Although we are constantly told by white intellectuals that race does not exist, the most remarkable aspect of the American system of racial affirmative action is that it works—and surprisingly smoothly—on the honor system.
You might assume that if race were an arbitrary social construct, then America would be beset by constant disputes over who qualifies to benefit from racial quotas. If race is all just Foucauldian mind games, then surely blacks must be getting exploited by whites, right?
And yet, Americans don’t actually have much trouble agreeing on who qualifies as black and who does not.
That is not widely understood, though. Like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, it is hard to notice how limited in number are the controversies in the U.S. over whether some racial preference beneficiary is really black or not. (The most notorious one in recent decades was set in isolated Spokane.)
Indeed, scandals over claims to be American Indian, such as the interminable one involving Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), are perhaps more common in the U.S. than rumors involving people who may or may not be black.
This is especially odd because American Indian nations each have their own federally sanctioned detailed rules and procedures for determining who is a member of the tribe and who isn’t. In contrast, there are no longer laws determining who is black and who is white in America, only vague regulatory guidelines. And yet America isn’t racked by constant uproars over who qualifies as black.
The African-American conception of race—that it has something to do with who your biological ancestors are, that it doesn’t matter how woke Rachel Dolezal is, she still can’t be black unless some of her ancestors were black—makes more sense than the current white intellectual view that race is all a socially constructed delusion disproved by modern biological science.
The publication of Harvard geneticist David Reich’s realist book Who We Are and How We Got Here may mark a turning point in how American progressive intellectuals think about the basics of race. So it’s worth reviewing how awkwardly the current white conventional wisdom—that race is just a sinister conspiracy to saddle some people with the name “black”—contradicts the more sensible black view that race is about how who your mother and father were.
We live in a society in which the complaints of African-Americans are given extensive coverage, but they have few lamenting that whites have stolen their affirmative action slots. (Indeed, there isn’t much coverage in the press, other than when it comes up in Supreme Court cases, of America’s system of racial preferences.)
In the U.S. in the half century since affirmative action was instituted in the late 1960s, people simply self-identify by checking a race box on a form.
This often baffles foreigners, who ask, “Why don’t you just lie?”
In contrast to America, for example, Brazil has felt it necessary to institute expert commissions to assess whether applicants for affirmative action have skin tone that is dark enough and noses wide enough to qualify for privileges.
And even this doesn’t end the agitation. The Brazilian press features frequent brouhahas over who gets to be included in the 20 percent of government jobs reserved for nonwhites. Just as Brazilian soccer stars tend to lighten their skin tone, ambitious students are suspected of darkening theirs.
This is because the Brazilian system, both of racial bias and of compensatory affirmative action, is based on looks. It really is skin-deep.
In Brazil, people who look blacker or more Amerindian are more discriminated against, so they get affirmative action as reparations, with blacks being supposed to benefit more than mixed-race people. People who don’t look nonwhite aren’t supposed to benefit from quotas. Siblings with the same ancestry might be sorted into separate racial categories if they look substantially different.
But, of course, there are incessant arguments in Brazil over who looks like what.
In contrast, the American system is based on who your ancestors are and how they identified.
The problem, of course, is that everybody has an immense number of ancestors, so any system of racial classification, such as the current American affirmative action system, has to rely upon shorthand. The customs for determining which box somebody is placed in can have unexpected implications that are seldom studied by pundits.
Senator Warren, for instance, claims that one of her 32 great-great-grandparents was a Cherokee or Delaware Indian (or both). Nor do most Americans have a pedigree as thoroughly documented as do thoroughbred racehorses, whose ancestors can sometimes be documented back to the 17th century.
To deal with this, American Indian nations each have their own rules for who is entitled to membership (and thus, in recent decades, who gets a share of the profits from the one casino each tribe has the right to own).
For example, the Cherokee require members to be directly descended from at least one person on the Dawes Final Rolls of 1907. Of the two tribes of Delaware Indians in Oklahoma, one uses a similar rule and the other requires applicants to be at least one-eighth Delaware by “blood quantum.”
Senator Warren qualifies under none of these measures. Yet, she did have herself listed as Native American at Harvard Law School, which used her assertion to statistically claim greater diversity of faculty. (Warren also contributed several old family recipes to a 1984 cookbook of American Indian cuisine entitled Pow Wow Chow, including that essential Plains Indian dish: crab with mayonnaise. This recipe may have been lifted from a 1979 newspaper column by a French chef who says this dish was a great favorite of legendary Indian chiefs Cole Porter and the Duchess of Windsor.)
On the other hand, one could theoretically be descended from enough American Indian tribes without qualifying for membership in any single one that an outside observer might consider you to have a legitimate claim to be a generic Native American. But what level of descent that would require has never been established, and if it ever were, Senator Warren would be unlikely to meet it. (Just look at her.)
In any case, being part Indian has never been all that detrimental in American history. For example, Herbert Hoover’s vice president, Charles Curtis, grew up speaking Kaw. His Indian blood just added a touch of glamour to his résumé.
In contrast, being black was not helpful to one’s career before the 1960s. But that raised the question of who is black and who is white, which was answered in a quite different way than in regards to Indians.
Interestingly, the same system prevailed both before and after the 1960s. Although white intellectuals promoting the race-doesn’t-exist talking points assume they are doing blacks a huge favor by claiming that race is just a vast racist conspiracy by whites, when the affirmative action era came along, black people themselves chose to keep the old system for determining who is black.
It’s called the “one-drop” rule, although it’s a little more complicated than that.