Social scientists, particularly sociologists, have routinely analyzed data sorted by racial and ethnic variables to better understand social structures, discrimination, health, educational achievement, and differences in life opportunities for different social groups in our society. “Skin tone” and phenotypes (observable physical traits) have also been used to differentiate among different social groups – both self-defined and those defined by others. Sometimes this research has been motivated by an intent to document inequalities and processes of discrimination as a first step in determining policies that will reduce or eliminate race- and ethnic-based inequalities.
Such research led to landmark legal decisions in the United States. It was research by social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark that was successfully used in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision striking down “separate but equal” practices in public schools. Showing children Black and White dolls, the Clarks found that the majority of both White and Black children pointed to White dolls when asked which ones were “pretty” or “nice.” “Bad” was associated with Black dolls among both groups of children. This clearly documented that separate but equal institutions had long-term negative effects of Black self-esteem.
© P. Nyden 2007
However some research may be crossing the line from studying race and ethnicity itself to locking in or reifying racial or ethnic stereotypes themselves. This is particularly the case with research studying skin tones and phenotypes. Many of today’s researchers are examining fine and finer distinctions between “skin tone” and other physical traits that some perceive connected to race and/or ethnicity. These researchers may be swimming against the popular stream where racial and ethnic distinctions appear to be of less importance and relevance to younger Americans. In a typical class at Loyola, and most other universities, one may look around the room and make an assumption about someone’s racial or ethnic background. In recent years, I have noticed that links between “looks” and a student’s identity have become more tenuous. It turns out that the “Latino” student has a mother of Mexican heritage and a father from Poland. Another student wearing a hijab and is assumed be “Middle Eastern” has an Egyptian father and a Norwegian mother.
Is not the decoupling of physical appearance and identity a goal of much of the research on race and ethnicity over past decades? Are there not demographic trends in the U.S. today that are blurring these categories that have been used to sort and discriminate? According to the Pew Research Center “one in seven new marriages is between spouses of difference races or ethnicities.” Younger Americans are more likely to be multiracial than are older Americans. More than one in 20 children under age five are multiracial; while less than one in 100 Americans over age 65 are multiracial, reports demographer Reynolds Farley.
In a January 30, 2011 New York Times article entitled “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above,” the multi-decades-long U.S. trend toward youth identifying themselves as bi-racial or multi-racial was underscored. Reflecting on her membership in the University of Maryland Multiracial and Biracial Student Association one student said “The No. 1 reason why we exist is to give people who feel like they don’t want to choose a side, that don’t want to label themselves based on other people’s interpretations of who they are, to give them a place, that safe space….”
In a positive trend, younger Americans are more comfortable with racial and ethnic ambiguities. This is a step forward responding to the more complex, diverse, global society in which we function. This is a positive outcome of decades of civil rights and human rights movements that has succeeded in moving towards a society, or at least sectors of a society, where children are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” and have fulfilled some of Dr. King’s dream.
All social scientists, myself included, need to take heed of the changing population landscape as documented by the U.S. Census. We need to make sure that our research is forward looking and does not intentionally or unintentionally attempt to reproduce dysfunctional ways of understanding the world around us. With an increase in multi-racial identity among younger Americans, social scientists’ focus on “skin tone” and phenotypes will hopefully fade into irrelevance. The alternative is to continue to fine tune our methods of distinguishing between racial groups and ethnic groups. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. has some of these calibration instruments used in decades past. Jewelry cases with different colored locks of hair and different colored glass irises used in Germany are on display. I do not think these are tools that we want to take out of the display case and use in our research.
Director, Center for Urban Research and Learning and
Distinguished University Research Professor in Sociology