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Michelle Obama As a Descendant of Gorillas

The black-white binary that has been such a dominant feature of the politics of America’s racial taxonomy for centuries may now be gradually giving way…

The black-white binary that has been such a dominant feature of the politics of America’s racial taxonomy for centuries may now be gradually giving way to the often ignored but nonetheless time-honored reality of America’s racial kaleidoscope.

The fact of America’s complex racial tapestry is not a new one. Black Americans have always embraced— and embodied— it for long. Many of them, as I have pointed out many times in this column, cherish the thought (and have persuaded many people to accept) that they are multi-racial in their genetic composition, although a recent study indicates that only a little over 15 percent of them are indeed multiracial.

Over the years, the dominant white population has boxed in every American with the wispiest smidgeon of sub-Saharan African blood to a “black” racial category. That’s why people like Collin Powell (with over 80 percent European genes and only a sprinkling of distant black Jamaican blood), Mariah Carey (with probably over 90 percent European genes), etc are regarded as “black.” But that is now changing.

The US Census Bureau, for the first time, has accepted “multiracial” as a legitimate and distinct racial category. Well, now that “multiracial” Americans are growing in size and social acceptance, what consequences will this have for race-based identity politics in America? I suspect that one of two things will happen.

First, we may witness a massive diminution in the numerical strength of the “black” American population. As I have stated last week, many, perhaps most, black Americans fancy themselves as being multi- or at least bi-racial Americans and appear to feel trapped in their current “black” identity.

It is entirely conceivable that in subsequent censuses many African Americans who cherish the illusion that they are descended from Indian (i.e., Native American) ancestors will check the multi-racial box to self-describe their identity.

Now, when you add this previously-black-but-now-multi-racial crowd to “other” multiracial people who are products of more recent fusions of different races in America, you may be confronted with the reality that “multi-racial” Americans will become the new dominant minority in America. They could outpace the “black” and Hispanic populations.

Perhaps, “multiracial people” could even become the new majority in the foreseeable future, given the progressive decline in the population of the currently numerically dominant white population.

A second possibility is that “multiracial people” could become the buffer between the “black” and Latino populations on the one hand and the white population on the other hand– in the manner of the “Coloreds” of South Africa and the Mestizos of Latin America.

Now, this demographic change could have real consequences for racial redistributive justice. If “black” people who, for historical reasons, have been beneficiaries of several policies of positive discrimination (such as Affirmative Action, what we call “quota system” or “federal character principle” in Nigeria) now self-identify as “multiracial” people, what would happen to these policies?

More importantly, what would happen to the collective memory of what it means to be black in America? And, indeed, what would happen to the black American culture that took centuries to take roots if most “black” people suddenly transmogrify to “multiracial” people? Your guess is as good as mine.

But let’s face it. “Multiracialness” is really actually not, nor can it be, a racial identity category in the sense in which “black,” “white” and Hispanic or Latino currently are. What bonds will bind it together? What common markers will define it? What collective memories will lubricate and sustain it?g

In the context of the history of America’s racial politics, where there is security in numbers, “multiracialness” is, in reality, a politically disempowering identity. Even President Obama who recently self-deprecatingly described himself as a “mutt” self-identifies as “black.”

It is therefore tempting to dismiss the rise in the number of people who identify as multi-racial as a mere flash in the pan, as a fad that will fade in the heat of America’s vicious racial politics. But I could be entirely wrong.

It would be interesting, nonetheless, to watch how this chic, new identity evolves in America