What Color Is Black?

And what color is white? The markers of racial identity are every conceivable hue -- and suddenly matters of ideology and attitude as much as pigmentation.

Africans polled say that blacks should not be considered a single race.

Nearly 400 years after the first african came Ashore at Jamestown -- and 40 years after Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery bus boycott -- Americans are still preoccupied with race. Race divides us, defines us and in a curious way unites us -- if only because we still think it matters. Race-based thinking permeates our law and policy, and the sense of racial grievance, voiced by blacks and whites alike, infects our politics. Blacks cleave to their role as history's victims; whites grumble about reverse discrimination. The national mood on race, as measured by NEWSWEEK'S latest poll, is bleak: 75 percent of whites -- and 86 percent of blacks -- say race relations are "only fair" or "poor."

But the world is changing anyway. By two other measures in the same NEWSWEEK Poll -- acceptance of interracial marriage and the willingness to reside in mixed-race neighborhoods -- tolerance has never been higher. The nation's racial dialogue, meanwhile, is changing so rapidly that the familiar din of black-white antagonism seems increasingly out of date. Partly because of immigration -- and partly because diversity is suddenly hip -- America is beginning to revise its two-way definition of race. Though this process will surely take years, it is already blurring our sense that racial identity is fixed, immutable and primarily a matter of skin colon What color is black? It is every conceivable shade and hue from tan to ebony -- and suddenly a matter of ideology and identity as much as pigmentation.

The politics of racial identity are public and deeply personal. Twenty-eight years after the last state anti-miscegenation law was struck down, an interracial generation is demanding its place at the American table (page 72). They are not the first biracial Americans; that honor belongs to youngsters who grew up in Colonial Jamestown. But they are the first to stake a claim to mainstream status, discomfiting in the process blacks and whites who are reluctant to reconsider familiar racial categories. They are aided by older cousins who, if nothing else, are changing the talk of the nation, producing powerful memoirs about life on the color line.

It is important to note, meanwhile, that the idea of race itself is now coming under attack by science (page 67). To scientists who have looked into the question, race is a notoriously slippery concept that eludes any serious attempt at definition: it refers mostly to observable differences in skin color, hair texture and the shape of one's eyes or nose. Considering the whole range of biological variation within the human species, these differences are at best superficial -- and try as they will, scientists have been broadly unable to come up with any significant set of differences that distinguishes one racial group from another. ("The Bell Curve," a best-selling book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, revives the old controversy about black-white differences in intelligence, but surely does not settle it.) The bottom line, to most scientists working in these fields, is that race is a mere "social construct" -- a gamy mixture of prejudice, superstition and myth.

This assault on racialist thinking is compounded by the visible results of 30 years of accelerating immigration from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. That trend, still continuing, has added approximately 18 million people to the American melting pot, most of whom are eligible to be labeled "persons of color." One obvious consequence is the prediction that Hispanics, now 25 million strong and nearly 10 percent of the population (blacks are almost 13 percent, and non-Hispanic whites are 74 percent), will be the nation's largest minority by the year 2010. But Latinos are neither a "race" nor an "ethnic group." They are a disparate collection of nationalities variously descended from Europeans, African slaves and American Indians. The new immigrants also include some 3.5 million Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Laotian Hmong. And hundreds of thousands of dark-skinned East Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis -- who, despite their color, are Caucasians.

All of this portends an era of increasing multiethnic and multiracial confusion: Diversity "R" Us. The question now is whether America's traditional concept of race is relevant to the nation's changing demographics -- and the answer, almost certainly, is "no." Americans have long tended to take a "binary" approach toward race -- to assume, based on our own historical experience, that only two races count and that skin color is the dividing line between them. This belief is rooted in what historians call the "one-drop rule" (page 70), which is a relic of slavery and segregation. But as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson says, "The U.S. approach to racial identity has been most unusual. In much of the rest of the world, people make [social and class] distinctions based on gradations of color." Now, Patterson says, the arrival of millions of new immigrants from racially mixed societies is undermining the de facto consensus on the meaning of race in the American context. "We've had this large group of people coming from parts of Latin America . . . [who] don't consider themselves white or black," he says. "They don't want to play the binary game."

The demand for a more flexible view of race and ethnicity is not limited to immigrants -- for many native-born Americans are refusing to play the binary game as well. Ramona Douglass of Chicago is the child of a multiracial couple: her mother was Sicilian-American and her father was half African-American and half Ogalala Sioux. Douglass says she is frustrated that native-born multiethnics are "invisible" to the rest of society. She is president of a group, the Association of MultiEthnic Americans, that is lobbying Washington to add a multiracial category to the questionnaire for the next census. Currently, respondents are asked to choose between White, Black, Asian or Pacific Islander, American Indian, Eskimo or Aleut; and the catchall designator "Other." (The questionnaire provides a separate Hispanic/Spanish-origin box in addition to these racial categories.) Simply changing the census form, Douglass argues, would help to acknowledge the nation's increasing diversity "in a positive way."

This seemingly innocuous revision is fast becoming a hideously complicated issue. Federal officials are well aware that the census fore forces millions of Americas to identify themselves as "Other," which sounds faintly diminishing. They are also aware that the current racial categories do not depict the nation's increasingly fluid demographics. "The problem is that the country is changing at a very rapid rate now, and the categories have not changed for the last 20 years," says Ohio Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer. "The [census] numbers may be precise, but they are precisely wrong. They do not reflect the reality of who people think they are." In 1990, census officials say, Americans used a write-in blank on the census form to identify nearly 300 "races," 600 Indian tribes, 70 Hispanic groups and 75 combinations of multiracial ancestry -- including one person self-identified as "black/Hmong."

Viewed as a matter of individual choice, the census-form issue looks like healthy self-assertion for those who feel themselves confined by America's traditional beliefs about race identity. It is that -- but it is also a potentially major political issue. If significant numbers of blacks and Hispanics begin to check the proposed multiracial box, that shift could trigger changes in census-based formulas used to distribute federal aid to minorities. It could also undermine part of the Voting Rights Act that requires so-called minority districting for blacks and Hispanics in congressional elections. And some speculate that it could lead to an expansion of affirmative action for previously ineligible minority groups.

All this remains so much speculation until (and unless) the census form is changed. But the demand for recognition by emerging multiethnic and multiracial groups is a clear rejection of the binary view of race and the one-drop rule as well. As such, it implicitly threatens the tradition of black solidarity on the long march toward social equality. Black intellectuals and political activists already recognize that possibility, and some are worried by the prospect of change. Since a great many black Americans can clearly claim to be biracial, the worst-case scenario is that black solidarity will slowly erode because of "defections" to multiethnic status. But not everyone agrees. "I don't think there are any political implications," says Bill Lynch, a former deputy mayor of New York. "It's no different from checking the 'Other' box."

And what if multiethnicity is the way out of our binary stale-mate? Orlando Patterson, for one, takes exactly that view. "If your object is the eventual integration of the races, a mixed-race or middle group is something you'd want to see developing," he says. "The middle group grows larger and larger, and the races eventually blend." Patterson knows that whites are wary and that blacks are warier still. But he thinks the amount of social interaction between the races is already "surprising," and he insists there is "nothing fundamental" about American society to block the ultimate blending of black and white. All it requires is patience, faith -- and a measure of good will.

Are the numbers of immigrants entering the U.S. from each of the following areas too many, too few or about right?

(percent saying too many) AREA BLACKS WHITES Europe 36% 30% Latin America 40% 59% Africa 24% 35% Asia 39% 45%


Should the U.S. Census add a multiracial category so people aren't forced to deny part of a family member's heritage by choosing a single racial category?

BLACKS WHITES Add category 49% 36% Don't add 42% 51% Should the U.S. Census stop collecting information on race and ethnicity? BLACKS WHITES Should stop 48% 47% Should not stop 44% 41%


How important is it that voting districts be drawn so that blacks can obtain representation in elective office comparable to their numbers in the population?

BLACKS WHITES Somewhat or very important 92% 59%


PHOTO: THE NEW ETHNICS: Immigrants take the oath of citizenship during naturalization ceremonies in Los Angeles. Thirty years of sustained immigration has shifted U.S. demographics -- and is changing America's view of race.