Weekend Read: Racial Roulette

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

A review of Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America, by David E. Bernstein, Bombardier Books, 2022, 186 pages.

Early in my professional career a long time ago, I was tasked by my employer, an international insurance company based in Chicago, with three responsibilities in addition to other duties:  one, to head the company’s affirmative action program, or more accurately, its outreach program; two, to oversee the company’s compliance with equal opportunity laws; and three, to complete the annual report on the racial composition of the workforce and the company’s plans to redress disparities, as required by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.


Back then, it was understood by the government and industry that the focus of such efforts should be on African Americans, given the prevailing prejudices against them and the awful socioeconomic legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. The mission was taken seriously, and hard-fought battles were won for equal opportunity, but without the paternalism, pandering, and phony virtue-signaling of today.

It didn’t last long.  Other racial/ethnic groups soon began clamoring to be designated as disadvantaged minorities deserving of the same considerations as African Americans, such as eligibility for affirmative action, preferences in government contracts, extra attention in civil rights enforcement and added weight in legislative redistricting.

A political, legal, and regulatory mess ensued.  Attempts to define race became contradictory and arbitrary, different ethnocultural groups with little in common were lumped together in an artificial labeling system, race became confused with ethnicity, identity activists began to lobby the government for a share of racial/ethnic spoils, and courts had to referee the inevitable conflicts, trying to be fair in a politicized system that was inherently unfair.


At the same time, ethnic groups that had long been seen as minorities and discriminated against by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority were reclassified as being in the white majority, even if they were well behind WASPs in income, education, and positions of authority.  The reclassified included Poles, Italians, Jews, Armenians, Cajuns, Iranians, Arabs, and others.

All of this is detailed in the scholarly but provocative book, Classified, by David E. Bernstein, a graduate of the Yale University Law School and a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School of George Mason University.

To quote from the flyleaf: “Classified describes how the American system of racial classification has evolved via a combination of amateur anthropology and sociology, interest group lobbying, incompetence, inertia, lack of public oversight, and happenstance.”


I describe it metaphorically:  Classified shows how the good intentions of rectifying past injustices and making America fairer turned into a game of racial roulette, in which a wheel of contrived racial categories is spun to see if an authorized player can win a preference, set aside, subsidy, the position of authority, or public sympathy.

The book also shows how easy it was for the government and other institutions to get Americans to adopt new identities.  Cultural affinities and common heritages were erased and replaced with impersonal and officious nomenclature, in an anthropological travesty.  Specifically, the rich diversity of the nation and world, consisting of hundreds of unique ethnocultural groups, was reduced to the six catchalls of White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American. 

Now, in an astonishing feat of doublespeak, this reductio ad absurdum is used as the basis of diversity programs.

Almost all Americans have become conditioned to use the six labels to identify their own race and the race of others, without knowing how the terms were originally defined and how courts and government agencies have further defined them. They might be surprised to know that when the federal government first promulgated the racial classifications with Statistical Directive No. 15 in 1977, it warned that they “should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature.”  It also should have warned that the classifications are inconsistent, contradictory, and non-discrete.  There are so many anomalies that they could fill a book, and, in fact, have filled Classified.

Adding to the confusion, states, federal agencies, and advocacy organizations have defined the six terms differently. The Small Business Administration’s Office of Minority Enterprise Development has one set of definitions, the Office of Management and Budget has another, the Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program has another, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has another, and the National Minority Supplier Development Council has still another.

There is no telling what definitions are used by universities in admissions.

Also left ambiguous is the meaning of “disadvantaged.”  If defined as “living in poverty,” then nearly 40 million Americans classified as White are disadvantaged.

Naturally, because a lot of money is at stake, the lack of clarity has triggered lawsuits from those who see themselves as disadvantaged minorities but have been excluded from government contracts.  They have often prevailed in court, due to the indefensibility of the arbitrary classifications and definitions.

Examples of arbitrariness:

–  Americans of Spanish-European ancestry can self-identify as Hispanic and thus be considered minorities, but Americans of Italian-European ancestry are automatically classified as White and thus not minorities, even in those cases where they are poorer and darker-skinned—and even in view of the fact that Americans with a Spanish surname far outnumber Italian Americans.

– The differences among the millions of Americans classified as Asian are much greater than their commonalities, yet they are all lumped together, as if they are of the same race, ethnicity, nationality, appearance, and socioeconomic class.

– East Indians and Pakistanis are classified as Asian, although they don’t see themselves as Asian.  But Afghans and Iranians are classified as White, even though Afghanistan and Persia were considered for centuries to be a part of Asia, or the Orient.

– Indigenous peoples from Latin America are not classified as Native Americans, because Native Americans in North America kept them from being so classified, for fear of losing their historical relationship with the US government.  This leaves the indigenous peoples of Latin America without an official classification, because they are neither White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, nor Pacific Islander.

– The increasing numbers of mixed-race Americans are also left without classification of their own because there is not classification titled “Mixed Race.” They have to choose one or more of the six classifications. Courts and agencies have actually decided which race, among the two or more races of a mixed-race person, is the race that establishes eligibility for preferences. In some cases, courts and agencies have tried to determine what percentage of each race makes up a person’s ancestry.  This smacks of the ugly practice of Jim Crow segregation when blacks were classified as octoroons if they were one-eighth African and quadroons if they were one-quarter African.  (Classification as a Native American often depends on a person’s “blood quantum,” or the percent of Native-American blood the individual is deemed to have.)          

The list of arbitrariness could go on and on, but let’s switch now to identity activists who want a new and separate classification for their own race or ethnicity, or don’t want to share an existing classification with others.  In essence, they favor exclusion, not inclusion.

For example, activists say that black Americans who are descendants of slaves should be classified separately from black Americans who were born abroad. This has become a rallying cry at elite universities because black immigrants and the offspring of black immigrants make up a higher percentage of students than native-born blacks who descended from slaves. 

The distinction is dubious, however, because slavery had existed for centuries in Africa among native tribes and in the Caribbean and Latin America under the Spanish (Hispanic) Empire.  As such, blacks born abroad could also be descendants of slaves.  Not only that but this thinking could be adopted by non-blacks whose forebears had arrived in America after emancipation or Jim Crow.  They could claim that they had nothing to do with the sins of slavery and thus shouldn’t have to pay to remedy their lingering ill effects.

Other activists say that Middle Easterners and North Africans should have their own classification.  But given the religious, ethnic, and tribal diversity of the region, there is a lot of disagreement over the idea.  For example, Middle Eastern Jews see their ethnicity as Jewish, not Middle Eastern.

Chicano activists say that Hispanics who are descendants of fair-skinned Europeans should not be eligible for affirmative preferences, but nonwhite Hispanics should be eligible.  It is not known how the activists would establish who is who.  Perhaps they would use color palettes from Sherwin-Williams.

On a related note, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib refers to herself as a woman of color and wants other Muslims to be seen as people of color, although she has acknowledged that without her hijab, she resembles “some ordinary white girl from New York City.” 

A final example: Activists in the Cherokee nation say that Cherokee Freedmen should not have the same tribal rights as other Cherokee and should not be classified as Native American.  The Freedmen are descendants of slaves who were held before the Civil War by the Cherokee.  It is estimated that at the time, a quarter of the Cherokee population was enslaved.

As these examples illustrate, the six official classifications of White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and Pacific Islander are rife with definitional problems and subject to identity politics.  But what does genetics say about the six?  Well, DNA studies show that there is as much genetic diversity within each classification as between the classifications.

To that point, as quoted in Classified, an editorial in Nature Biotechnology noted that “Pooling people in race silos is akin to zoologists grouping raccoons, tigers, and okapis on the basis that they are all stripey.”  

A chapter in the book discusses the danger of the government requiring that the six classifications be used in biomedical research, in studies of drug efficacy, and in medical care.  This requirement was a political decision, not a scientific one.  Science shows that the classifications are often too broad and ambiguous to draw valid conclusions in the absence of more granular data.

Sweeping biomedical generalizations about African Americans, for instance, can overlook important genetic differences among different African populations.  To quote from the book: “An allele that predicts severe reactions to a particular HIV drug is found in 13.6 percent of Masai in Kenya, 3.3 percent among the Kenyan Luhya, and 0 percent among the Yoruba in Nigeria.  Knowing only that someone is of African descent does not provide useful information about that person’s ability to metabolize drugs.”

The final chapter offers alternatives to the existing classification system.  Although I agree for the most part with the recommendations, I won’t summarize them here, for it’s a moot point. Sensible change won’t happen, because the classifications are too embedded in US institutions and too much money can be made at the roulette wheel by professional dealers in divisiveness.

Besides, the number of groups purported to be disadvantaged and in need of affirmative action and other remedies are expanding, not contracting.  The latest are LGBTQ+ groups.  Pressure is being put on companies to track how many are in their workforce and in positions of authority, and to engage in outreach and other affirmative actions to increase the numbers.  Companies risk public condemnation, reputational damage, and employee criticism if they don’t comply.

My regret is that I’m not starting my professional career today and being tasked with the same duties that I had been given long ago. I’d have a big budget for consultants, lawyers, HR reporting software, and the retaining of a public relations firm to tout the virtuousness of my employer.  I’d also have a large staff of administrators, along with managers of diversity and inclusion.  Of course, my salary would be commensurate with my elevated importance.

In other words, I’d be a winner at the roulette wheel.



As we move through 2023 and into the next election cycle, The Prickly Pear will resume Take Action recommendations and information.

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