The Trouble With “Racism”

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
April 8, 2007


his essay is about the word itself. Like a once-sharp tool ruined by misuse, it has become too blunted for intellectual discourse.

According to “Racism Alive and Well in City,” Edmonton Sun, March 26, 2007, Winston Hawthorne of the Edmonton Chapter of the National Black Coalition of Canada says that, “racism still thrives in discriminatory industry hiring practices, and in the media.” In fact, Hawthorne is talking about alleged discrimination against Muslims from India. In Six Degrees of Liberal Racism, Jim Sleeper labels as “racism” the U.S. government’s asking its citizens to identify their “race.” Similar quotations claim that: Brazil’s lack of class mobility is “racism,” Cuban mothers’ preference that daughters marry rich or light-skinned is “racism,” Florida’s demand that a Muslim woman remove her face-veil for an ID photo is “racism,” the arrest of Muslim zealots making a disturbance on an in-flight airliner is “racism,” and opposition to the presence of illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States is “racism.”

Such disparate usages of the term have only two points in common: First, they allege societal discrimination inflicted because the victims are members of an out-group. Second, they communicate the user’s disapproval and his/her desire that you join in disapproving.

A word that means nothing more than, “society discriminates against some people and I disapprove” may be useful in political exhortation, but not in scholarly debate. Those who study societies need more precise semantic instruments. It resembles the way that a layperson might say, “infarction versus occlusion, who cares? A heart attack is a heart attack.” But to a physician the difference is of supreme importance. Similarly, a layperson might say, “ethnocentrism, colorism, classism, religious prejudice, who cares? Racism is racism.” But to the specialist, the differences are profound.

Semantic precision does not merely satisfy a desire to classify things. Some acts performed by a society are destructive to that society’s own goals. We want to detect such situations, in order to learn how they arose, in order to learn how that are produced and maintained, in order to change them.

In studying U.S. racialism, the nation’s endogamous color line and its one-drop rule, and in comparing them with similar phenomena in other countries and in past historical times, it is useful to subdivide situations where a society inflicts inequality upon some of its citizens. The following categories have been found useful:

1. Discrimination Caused by the Victims’ Own Acts is Not of Interest to the Study of Racialism.

The first breakpoint distinguishes situations where discrimination is due to something that the individual did rather than to a person’s group membership. For instance, people who are caught cheating on their taxes suffer inequality in the form of punishment from their society, which is not inflicted upon those who are not caught cheating on their taxes. The phenomenon is different from society punishing someone (who has done nothing wrong) merely because he is, say, a Jew. Cases where societies punish people for committing forbidden acts are not of interest in the study of U.S. racialism because they shed no light on the phenomenon.

Lack of interest in such cases is practical, not theoretical. For example, Orthodox Judaism looks down upon Jews who eat pork, regardless of how they self-identify, and Elizabethan England persecuted Catholics who celebrated mass, but not those non-practicing who were merely born into Catholic families. Such inequalities inflicted for commission of forbidden acts do not reward the investigator of U.S. racialism. They may be of interest to other fields of study (e.g.: Why are psychotropic drugs sometimes forbidden, sometimes allowed, and sometimes encouraged?), but not here.

One might possibly rebut that the Nazi holocaust was inflicted upon people who merely committed forbidden acts (worshiping in synagogues, conducting passover rituals, etc.) and yet the Nazi holocaust is of interest to the student of U.S. racialism nonetheless. But this would be factually inaccurate. The holocaust is of interest precisely because the Berlin synagogue remained in operation throughout the Nazi period. The authorities saw its surviving members as “racially Aryans,” who were Jews only in a religious sense. And millions of practicing Christians went to the gas chambers because they were seen as “racially Jewish,” no matter how they worshipped.

In short, the study of U.S. racialism is interested in cases where societies discriminate against individuals because they are members of a group and not because of anything that they do.

2. Discrimination Caused by Voluntary Group Membership is of Slight Interest.

The second subdivision splits voluntary membership from hereditary membership. Jews were subjected to persecution in 16th-century Spain. Nevertheless, Spanish authorities of the time encouraged Jews to convert to Catholicism. Those who converted were not persecuted. Spanish society saw membership in the Jewish group as voluntary. Contrast this with the Nazi holocaust, where the authorities considered membership in the persecuted group to be involuntary, even though some so-called “racial Jews” would have been willing to recant.

An example closer to home is the Cape Verdean community of Massachusetts. This Portuguese-speaking community of Afro-European ancestry immigrated from the Cape Verde islands off the coast of Africa during the 19th century and worked mainly in the state’s cranberry industry. For generations they maintained a group identity apart from the dichotomous U.S. color line, seeing themselves as neither White nor Black. But recent generations have abandoned an ethnic identity independent of the U.S. color line and have split between the two U.S. endogamous groups. Most Cape Verdeans a century ago saw themselves as members of a unique hereditary group—a third “race.” Today’s descendants accept that each individual is either White or Black, and see their newly found “racial” identities regarding the U.S. color line as more real than their grandparents’ single ethnicity.

Similarly, only about ten percent of U.S. residents of Puerto Rican descent check off “Black” on the U.S. census “race” question, although about half of the genetic admixture in the Puerto Rican population comes from African slaves. Finally, some Americans of European physical appearance have self-identified as “Black” for their own reasons. Among these individuals were (or are) Walter White, Gregory Williams, Adrian Piper, and David Matthews.

For each of these populations—Cape Verdeans, census-Black Puerto Ricans, and politically Black Americans who look White—membership in the U.S. Black community undoubtedly subjects them to the inequalities of being Black. But, judging by the examples of millions of others, their membership could in theory be renounced and they could thus join the privileged White endogamous group.

Specialists usually designate societal inequality triggered by voluntary membership with the word ethnocentrism. Voluntary membership-based discrimination (ethnocentrism) is of slight interest to the study of U.S. racialism. It sheds light on the extent to which Americans rationalize “racial” (as opposed to “ethnic”) membership as being hereditary. It thereby helps to delineate the delusional aspects of U.S. racialism. Nevertheless, because it is under the victims’ control, it is peripheral to the heart of the issue—the next two categories.

3. Appearance-Based Discrimination is of Solid Interest.

In many parts of the world, mothers encourage their daughters to marry someone either rich or light-skinned. In India, a preference for lighter complexion has existed throughout recorded history. In Latin America, people of strong African phenotype (skin tone, hair texture, facial features) face obstacles in applying to the best schools, getting the best jobs, or joining the best clubs. Even within the African-American community, civic organizations gave preference to lighter skin tones in 1770’s Charleston, antebellum New Orleans, and pre-World War II Philadelphia.

Appearance-based inequality differs from inequality triggered by acts or by voluntary group membership in that it is beyond the victim’s control. In theory, a person who commits forbidden acts can stop. A person who joins a despised group can renounce membership. But a person mistreated because of their looks is helpless to improve his or her lot. (Plastic surgery and skin bleaching are possible only for a wealthy few.)

Specialists usually designate societal inequality triggered by phenotype with the word colorism. It is true that some use the word colorism to denote only discrimination based solely upon skin tone rather than on general appearance, but such a usage is too narrow in this context (the study of U.S. racialism). In Latin America, for instance, people are often discriminated against because they have “bad hair” or African “features” despite a pale skin tone. Appearance-based discrimination (or colorism) is of solid interest to the study of U.S. racialism because it is common throughout the New World, including the United States, even though it violates the revolutionary 19th-century idea that your lot in life should depend upon your unique abilities, not on your accident of birth. Because it is so strong in Latin America, colorism is often compared with the next category, which is unique to the United States.

4. Ancestry-Based Discrimination is of Extreme Interest.

The United States is unique in harboring discrimination based upon a concept of “race” that is independent both of appearance and of voluntary group membership. European-looking Anglo-Americans with known African ancestry are usually described by academics as Black persons who merely “look White” or are “passing as White.” Futhermore, if such an individual openly self-identifies as White due to his or her appearance and upbringing, academic literature often accuses the individual of reprehensibly betraying or denying his or her “race.”

Ancestry-based discrimination is the only form of societal discrimination that is termed racism by scholars who specialize in the U.S. “race” notion.

Ancestry-based discrimination (racism) is of extreme interest because it is common in the United States and yet it is irrational. Americans seem to agree that whether you are White or Black depends on having African slave ancestry. And yet, although about one-third of so-called White Americans carry detectable sub-Saharan DNA markers from slave ancestors, virtually none are aware of the fact and most would vehemently deny it. On the other hand, although virtually all Hispanic Americans know that they have DNA admixture from African slave ancestors (as well as European and Native-American admixture), most Americans do not consider Hispanics to be Black, but instead see them as a third “race.”

* * * *

It is true that the specialists’ word usages as presented above are not widespread. Most people have no need of such technical verbal precision. As mentioned, most journalists and laypersons use “racism” merely to show disapproval of a particular instance of inequality. And two classes of speakers use the term to achieve deliberate ambiguity. Some social science and humanities academics, historians especially, use the term “racism” within their field’s current master narrative in order to stress moral judgment, rather than mere narrative chronicle. And political leaders use the word in order to produce firm-sounding position statements that can be interpreted favorably by listeners of every conviction.

All in all, however, of all the phenomena labeled “racism” by laypersons: discrimination caused by the victims’ own acts, discrimination caused by voluntary group membership, appearance-based discrimination, and ancestry-based discrimination, only the last of these is called “racism” by specialists in the field.


Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

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