Race has never been an easy concept in this country; the rigid constructs by which people judge black and white have always left room for individuals who could move across either side of the line. Today, more Americans are choosing to identify as multiracial; that segment of the population has grown 35% since the 2000 Census.
Exhibit A: The president of the United States, who has a white mother, but chooses to identify himself as African American.
Vanderbilt University Associate Law Professor Daniel J. Sharfstein analyzes the constantly evolving perceptions and experience of race in his new book The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White. Sharfstein uses his legal background to fill in the shades of gray and highlight an American experience, which for many changed with the stroke of a pen, or with hair dye.
I recently had a chance to talk with Professor Sharfstein about his book and questions of racial identity in America.
What prompted you to look deeper into this idea of racial constructs as a choice?
In ’93, when I was still in college, I volunteered on a voter project while I was in South Africa. People [I worked with] said to me that the government had classified them as African, all except for one who was classified as Colored. "I’m as African as everyone else," she told me. But when the first census was taken, the constable who assigned class to citizens knew this woman’s dad … and out of respect for her father, changed their designation from African to Colored. From “A” to “C.” That one word – just one letter – changed her life dramatically.
Race was supposed to be concrete. To see how categories could bend … was really a revelation to me. I returned to the States wondering if that had happened here.
Why view this story through a legal angle?
I think of race as a series of rules. Some are mandated by legislatures, ruled by courts, or are informal rules. At the same time, race is something people experience every day. Understanding how they live it and think about it meant I researched court documents, and saw how legal rulings generally deferred to people’s every day experience.
What was it that made the stories of the three families you chose to follow so particularly compelling? Haven't many people crossed the race line the same way that they did?
I chose these three families because they were [both] typical and extraordinary. These families represent the diversity and range of people who crossed the line from black to white through class, geography, and social positions. There is such a rich historical record about the [Wall, Gibson, and Spencer] families [that allows us] to move beyond genealogical facts and think about who they were and what they did.
What did you find most interesting when comparing attitudes between the 1700s and 1800s, when the bulk of the narrative takes place, to present-day?
When looking at the Kentucky family, the Spencers, Jordan Spencer was visibly dark. He dyed his hair and every time he would sweat, the dye would run. There were constant reminders that this man was different. At the same time, the community still saw him as white, and decided that you could have a dark white man. These communities were capable of a lot of tolerance … on an individual level. Americans were exercising tolerance but at the same time, they chose to hate.
Did you find that people’s reactions were overwhelmingly negative upon finding out these families had African American ancestry?
Certainly, like O.S.B. Wall’s great-grandson [Thomas Murphy]. But the attitudes certainly evolve over time. People who were in denial make peace with the history. I understand Murphy’s reaction as a recognition of denial. But through years of working on his family history, he has a much stronger sense that this is his story. He’s become a tireless researcher and is committed to getting the story out, and I think that says volumes.
How key is the role of the Census in gauging how many more people are keeping their racial identities fluid?
As a country, we’re committed to principles of equality. The Census has an important function in figuring out how things are going – how well we’re living up to the principles of equality and anti-discrimination. On one level, how people self-identify is an interesting measure of how far we’ve come. On another level, it’s not completely related to larger societal issues we’ve made a commitment to overcome.
Have your opinions on racial constructs changed with Obama in the White House?
I think this country has changed a lot in the past couple decades and the way in which we understand the color line has been changed. As people have embraced multiracialism, its raised interesting questions about people who have been able to discover they have African Americans in their family history. I think these new ways of understanding identity are playing a role in how people are understanding their heritage. But I do think the election of Barack Obama is a major moment in the history of race. Race has never been about biology and blood. Plenty of white people have African blood. I’m looking at this history of migration across the color line and what do categories of black and white mean? These categories have been proxies for hierarchies and discrimination … for having a full set of rights as citizens.
Stacie Williams is a Monitor contributor.