Race and racial classification like various other social constructs have shifted in meaning over time. African American studies professor Angela D. James defines the social construction of race as:
…The process by which people both individually and collectively negotiate their identities and related interests in an environment of scarce resources.1
According to James, the notion of counting racial groups as it relates to public policy is a function of who constitutes the largest “minority” group.
To that end, the race has been understood in two ways: a social construct or a fixed characteristic. Defining race as a social construct acknowledges that as a product of colonialism, race emerges a dynamic process that casts Whiteness and Blackness in binary opposition, thus making it a social fact. Endorsing race as a fixed characteristic perpetuates it as a biological fiction, one defined by “bloodline.” Thus, race as a social construct gets treated as a proxy for historical experiences and contemporary interests shared by individuals.
Why Racial Classification Exists
James notes that the political and social centrality of race in political agendas makes racial classification necessary and altering these categories has ramifications.
A Brief History of the U.S. Census
The U.S. Census started in 1790 and even then race was included in some form. The representation of Black and indigenous people get legislated in a manner that disenfranchised them (see the 3/5ths compromise). In 1960 the classification of race shifted from census enumerators to self-identification.
The U.S. Census has also historically treated ethnicity as distinctly from the race. While race is perceived as a fixed characteristic, ethnicity gets represented as a matter of ancestry. To that end, groups like Hispanics might either get assimilated into Whiteness or treated as a distinct race depending on broader political motivations. Nevertheless, the racial classification of other nations, like those in Latin America, might also influence U.S. racial classification.
In truth, the majority of Americans come from multiple racial groups. Yet multiracial identity did not get added to the census until 2000. The inclusion, however, of multiracial people started out in the 1850s as a classification of “mulattos” into quadroons, octoroons, or any person with Black and White ancestry. Interestingly, multiracial people who had indigenous ancestry did not have the option of identifying as mulatto.
Overall, Whiteness serves as an exclusionary boundary in racial classification so that racialization emerges due to both internal and external group pressures. Thus, one cannot simply self-identify as a particular race without having experienced racialization as Black as well. Therefore, regardless of how much blackface she dawns, Rachel Dolezal is a white woman.
The Study and the Use of Race Among Academics and Scientists
According to James, scholars fall into two categories in their discussion of race. Some people study race, meaning they recognize it as a dynamic, fluid, situational social process. Others use race by treating it as fixed, thus incorporating it in quantitative analyses as either dummy, control, or independent variables. This disembodiment of race implies racial differences amount to genetic differences.
James argues that academics need better race models in their research and suggests three approaches:
- Don’t use race as a demographic variable because it promotes essentialism
- Interrogate the source of racial difference rather than using race as a control variable
- Adequately theorize race as a social and historical fact
Academics interested in race must be careful not to reproduce racial stratification by “using” instead of “studying” race.