The Cato Institute, a prominent libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., held an event this past September the 7th on the new book, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classifications in America by David Bernstein. Bernstein is a law professor at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia School of Law, and his book argues that there should be a separation of race and state. Bernstein believes America’s racial classification system is counterproductive and impedes the nation’s ability to overcome racial divisions.
Modern Americans are rightly critical of government’s past use of racial classifications for discriminating against African Americans. But according to Bernstein, “racial classification dictated by government rules is more common today than probably ever before in American history.”
Citing a vital piece of overlooked history, Bernstein explained the origin of current government racial categorization. In 1977, The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) adopted Statistical Policy Directive No.15 in order to solve a problem. The problem was that federal agencies were attempting to collect data on certain groups, but the data were inconsistent because different agencies were focusing on different groups. There was no consistency and thus no way of comparing data.
The creation of Policy Directive No.15 seemed sensible at the time, a fact that Bernstein conceded at various points throughout the event. However, the OMB warned that its new, more consistent categories were not to be used as anthropological, racial, and scientific classifications. Nor were they supposed to be used for eligibility for any programs. Policy Directive No.15 was just a way to have consistent statistics across agencies.
“What classifies as black? What about Hispanic? If you’ve lived your whole life as ‘white’ but discover you have non-white blood, can you claim that you are not white? “
Fast forward almost five decades: the concept of race is extremely divisive. It’s one of the most contentious topics in America. Even when some people are willing to discuss race, they are told they cannot, because they don’t belong to the right group—the same categories officially formed by the OMB. On the other hand, if one does discuss race, it’s dangerous to have an opinion that differs from the mainstream. Grace and civility are in decline.
At the Cato event, Bernstein posed difficult questions, “What classifies as black? What about Hispanic?” If you’ve lived your whole life as “white” but discover you have non-white blood, can you claim that you are not white? Is it permissible for someone with only one-fourth Native American blood to receive government benefits? Is the old “one-drop rule” from the Jim Crow days acceptable for affirmative action programs?
Bernstein shared two stories in order to illustrate how difficult such questions are to answer.
The first related to a government policy program that favored minorities applying to law school. As Bernstein explained, studies show people with faint non-Caucasian ancestry will check minority status for law school applications. However, once they actually attend the law school, they will often not claim that minority status anymore.
The other story involved progressives who question the People of Color (POC) label. In recent years, some progressives view the term “POC” as detracting from the status of individuals whose ancestors actually endured slavery and Jim Crow. Under America’s current racial classification system, decendents of African immigrants post-Jim Crow are labeled POC and black. Therefore, terms like “Black indigenous people of color” and “anti-blackness” are growing in popularity.
There’s a paradox in using America’s racial classifications to address past wrongs and simultaneously trying to eliminate such classifications because they are divisive and illiberal. As Bernstein noted, strong proponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT) “start with the presumption that racial division is a permanent part of American life.” Yet, the past German and Scandinavian rivalries, anti-moron riots, and anti-Catholicism crusades which helped the rise of the KKK in the 1920s are distant history. Bernstein believes race can go the same way. He stated, “Law played a significant role in establishing racial divisions in the United States and law or its absence can play a significant role either in maintaining or abolishing or at least diminishing those divisions in the future.”
Two other speakers on the panel—Jane Coaston, a journalist for the New York Times, and Robert Cottrol, a professor at George Washington University Law school—didn’t outright oppose Bernstein’s main argument. But after Bernstein’s speech, they offered some qualifications and reservations.
Instead of confirming the need to separate race and state, Coaston argued that Americans need to rethink how they let racial classifications guide their lives. “It was always going to be a fool’s errand.” Coaston claimed that racial categorizations were an attempt to make “science sense” of culture and how people see themselves and other people. “We want these categorizations to tell us something about ourselves that perhaps they were always going to be unable to do so.”
Coaston hinted at the need for deep self-examination, a practice that is becoming less common today. Racial classifications have become a form of identity, often impeding the process of self-examination. Self-examination transcends political issues— including identity politics—which plague every domain of life. Self-examination helps the individual see that there is more to life than how one looks and where one falls on the political spectrum. It beckons each person to start looking within rather than out at the surrounding world. Divisions will remain stark if friendships, community, and family are based largely on race, Coaston argued. Race should not be the main method of understanding oneself and others.
Cottrol, for his part, was skeptical that racial classifications could be easily eliminated. As he pointed out, if discrimination and inequalities are taking place, how do we establish that without some form of vocabulary of race? Americans have grown quite accustomed to racial classifications. While some countries manage without them, Americans have woven the concept of race into the fabric of American life.
All the panelists acknowledged that racial classifications are problematic but no definite solution was proposed. Bernstein admitted that the book does not focus on solutions, but on showing that racial classifications are a growing issue that needs to be addressed. There may not be a clear solution at the moment. However, as the panelists demonstrated, solutions aren’t reached by excluding people from the conversation. The origins of racial categories are divisive, and clinging to them only continues that legacy. Americans must be open to thoughtful discussions of race that transcend our current notions. Why should we cling to race as if it truly defines who we are?
One is reminded of the view of the late writer, James Baldwin, who in Notes of a Native Son, once said: “The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction.” Racial classifications as a main aspect of life will always be shallow.