This week, the New York Times reported that "It is official: Barack Obama is the nation's first black president." Evidently, President Obama chose to check the "African-American" box when defining his race for the 2010 census.
Mr. Obama had several options, as does anyone filling out the census. Starting with the 2000 census, respondents have been no longer forced to choose a single-race identity; they can now check one box, several boxes, or check "some other race" and then write-in their identity. Mr. Obama is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. He was born in Hawaii and raised there and in Indonesia. He chose to simply check "African-American."
From the perspective of science and biological anthropology, race does not exist. In other words, there is not one gene, trait, or characteristic that distinguishes all members of one race from all members of another. In fact, eighty-five percent of all human variation can be found in any local population, and a full ninety-four percent can be found on any continent. In other words, there are no sub-species when it comes to humans; we are, in truth, one of the most genetically similar to each other species of all species on earth.
What, then, is race? And if it is not a concept that can be measured scientifically, how (and why) do we define it?
The answer to the first question (what is race) is easier than the second (how and why): race is a social construct. In other words, groups of people define race based on social hierarchies, prejudice, culture, language, etc. in whatever way makes sense to them or suits them. For example, within Guatemala, native populations might be considered a different race than those of Spanish descent. But when any Guatemalan comes to the United States, they would likely be defined as "White, Hispanic." The Nazi's might have defined Jews and Gypsies as inferior races, but in other parts of the world they might be seen as simply "White." In Rwanda, race might be defined as Tutsi and Hutu whereas other parts of the world might consider them simply "Black." The term "Asian" attempts to encompass a wide range of people with incredibly diverse cultures, languages, and histories, many with their own definitions of race within each. The "what is race" question, then, is answered thus: race does not exist and race is defined by a particular group of people (culture, nation, continent, town, city, etc.) in a particular way at any particular time.
The questions that remain, then, are how and why we define it. These questions are more laden with meaning and implication, identity and history. As can be seen in many of the examples above, in the course of history race has often been defined by one group as a way of justifying prejudice, negative treatment, enslavement, oppression, and even annihilation of another group. Ostensibly, the census asks questions about race in order to measure how segregated of a society we continue to be, and whether or not there is fair representation of all groups.
However, are the statistics gathered truly useful and in what way? This is especially true when attempting to answer the question of "how" race is defined. The number of multiracial people in the United States rose 3.4 percent last year to about 5.2 million, according to some estimates, and is one of the fastest growing populations as a whole. Interracial marriages increased threefold since 2000, with about 1 in 13 marriages of mixed race. If this trend continues, the question of an individual's race will likely only get more and more difficult to define. Is a black child raised by white parents from birth still simply black? He may get viewed/treated by society that way, but what of is inner experience and identity - surely his parents' identity influence him as well. And what of all the biracial or multiethnic kids? They may now have the option checking multiple boxes but does that begin to speak to their experience or identity?
To be sure, President Obama had good reason(s) for identifying himself as African American on the census; one can only imagine what it/they might be. But this growing trend of multiple and difficult to define identities is an issue that will not go away; in fact, we know it will only grow with time. The days of easy categorization are numbered, and with it go our fixed concepts of self and of other. As a society, culture, and planet we will have to work to figure out new ways of understanding who we are, who others' are, and how we are similar or different from each other. It will be up to us whether these new ways of understanding ourselves and each other will create more distance or bring us closer, create more hatred or more compassion, and ultimately help or hurt us in our quest to become a greater human species.