The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America

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Obtained via the Interlibrary Loan service of the University Near Here from Boston College. I've been meaning to read this since it came out last year. The author, David E. Bernstein, is one of the contributors to the Volokh Conspiracy legal blog hosted at the Reason magazine website.

As the subtitle suggests, the book examines a practice that, given history, one might think would be entirely odious: pigeonholing individuals based on their genetic heritage. And most often the purpose is not to make sure everyone's treated equally: it's to make sure that people with favored genes get treated better, and (hence) the disfavored get treated worse.

I've been bugged about this for quite awhile. My first blog post on the topic seems to be nearly 18 years old.

Bernstein states his overall thesis right in paragraph one:

Official American racial and ethnic classifications are arbitrary and inconsistent, both in how they are defined and how they are enforced. The categories are socially constructed and historically contingent. The evolved from older racist categories and have barely been updated since the 1970s.

So that's pretty bad, but you'll probably come up with a bunch more, even nastier, adjectives as you read through the book; I know I did.

Bernstein presents the history without explicit outrage, just the facts ma'am, and it's all the more powerful for that. The official rules concern race and ethnicity. But the only "ethnicities" in which government is concerned are "Hispanic" and "non-Hispanic". And defining "Hispanic" is problematic: is it based on where (some of) your long-lost ancestors originated? The language they spoke? The language you speak? Or maybe your last name?

And (wait a minute) if the purpose of such classification is to track down invidious discrimination in the past and present, there are plenty of groups that have had (and some that continue to have) a raw deal: Jews (not to mention Hasidic Jews); Poles; Irish; Arabs; … I could go on.

American Indians (the Feds prefer this name over "Native Americans") are officially a "race", but there are often extra requirements imposed if you want to be counted that way: for example, you may need to be a registered member of one of the recognized tribes. Or you may need a DNA test to give a significant result. (Sorry, Elizabeth Warren!)

And (of course) the biggie is "Black/African-American"? Does America follow the good old "one drop" rule left over from Jim Crow days? Sometimes, not always. (Left unsaid is the plain scientific fact that we are all of African heritage, if you go back far enough.)

Needless to say, the government uses its classification scheme, however arbitrarily and inconsistently, to dole out favors. Which means that an unseemly struggle lies behind any attempt to change that classification scheme. Politicians are on record against any sort of tinkering that might "dilute" their groups' benefits. It's an inherently tawdry and corrupt business.

Somewhat scary: Bernstein devotes a chapter to where the "official", very unscientific, classification rules have slopped over into medical and sociological research, mandated by (for example) the NIH and the FDA. Bernstein notes that this can be dangerous, actually costing lives. For example, Moderna's Covid vaccine was delayed for weeks, thanks to the NIH demand that more "minorities" be tested before the go-ahead was given. How many people did that kill?

Last Modified 2024-01-12 6:03 AM EST