Black Like Me

Pakistani wedding. New York, 2008.

During the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, sociologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark received national attention. Their 1947 study, Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children, would prove integral to the US Supreme Court’s decision to end the segregation of public schools seven years later.

Particularly memorable is the Dolls Test, where children were made to select the doll that best captured abstract qualities such as ‘looking bad’. The Clarks proved how heavily racism had been internalized by children.

The study should also be considered on more abstract terms. Researchers found it necessary to use the terms “white” and “colored” in the story, as the term “Negro” was seen as requiring a higher level of verbalization than was at the disposal of its subjects. This set out a more fluid definition of racism, as children saw the dolls in terms of lighter and darker pigmentation rather than simply “White” and “Black.” Interestingly, these loose ideas of color consciousness would become important for understanding how other minorities confronted the era of Jim Crow.

The United States is unique from countries, such as Apartheid-era South Africa, in that it avoided scientific arguments for its laws of racial exclusion. The Court’s majority opinion in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind 261 U.S. 204 (1923) acknowledged that “the Caucasic division of the human family is in point of fact the most debatable field in the whole range of anthropological studies.” It found against Thind, who argued that he had Aryan ancestry as an Indian Sikh and thus was a white person who could qualify for American citizenship. Instead, the Court found that the statute was likely ascribed to “the Adamite theory of creation,” and chose to understand whiteness in its popular sense.

Thind made manifest a clear trend in American minority politics. When discussing non-black minorities, the impulse was not to challenge the discriminatory bases of specific legislation that privileged whites. Rather, the early twentieth century was marked by clear efforts to expand official definitions of whiteness to include certain minority groups. There were many Supreme Court rulings on East Asian whiteness that confronted these types of arguments, such as Takao Ozawa v. United States 260 U.S. 178 (1922) where Ozawa argued that he qualified for the expanded Naturalization Act of 1906 because Japanese are white.

This speaks to racial politics that are still relevant in a globalized world, as many immigrants found themselves in a contest to be considered white, of which the ability to be considered American citizens on those terms was merely a part. Legal scholar John Tehranian has argued that the common-knowledge standard for whiteness that became a part of the American court system by 1923 was in reality a “performance-based” standard. Tehranian points out that the common definitions related to religious practices, culture, education, intermarriage, and a community’s role in the United States.

South Asian culture show. Columbia University, 2008.
South Asian culture show. Columbia University, 2008.

This effectively meant that full immigrant assimilation required both the adaption of particular cultural dispositions, and lighter-skinned pigmentation. Crucially, being identified as part of the white dolls in the Clark experiments meant dissociating from the colored ones.

Thind himself betrays this logic, as his case depends on South Asian color consciousness that breaks with darker-skinned Indian immigrants. However, despite its mixed success at the Supreme Court, these efforts often succeeded on unofficial terms. Evelio Grillo’s memoir Black Cuban, Black American discusses these dynamics in respect to Cuban immigrants in Florida. Grillo grew up in Tampa during the 1930s, and discusses how lighter-skinned Cubans separated themselves from darker-skinned Cubans that were ultimately integrated into the Black American community. Religious and social tensions between the groups are eventually navigated through new forms of identity, partially because Grillo’s community also found itself discriminated by Jim Crow. Lighter-skinned Cubans, on the other hand, were able to fully integrate themselves. This required disdain for the darker-skinned members of their former community.

It shouldn’t be surprising. Tehranian’s performance-based standard is based on community approval. Grillo’s Cubans were aping the racism that they encountered amongst whites. This is assimilation through mimicking their racism, which has its most striking example in Jim Crow era Mississippi. Chinese-American children were allowed to attend white-only schools and universities, despite simultaneously being legislated against in western US states. This likely hinged on the same social forces which led to some of their parents becoming members of the Mississippi White Citizens’ Council that enforced policies of racial segregation.

Such questions of legal history continue to be important. Model minorities that gain entry into American suburbia find themselves confronted by the same question of whether or not they will meet the equivalent of performance-based standards. Although generations of change have produced different cultural articulations of this problem, the core dynamics remain. Non-white immigrants are still subject to the approval of mostly white Americans. They remain, as it were, an exception, rather than being equal to persons of northern European descent.

David R. Roediger has argued that the ‘construction’ of the white race in the United States was an effort to mentally distance slaveowners from slaves. Tea Party rhetoric that focuses on President Obama’s birth certificate suggests that this mentality remains an inherent part of American politics. Unfortunately, there’s truth to this. The sad fact is that  Americans have only partially come to terms with the realities of slavery, and have difficulties reconciling themselves to its lingering influence, today. This is why it is especially incumbent on minorities to recognize its continuing effects, and resist them. After all, democracy is a synonym for multiculturalism. Without one, the other remains incomplete.


Photographs  courtesy of  Mira. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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