The obsessing of many Americans about race is not only undiminished by decades of improvements in race relations, it seems inversely related to improvements. The better things become, the more vehemently some people, white and black, insist that progress is, if not chimerical, certainly minimal and fragile.
The Democratic Party worries that progress threatens its ability to mobilize its African American base by cultivating fears. Some professional civil rights groups have a stake in an undiminished sense of victimhood. And many liberals relish what they consider the black-and-white clarity of race as an issue.
However, because Hispanics have supplanted blacks as America's largest minority, it is time to remove the race question from the census form. This would move race more toward the margin of American consciousness, where it belongs, and would be more true to racial and ethnic realities. And it would fuel the wholesome revolt against the racial and ethnic spoils system that depends upon racial and ethnic categorizations.
So argued Harvard social scientist Nathan Glazer in the fall 2002 issue of the Public Interest, an argument pertinent to Supreme Court deliberations about the constitutionality of the racial preferences in college admissions. Born irrational, the classifications are rapidly becoming anachronistic.
Irrational? Glazer asks: "Why does Hispanicity include people from Argentina and Spain -- but not from Brazil or Portugal? Are there really so many races in Asia that each country should consist of a single and different race, compared to simply 'white' for all of Europe and the Middle East? Why indeed do people of Spanish origin merit special treatment, as opposed to people from Italy, Poland or Greece?"
Anachronistic? Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School wrote in the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly about how "free trade in the marital marketplace" can produce a beneficent "creolization" or "browning" or "beiging" of America. The number of black-white marriages, although still fewer than 1 percent of marriages, has increased more than sevenfold since 1960, from 51,000 to about 360,000 today. In 1990 only 8 percent of black husbands had white wives, and only 4 percent of black wives had white husbands. But among married U.S.-born Asian Americans age 25 to 34, 36 percent of husbands and 45 percent of wives had white spouses.
In an essay, "Mongrel America," published in the January-February 2003 Atlantic Monthly, Gregory Rodriguez of the New America Foundation suggests that intermarriage rates will accelerate enough that by the end of the century, 37 percent of African Americans will claim mixed ancestry and the number of Latinos claiming mixed ancestry will be twice the number claiming a single background. "Nationally," Rodriguez writes, "whereas only 8 percent of foreign-born Latinos marry non-Latinos, 32 percent of second-generation Latinos and 57 percent of third-generation Latinos marry outside their ethnic group." For those three categories of Asian Americans, the percentages are 13, 34 and 54.
John D. Skrentny, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego, wrote in the winter 2002 issue of the Public Interest about questions arising from the unintended entanglement of affirmative action with immigration realities. Should affirmative action apply to recent black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean? What threshold of past -- or present -- discrimination is pertinent to trigger eligibility for affirmative action?
Or is discrimination even pertinent? The "diversity" rationale for some racial preferences, as in college admissions, has no necessary connection to any suffering.
And, by the way, are Hispanics "people of color" or, as many of them think, white? That is how the 1920 Census counted Mexican Americans. The 1930 Census assigned them to a separate Mexican racial category. In 1940 they were reclassified as white. "Today," says Rodriguez, "almost half the Latinos in California, which is home to a third of the nation's Latinos (most of them of Mexican descent), check 'other' as their race."
Thirty years ago, New York Sen. James Buckley complained that the Labor Department Office of Federal Contract Compliance's primary regulation concerning affirmative action used the word "minority" 65 times without defining it. You can understand why.
The growing arbitrariness and unreality of the government's official racial categories is a reason for dropping them. Unfortunately, the spoils system that has grown up around them gives interest groups a stake in perpetuating them.
But race relations are being bedeviled by battles over quotas, preferences and other badges of victimhood and diminished competence. A cooling of the acrimonious scramble for group preferences might be one result of blurring the false clarity of the racial categories that the census uses and that fuel the scramble. And in this, blurring would be not imprecision, but accuracy.