Law in Contemporary Society

"Skin color remains a vital part of private, perhaps subconscious, classification by citizens and public officials alike . . . it is deeply implicated in racial inequality and poverty, perhaps as much as it was around the turn of the twentieth century.” I agree with this statement. As such, I find it particularly troublesome that the plurality opinion in Parents Involved in Community argues that in order to stop discriminating on the basis of race, society needs to stop discriminating on the basis of race. Even if society stops formally classifying people on the basis of race, society subconsciously classifies people according to their skin color. On the other hand, perhaps not classifying people on the basis of race is just one step in eliminating prejudices, if ever at all. Moreover, perhaps it is especially important to stop classifying by race in a society where the number of people who have parents of different races are rising, and the lines between race are blurred.

Can we stop discriminating on the basis of race when we’ve trained ourselves to see skin color?

It is arguable that skin color is visible, and the color of one’s skin affects many facets of life such as: lengths of prison sentences, the likelihood of death sentences, what is perceived as attractive, chances of being nominated into a political position, and the likelihood of being negatively stereotyped. Take my own experiences as a biracial person, for example. When I was in college, I received a citation for using a fake ID trying to get into a bar, and I also received a citation for buying a minor alcohol. When I received a citation for using a fake ID, the police officer was demeaning, unforgiving, and rude. Usually (according to my white friends’ experiences), when a minor is caught using a fake ID, she receives a slap on the wrist and will not get a citation. Years later, when I looked at my record, the officer wrote the letter “B” under race, standing for “Black.” On the other hand, when a police officer caught me buying my friend alcohol, the police officer was sympathetic and forgiving, even though supplying a minor with alcohol is a relatively serious offense. When I looked at my record, the officer wrote “C” under race, standing for “Caucasian.”

There is a chance, albeit small, that the difference in how each police officer treated me had nothing to do with race. However, it is impossible to ignore the coincidence, especially in central Pennsylvania where racial stereotyping is common. Nevertheless, I do not think that because the police officers in these different occasions were forced to categorize me according to my race on the police report that it exacerbated (or even caused) their biases (assuming they were). I believe that each police officer made his own subconscious determination of my race and treated me according to his preconceptions of “black” and “white.” Thus, based on my personal experiences, the plurality opinion in Parents Involved seems untenable. It is difficult to say that to stop discrimination on the basis of race, we need to stop discriminating on the basis of race. Because race is visible, people automatically and subconsciously classify citizens by race before they are even required on paper to do so.

The conclusion I’ve reached above is an unfortunate result of the construction and social interpretation of skin color. The notion of “race” and “skin color” are discursively constructed. Race is a biological myth, and racism is a system of power allocation based on the hereditary subordination of one human being to another. The concept of “race” arose simultaneously with the beginning of European exploration as the rationalization and basis for the conquest and control of the globe. In fact, geneticists have discovered that there is more variability within a “race” than between “races,” and there is essentially no genetic marker linked to any specific “race.”

Skin color is also constructed. For example, in the past, offspring of one Black and one non-Black parent may have considered themselves to be biracial; but society recognized them as Black according to the “one-drop” rule no matter the actual “color” of their skin. (Negotiating The Color Line: The Gendered Process of Racial Identity Construction Among Black/White Biracial Women by Kerry Ann Rockquemore). Despite the argument that race and skin color are outcomes of social interpretation, I still believe that society “sees” one’s “race.” For example, in the past, a light-skinned Black person could “pass” as White, if they “looked” White, even though society would categorize him as Black. Unfortunately, this is why I believe subconscious classification based on race arguably cannot be prevented.

Preventing discrimination against multi-racial persons

Despite the argument above, perhaps the plurality opinion in Parents Involved has merit. Although subconscious classification based on race arguably cannot be prevented, as a biracial person, I do agree that abolishing formal classification based on race may help fight discrimination against multiracial persons. In fact, many “advocacy groups argue that multiracial individuals are being treated unequally because of their lack of official recognition . . . and their desire to retain multiple identities rather than follow the one-drop rule.”

An advocate for mixed people created a “Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People,” she wrote (among twelve elements): “I have the right…not to keep the races separate within me…not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with my physical ambiguity… …to identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify…to identify with more than one group of people.”

As the number of biracial offspring increases rapidly, and the line between races blurs, perhaps the plurality opinion in Parents Involved has some merit. If we continue to try to classify biracial people as black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc., a racial divide will always exist, and biases will persist. But if we stop trying to racially classify biracial people, perhaps society will start to perceive them as who they are instead of what race they are.


Webs Webs

r6 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:23:38 - IanSullivan
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