Why Racial Classification Matters in America


           Race classification in the United States has meant the difference between slavery and freedom. Paul T. Murray explains how racial labels are largely defined by physical features such as “skin color, hair texture, and facial characteristics.”[1] These features have created identities that come with complicated experiences in American society, experiences that keep citizens separated. These experiences have also helped make America have the most incarcerated population on the planet, and at the same time aiding the most successful and wealthiest people on earth. Murray explains, “In any society where status and privilege are based upon race, there must be some system for placing individuals into the advantage and disadvantage categories.”[2] American society proves this to be the case because of the extreme amount of wealth and inequality. For citizens, the lighter the pigment of skin, the more favorable advantages and the darker the more disadvantaged.

           Murray asks the question, “who is an Indian? who is a Negro?”[3] Questions that most Americans have not thought about. Personally, these questions hold dear to me because of my family’s legacy and place in American society. Not only do I believe the answer to these questions will give greater clarity to racial issues amongst Americans, but most places that is connected to European colonialism. We could answer so many questions our nation holds when it relates to the hostile relationship between the state and Americans classified as African and Native American.

            The primarily idea about the history of migration to the North American continent is formed from a Eurocentric perspective. Much of the issue with the perspective is not necessarily what is said but what is not, what history of immigration is prioritized, and what’s not. I have not heard any details about native Indians challenging racial classifications until college. I contribute the little information I was privileged to receive to an African American professor whose family personally went through the process of reclassification. Many Indians were challenged by the state in the 20th century about their racial classification. Murray talks about Virginian Indians attempting to list themselves as Indian while registering with the Selective Service System during World War Two. The local draft boards did not accept their request, “They recalled that in the Antebellum days some of the registrant’s ancestors had married free Negroes. Based on this “evidence,” the boards insisted that the proper classification for all alleged Indians was “Negro.” The Indians were adamant in refusing this designation.” [4] Here is just one example of the state’s agents attempting to determine who can classify as an Indian or Negro. Native Indians have had many encounters with United States government institutions that push to reclassify them to negro.

          Arica Coleman explains in the book That The Blood Stay Pure, “To marry outside of your race is code for marrying Black. While serving in the capacity of tribal chairman of the United Rappahannock Tribe, Daniel Fortune amended the membership criteria in 1981 to state that “any person who is not [of] American Indian descent in whole or part Indian and White Rappahannock Tribe.” But membership was extended to “Any person of American Indian descent, in whole or in part Indian and White, who marries a Rappahannock and applies for membership, will not be accepted into the Tribe.” While marrying White does not jeopardize one’s tribal stunts, marriage or even a common-law relationship with an African American is a different matter altogether.”[6] If citizens who classified themselves as Indians married citizens classified as African American endangered Indians tribals status and forced many to forfeit tribal membership even if they were part of families that were part of leadership within the tribe.[7]

            In 1924 the Racial Integrity Act was written into law; it created a two-tier racial hierarchy. Citizens could only fit into the racial categories of White or Colored. And it was believed to be an enforcement of eugenics, basically a pseudo-science of good breeding that helped further the ideology of white supremacy.[8] It was widely understood the purpose of the Racial Integrity Act was to prevent non-Caucasian blood from entering into the White gene pool. The integrity of the “White” race needed to be preserved.[9] During the Civil War era, the term miscegenation was created to describe race-mixing. This era consisted of a heightened fear amongst racial purists who believed the consequences of Whites marrying non-Whites would ultimately result in racial suicide.


Bibliography/ Footnotes

[1] Paul T. Murray, Who is an Indian? Who Is a Negro?”Virginia Indians in the World War II Draft. (The Virginia Magazine and Biography, 1987) 215-231

[2] Ibid Pg 215

[3] Ibid Pg 216

[4] Ibid Pg 215

[6] Arica L Coleman, That the Blood Stay Pure ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), Pg  2

[7] Ibid Pg 2-3

[8] Ibid Pg 4

[9] Ibid Pg 5