrainian or something like that.”
Last year, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation opened a Web site listing the names of 22 million immigrants who arrived in the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. The site (http://www.ellisisland.org) logged 1 billion hits in its first month.
Bob Nafius, a San Diego computer executive, was one of the teeming masses at Ellis Island’s virtual port. Within minutes, he found his Irish great-grandmother’s passenger record showing that she sailed to New York from Liverpool on a ship called the Oceanic.
“Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, white meant suburban, being connected from mall to shining mall. That whole white-bread kind of thing,” Nafius said. “But I always wished I could have a real ethnicity. I’m looking for a tribe to join. Don’t I get a tribe?”
The Multiracial Movement: An Uncomfortable Political Fit By Nathan Douglas
There’s a prayer that you’ve probably heard before, in one version or another. It goes like this: “Lord, please give me the courage to change what I can; the serenity to accept what I cannot; and the wisdom to know the difference.” May all you readers take that to heart.
I’d like to share with you as much as I can of wisdom accumulated from seven years of directly participating in, and critically observing, the so-called Multiracial Movement. If you take away nothing else from this editorial, please remember an observation I made in May of 1998, during a heated exchange on C-Span with Harold McDougall. He’s a Catholic University law professor and the former representative of the NAACP in their fight against the multiracial category. For those of you who don’t know, the NAACP was our primary opponent in the push for a multiracial category to be added to all government forms and surveys.
During the broadcast, I challenged McDougall to explain some incendiary remarks he made in front of Congress during the hearings. In particular, I was incensed by his reference to a “kinky hair machine” device used in South Africa to determine the race of an individual. McDougall mentioned it to Congress, as if the device would find a place here, should the multiracial category be established. Yes, I realize this probably sounds bizarre to you, but he said it. It’s documented and I’ve written about it at the Project RACE website (check out the archives) as well as here on Interracial Voice.
Anyhow, McDougall immediately accused me of being from “the extreme right wing of the multiracial movement,” to which I replied, “there is no right wing of the multiracial movement” — a statement I believed to be true at the time. Certainly I didn’t consider myself to be right wing or conservative. One look at my life, and the way I’ve chosen to lead it, would reinforce this. Plus I never perceived the movement to be about political identity anyway, internally or externally. It was an individual identity movement. That’s idealistic, perhaps, but to me it was always about something much grander than the crass nature of politics.
Be that as it may, things escalated from there and Clarence Page, the panel moderator, stepped in to cool down the rhetoric. Page asked me, “Why is it so important to have a multiracial category?”
I said, quite extemporaneously, “It’s to give these kids a sense of identity that allows them to be more than one thing at one time, and it states it clearly. It’s as simple as that.” I went one to clarify, and this is what I hope you’ll remember, so I’ll say it twice: “People are uncomfortable with the concept that somebody could be more than one thing at one time.” Again, “People are uncomfortable with the concept that somebody could be more than one thing at one time.”
Let’s try putting that observation into a political context. As I’ve stated before, I’m not from the right wing. But guess what? I’m not a liberal, either. Which is also to say I’m neither Republican nor Democrat. Call me an independent. Or, building on my prior observation, I’m more than one thing at one time, and that makes political people, like Harold McDougall and the NAACP, very uncomfortable. Because they see the world as “either/or.” Either you’re a liberal Democrat like them or you’re a conservative Republican, like whom they perceive all their opponents to be.
And when McDougall tried to label me as “right wing,” he was basing his assessment solely on one issue. I submit to you that it is impossible to accurately determine where someone resides politically from his-or-her position on one issue. And instead of answering my questions about his previous statements, McDougall tried to place me on the defensive to prove that I was not from the “right wing.” When he failed to elicit the response he desired, he just refused to answer my questions.
Deborah Tannen, a popular author and avowed Democrat, wrote an interesting book in 1998, entitled The Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue. Let me give you a few quotes that relate to what I’m talking about…
“The argument culture urges us to approach the world-and the people in it-in an adversarial frame of mind.” (p. 3)
“Our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides leads us to believe that every issue has two sides-no more, no less.” (p. 10)
“But opposition does not lead to truth when an issue is not composed of two opposing sides but is a crystal of many sides.” (p. 10)
She goes on to address the race issue by saying that there’s a “tendency to reduce our understanding of race to a simple black/white dichotomy. This tends to obscure, first of all, the existence of many other races: Asian, American Indian, Polynesian, Semitic, Arab, East Indian, Mongolian, and so on. Even within the framework of Americans of European and Americans of African ancestry, there are many who are biracial or multiracial.” (p. 43)
She concludes by stating, “no sooner do we conceive of something composed of two — and just two — elements than we begin to think of those elements as more different than they are, opposed to each other, and potentially in conflict.” (pp. 43-44)
Okay, let’s talk about the elephant in the living room. No, it’s not me; it’s the Republican Party. Let’s face it, this figurative elephant makes many of us uncomfortable. But he’s just too damn big to ignore. Not only is the elephant in charge of government right now, whether we like it or not, it is also true that the elephant was virtually our only ally during the struggle for a multiracial category. Congressman Petri, a Republican, was the principal sponsor of the so-called “Tiger Woods Bill,” H.R. 830, which would have mandated a multiracial category. And Newt Gingrich, a Republican who is perennially portrayed by Democrats to be Lucifer personified, was also a supporter.
Yes, in the crazy world of racial politics, our supposedly natural allies, the civil rights establishment, became our enemies; and our supposedly natural enemies, the right wing establishment, became our allies. Or at least, so it appeared. Let me give you some more political observations.
In June of 1997, I was a guest on Kweisi Mfume’s Baltimore-based TV talkshow, The Bottom Line. I substituted for Susan Graham, the head of Project RACE, who asked me to take her place on the show. As previously established, I’m a feisty fellow, so not long after taping began, I got involved in a somewhat heated exchange, not with Mfume, who was on his best behavior throughout the show, but with an audience member. She raised the Republican specter with me by saying, in reference to H.R. 830, “The people behind it want to gut the enforcement of civil rights laws and that’s what’s behind the issue.” She also said, “When you have a conservative Republican sponsoring this kind of bill, you have to think twice.”
I replied that I thought hers was a mischaracterization, saying quite candidly, “You’re defining this in political terms.” Let’s stop there a moment. Because that is, perhaps, the greatest irony of the debate that swirled around the establishment of a multiracial category. You see, as hard as it was for others to understand, and as difficult as it may be for some of you to realize even now, the quest for a multiracial identifier was, for me and many others, NEVER political in nature.
This was and is an identity issue, pure-and-simple. We just wanted the ability to answer truthfully the question being proposed: what is your race? To do so required an option or options not available at the time.
I felt a tremendous affinity for the plight of multiracials wanting to self-identify. Not just because my son is multiracial, but because for all practical purposes, I am multiracial, meaning I draw from eclectic sources to be who I am. I may appear to be one thing physically, but there are plenty of other cultures swirling around inside me. At the very least, I’m multicultural.
That’s why I testified before Congress in 1997, on behalf of a multiracial category. Although I had given a speech at the 1996 Multiracial Solidarity March on the Mall in Washington, after being invited to participate by Charles Byrd; when I showed up to testify alongside Ramona Douglass of the Association of Multiethnic Americans (“AMEA”) and the aforementioned Susan Graham, I was met with some skepticism. The two of them, who were getting along well at the time, wanted to know how I had secured a spot to testify, since they had hoped to include some other, higher profile, more established representative from the movement. (I think it may have been Maria Root.)
We were at lunch, and they asked me directly, how had I gotten a slot on their panel? I declined to say precisely how I had aced out a member of their emerging multiracial political establishment. I just said I was testifying because “I asked politely.” Well, that was the truth! Although I can’t help but think they assumed I was some kind of a Republican spy or operative placed by Stephen Horn, the Republican congressman in charge of the congressional subcommittee overseeing the debate on the multiracial category.
Well, up until now, I’ve never publicly revealed how I got on that panel. Would you like to know? Okay, when I was in college at Cal State, Long Beach, I was a member of an honor society called the Mortar Board. One of the community service jobs we performed for the Mortar Board was to help the university president and his wife host a reception being held at their house. And you’ll never guess who the president of Cal State, Long Beach was back then. Stephen Horn, the same guy who would end up being a Congressman years later. Life is miraculous, isn’t it? Praise God.
So that’s how I got on the panel. Just a polite letter reminding him of our past encounter, and requesting consideration to be included in the congressional debate. I wasn’t a Republican then or now. And his staffer never asked if I was. He screened me to be sure I was presentable and not a nut, I guess, and then I was on board. Because I had something relevant to add. And what was that? Let me give you a quote from my testimony…
“No organization or individual has the moral authority to impose racial patriotism over others. Some of our opponents appear to have commissioned themselves as members of a ‘racial border patrol.’ They dutifully stand guard over America’s imaginary borders between the races, scanning the horizon for ‘illegal racial immigrants.’ And when they see one, they swoop down with all their might and unrighteous indignation. Well, it is sometimes said that ‘the truth shall set you free.’ If our opponents are truly interested in freedom, then why are they afraid of the truth?”
Okay, let’s move on from dealing with externals and talk about some of the internal political and philosophical struggles that have occurred within the Multiracial Movement. Hopefully, you all know who the key players have been.
Essentially, there were and are three factions: Susan Graham and her Project Race followers; Ramona Douglass and the Association of Multiethnic Americans coalition; and, God bless him, Internet publisher Charles Byrd with his loose band of racial iconoclasts. (You can count me among these radicals, if you’re looking for some place to pigeonhole me.)
Susan’s efforts were initially at the local level, where her organization was successful in establishing some versions of a multiracial category in several states. Ramona, working with Carlos Fernandez, was able to establish herself as an official representative serving on a Census planning committee. It should also be said that Susan and Ramona, for a time, worked together tirelessly to lobby Congress and other political powers-that-be on behalf of a multiracial category. Although it should be acknowledged that the AMEA group and Project RACE ended up not agreeing on a choice of format and wording, to include, believe it or not, the term “multiracial.”
Meanwhile Charles Byrd, editor of the cyberzine Interracial Voice, became a very visible spokesperson on behalf of multiracials. As an aside, the most exciting moment for me during this period was when Charles appeared on the nationally televised PBS program, The NewsHour, making his case for multiracial recognition. Man, that was great! I even gave him one of my ties to wear. Every time I watch a tape of the show and see that tie, I chuckle. It’s like an inside joke, you know?
Okay, so for a limited time I was fortunate to be associated with this grand triad. My inclination, at least initially, was to remain independent and non-aligned, as is my nature. I had extensive interactions with all of them. But let me assure you, the content of the e-mails that used to fly among us serves as a telling reminder of the political and philosophical conflicts apparently inherent in this issue. In other words, many of the battles that were going on outside the movement were also going on internally, as some of us were being pulled and pushed among opposing camps or positions of interest.
G. Reginald Daniel, author of the book More Than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order and an academic with whom I had some e-mail debate around the time of the congressional hearings, has characterized the internal squabbling, at least in the early nineties as follows…
“The leadership of the AMEA and Project RACE continued to disagree on strategy, and their differences were exacerbated by different leadership styles. (Project RACE was more confrontational, while AMEA tended to be more conciliatory.)” (p. 137)
I would tend to agree with that assessment, although it seems to be imbedded with a subtle value judgement. “Conciliatory” sounds better than “confrontational,” doesn’t it? Anyway, many of us in the Movement leaned toward the Project RACE end of the spectrum for one simple reason: we thought AMEA and its affiliates were a bunch of wimps. Be that as it may, what’s more important to our discussion today was AMEA’s apparent fear of a stealth Republican agenda. Reg Daniels describes it this way.
“Republican support for a multiracial identifier led many individuals to view the multiracial consciousness movement-particularly the stand-alone identifier-as part of a right-wing ‘conspiracy.’ The multiracial movement and its Republican supporters were seen as enemies of civil rights and other claims aimed at achieving social and economic equity and redress. Despite this guilt by association, some activists felt that the Republican majority in the House made their support essential, particularly if it became necessary to pursue this struggle through legislative channels. This was a devil’s bargain, but one based more on the political opportunism of some activists in the multiracial movement than on actual support of the Right (although some segments of the multiracial movement have supported the Republican agenda.)” (p. 146)
Let me stop and give a plug for the author, G. Reginald Daniel, an apparent Democrat, probable socialist. Hell, he may be a Marxist. But Mr. Daniel, that “devil’s bargain” comment aside, has done us a service by writing and documenting a somewhat biased version of what happened back in 1997, in Chapter Seven of his book, More Than Black? He even included me in a couple of his footnotes, but he left out many important facts, especially that a leading Democrat, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, actually publicly supported a multiracial identifier with subcategories, our Holy Grail, for a brief period during this time.
I should also mention that Kim Williams, a professor at Harvard, has also written about the movement. I met her when she was working on her dissertation at Cornell, and she interviewed me. Although I have never seen Kim’s writings, gleaning from quotes and course descriptions on the Internet, I assume she, too, took a liberal academic slant on things, like Reg Daniel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se, but the results should be approached with caution because they are not objective reporting.
What the heck. While I’m taking benign potshots, let me make some comments about Ramona Douglass. Ramona is a very articulate, intelligent, passionate crusader for multiracial rights. She deserves praise for her tireless efforts over the years. She, like Susan Graham, worked countless hours on our behalf without pay.
My understanding is Ramona came from a liberal tradition that included extensive involvement with the civil rights establishment. And that’s all well and good. But when it came time for her to stand up to that same civil rights establishment, our principal opponents in the struggle for multiracial recognition, she was, in my opinion, already compromised. That was very unfortunate, but probably inevitable, given her background.
I remember arguing with her about what she called “building bridges” to the civil rights establishment, principally the NAACP. I kept saying she was “building bridges to nowhere,” and that she needed to see the civil rights establishment for what it was on this issue — our opponent. As such, they were not to be coddled nor trusted. She did both, in my opinion, arguably to the detriment of our movement. But in all fairness, she can reasonably assert the opposite, claiming victory, albeit a hollow one to many of us in the know. Try to keep Ramona’s inherent conflict of interest in mind, as you try to formulate your own multiracial strategies in the future.
I also remember a silly e-mail exchange with Ramona, where I was taking a position regarding the multiracial identifier. I was saying this is an issue of truth: meaning at its most basic level, the ability of a multiracial child to truthfully and accurately self-identify as being multiracial rather than monoracial. (Remember there was no “check all that apply” provision at the time.) Ramona did not agree with my premise of truth. She said there was no such thing as truth — everything is relative, depending on culture and context, etc. I distinctly remember countering that surely she would agree the laws of physics qualified as indisputable truth. You know, if you drop an apple, it falls to the ground. That’s true, isn’t it? She wouldn’t even concede that much.
Reg Daniels has characterized this philosophical divide as post modernistic in nature. He says, and he must have been thinking about Ramona and her coalition of AMEA academics, that…
“Post modern thinkers interrogate the conception of a linear connection of subjects to an objective world. This has led them to dismiss the notion that the ‘truth’ can be found in any absolutely impartial sense.” (p. 12)
If only I had realized where Ramona was coming from, I might have saved myself and others a lot of aggravation. But the point to be made here is that the Multiracial Movement is a big tent affair. It’s full of diverse political and philosophical viewpoints. We were all united for awhile by one thing, and one thing only — our desire for multiracial recognition. Unfortunately, in the end we were unable to overcome our differences long enough to sustain the effort required for a full victory in our battle for that recognition. This should be a lesson for others in the future. The movement must remain above politics to sustain its credibility and usefulness.
And a further word about Susan Graham. Back in 2000, she refused to participate in a post-Census gathering of multiracial leadership held here in D.C, primarily because Ruth and Steve White of A Place For Us were presenting Ward Connerly an award. When I spoke with Susan about attending the conference at the time, it was clear that she did not want to be associated with Connerly and his efforts to abolish racial preferences. She even told me that if I attended, not to do so on behalf of Project RACE, the organization she headed and of which I was member. I attended the gathering, which was televised on C-Span, but you will not see me among those in front of the cameras. Not only was I honoring my agreement with Susan, by then I had decided to retire from the activist ranks. But I did present some background information to the group, much as I am doing here today. And I enjoyed getting together with Charles Byrd, James Landrith, William Javier Nelson and others who attended.
The reason I bring all this up is to point out that even Susan Graham, who had enlisted the help of Newt Gingrich in the struggle for multiracial rights, was afraid to become too strongly identified with Republican icons. The irony is, of course, Ward Connerly apparently perceives himself to be somewhat politically independent. And I should also remind everyone that it was a natural thing for Susan to go to Gingrich because at that time she resided in Georgia, and he was her congressman. Plus he was the Speaker of the House, which was potentially a big political boost for the movement, in terms of setting and completing an agenda.
Let me make some closing observations.
First, our opponents consistently attacked us for an alleged affiliation with the Republican party, instead of attacking the merits of our position. An affiliation that presumably was so odious that the mere mention of it would send all good liberals fleeing from us and the evil around us. We were therefore being presumed to be guilty, by association, of any-and-all alleged wrongs, past and present, of the Republican party and the right wing.
One can have a position without an accompanying affiliation. Likewise, one can have an affiliation without an accompanying position. Even Al Sharpton has called for African-Americans to consider political affiliations beyond the Democratic party, so the party will not take that racial/ethnic group for granted.
Second, writers and political commentators like Stanley Crouch and Larry Elder, who question the traditional liberal Democratic party line, are routinely labeled “race traitors.” Legitimate Republicans like Colin Powell and Condelesa Rice are also called race traitors and worse — house slaves — by longtime civil rights activists and others within the Democratic establishment. And, of course, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who dared quite publicly to be an African-American conservative, has for years endured the worst kinds of vilification. All because he chooses to believe other than what the civil rights establishment would have him believe. Character assassination of this sort is unwarranted, outrageous and highly pernicious to progressive dialog.
We live in a democracy where differences of opinion are a good thing. I would remind everyone that no one is entitled to a stranglehold on opinion. Just because someone does not agree with your opinion does not necessarily mean he or she is automatically a member of, or affiliated with, an opposing political camp. That opinion, and the person behind it, is worthy of respect and consideration. And if the accompanying proposal is valid, it may be worthy of implementation, not because it represents a particular political interest, but because of its merits.
Third, if you keep doing things the same way, you’ll get the same results. There is enormous pressure on the Multiracial Movement to follow precedent. To shape itself in the mold of other political movements. Some even appear to want multiracial entitlements. But this movement, as I understand it, is unique because it is primarily about identity. That should make it an apolitical social movement, if there is such a thing.
Enlightened people of consciousness need to lead the way for others by doing things differently. I encourage every one of you. Do things differently. Challenge the political and racial status quo. Help our society and the world to get beyond race. In doing so, do not align yourselves with one political party anymore than you would align yourself with one race. Most important: be consistent; be truthful; be yourselves.
Thoughts on Lonnae O’Neal Parker’s article “White Girl?”
By Beth Gray
My initial reaction to this article was disappointment. Instead of reading a story told from the point of view of its subject, it was about the writer’s thoughts and feelings about her cousin’s choice. Why was I surprised? Haven’t the reactions of monoracials (especially the “black” identified) to mixed race issues most often been about their agendas, opinions, and judgments rather than about our experience?
After a second reading, however, I decided that the article did indeed have a certain value. Primarily that an obvious “mulatta” who self-identifies as “black” states for the public record that she realizes that she cannot dictate or demand a certain identity from her cousin because her cousin has had a different experience. What a concept! Since mulattoes who are annexed to “black” identity are some of the worst “one drop” offenders, her admission amounts to treason. She “gets it” that her cousin looks “white” because she mostly is “white” and has been “raised white”. Has Ms. Parker now attained enlightenment about the multiracial experience or will she remain a dedicated member of the ‘Soul Patrol’ “gifted with The Sight” and with a self-ordained mission to “out” people?
Much of the article centers on the writer’s own conflicts about race, color, identity, and reasons for justifying the espousal of the “one drop rule”. Despite equal name calling by “whites” and “blacks” she allowed both groups to determine her identity for her. She surrendered her right to self-determination. She makes excuses for the cruel remarks of blacks but deems it “unhealthy to surrender to white sensibilities”. Is it really less racist or less hurtful to be called a “half-white bitch” by a black person than it is to be called a “nigger” by a white one?
The article is also an exposé of the contradictions inherent in the psychology of black annexed mulattos. On the one hand they police themselves with “one droppism” (and police others with “racial kidnapping”), while on the other hand they maintain a family tradition of preserving “white genes” (see articles by A.D. Powell).
Like most thought provoking journalism, this article raises far more questions than it answers. A lot of these questions are ones that I would hope the writer, and those like her who read it, will begin asking themselves. Is “one drop” “dropping science” or is it really dropping science fiction? Is “one drop” truly a valid or desirable premise for forming “a common cultural identity”? Why interpret another person’s self-identification as a personal rejection? When will some serious inner work begin on separating “black” from “ugly”? Hasn’t her inability to separate those two words also been a “surrender to white sensibilities”?
One of the worst aspects of the legacy of slavery and racism is this internalization of “white antipathy” (see article by W.J. Nelson) that has made self-hate and self-denigration such a large and destructive part of “black identity” in the U.S.A. It is this that Ms. Parker wants and needs her cousin to suffer along with her. She is against “dilution and division” and fears being “Swallowed up…in the mainstream”. Why? What is it exactly that she wants to preserve?
‘Amalgamation’ is what would have and should have continued to occur if it hadn’t been for the Walter Pleckers of world and the self-appointed “race police” who enforced and who continue to enforce his specious doctrine. There can be no undoing of U.S. history. There can be no reparation for slavery. There could, however, come a day when the descendants of former slaves and of former masters are indistinguishable.