September 20, 2007
Here's what to watch for at next week's GOP minority-issues presidential debate at a historically black college in Baltimore: empty chairs. All four top Republicans have "scheduling conflicts."
Even Republicans get that this is a problem. "We sound like we don't want black people to vote for us," former congressman Jack Kemp told the Washington Post. "What are we going to do -- meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? "
He's right about the country club part. But maybe rounding the bases at "the black debate" or "the brown debate" as a way to win votes -- for either party -- is looking as dated as Kemp worries that the GOP could become.
Get with it. Instead of black voters, call them the Halle Berry/Mariah Carey/Tiger Woods voters. Instead of the Latino vote, re-brand it as the Jessica Alba/Jimmy Smits vote.
Berry, daughter of a white mother and black father, identifies herself as black. Carey is variously listed as African American, Irish American and Long Island American. Woods has said he's "Cablinasian" -- Caucasian, black, Native American and Asian. Alba is Latino Franco Danish; Smits is Dutch Surinamese Puerto Rican. (You almost -- almost -- have to feel sorry for politicians. Once upon a time, ethnic politics was as easy as wearing a green tie in the St. Patrick's Day parade.)
What do race and ethnicity mean now? "Identity politics" is becoming just however people choose to identify themselves. In 2000, when the U.S. Census began letting people check more than one box for "race," nearly 7 million people did. People have sniped about Berry calling herself black and about Woods not calling himself black. And there's debate among minority voters over whether Democratic candidate Bill Richardson is Latino enough or whether Barack Obama is black enough (meaning not skin color but whether Obama is authentically at one with the African American slave experience). This, at the same time that mainstream pollsters still wonder whether Obama and Richardson are too black and too Latino to win.
Seventy, 80 years ago, Obama and Woods and Berry would have had no choice. Many states practiced the "one-drop rule" -- a fraction of "black blood" made you completely and legally black.
These days, when celebrities and garden-variety people can choose to classify themselves racially or ethnically on the strength of only a fractional claim to that group, they're turning the one-drop rule on its head, mocking America's "what are you?" race obsession.
You can see where this is going. Race could be so . . . 20th century.
I've been hoping for a hidden, vivid strain in my family, which is the color of the Wonder Bread I grew up eating. An unsuspected DNA legacy might open up a career in politics for me. And I could check a lot more boxes on the census form.
I turned to Bennett Greenspan. He's chief executive of the Houston-based Family Tree DNA. With my brother's DNA and mine in hand, he ran his tests and broke the news to me.
No Pocahontas. No Cleopatra. No Barbary buccaneer or Afro-Caribbean pirates; if I wanted to fly the Jolly Roger, I'd have to stitch the skull and crossbones on a piece of tartan, in the interest of full disclosure.
My father's side is "typical white European male" -- whiter and more European, more British, even, than Thomas Jefferson, whose DNA shows northern Lebanese and Levantine origins. My paternal ancestors were, says Greenspan, "the lineage that drew those lovely cave paintings" in Lascaux -- and may have done in the Neanderthals to take over the cave leases.
On my mother's side -- well, "at least it's not as boring," Greenspan consoled me. Hers is a rarer DNA signature, out of Lithuania and Germany and into Scandinavia, maybe a hop over to the bagpipe precincts of Caledonia. "We can say conclusively that while your father's father's line were painting those cave paintings, your mother's mother's line were not there holding the fire stick." Atta girl, Mom.
Now, at last, I know. And I feel like those paint-chip colors in the hardware store -- so many different fancy names, but all of them white.
Greenspan is in the business of untangling our DNA threads. He believes passionately that identity is a matter of mind, not just mitochondria: "Race is not identity." The American dilemma is that we have made it so. Unmaking it is one helluva job.
For one thing, like a vaccine, we still have to use race to cure racism. A 2003 California initiative to ban governments from collecting ethnic or racial data got whacked at the ballot box. To fix inequities in, say, health and education, you have to track them first.
I'll be standing on the sidelines, applauding as this new ethnic parade passes me by. Which, as they used to say, is mighty white of me.
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