By JONATHAN TILOVE
Newhouse News Service
July 9, 1992
c. Newhouse News Service
Black is black and white is white, but what about Susie Guillory Phipps?
Phipps looks white. She always thought she was white. So did her first and second husbands. Until, at the age of 43, she discovered she was 3/32nds black and therefore legally black according to the state of Louisiana.
And what about the Ramapough Mountain People of New Jersey? They have long been described as a predominantly black people of mixed race. But they consider themselves Indians and are asking the federal government for official recognition as a tribe, status that could entitle them to a casino gambling franchise 30 miles from Manhattan.
When it comes to race and ethnicity in America, it can all get very complicated depending on who is defining whom, and why. People are not always what they appear to be. People are sometimes not what they want to be. In reality, race is as much a matter of politics as biology; ethnicity as much an expression of fashion as fate. It can be transient, changing from time to time and place to place.
Sylvia Yu Gonzalez, 22, is a Mexican-Korean-American. She spent her early years in the barrio in Phoenix but when she was 12 moved to San Diego where she attended mostly white schools. On the advice of a guidance counselor, she identified herself on school forms as Mexican-American for future affirmative action purposes. But by the time she headed off to Berkeley for college, “I pretty much perceived myself as white.”
Berkeley, the citadel of multiculturalism, was less forgiving. Gonzalez found that in their lust for diversity, people insisted she identify herself
racially, and that white obviously wouldn’t wash. “It was really painful to me.”
Gonzalez says she turned against her white friends but didn’t want to choose between being Mexican or Korean, reluctant to give up either. Instead
she chose the company of blacks and American Indians.But a couple of years ago she found out about the Multicultural
Interracial Student Coalition at Berkeley, an organization of mixed-race students of all descriptions. She had finally found a place “where I could
bring all of myself.” She now identifies herself as multiracial.
“I will not be counted as monoracial,” she says. “I will not play that anymore.”
While the Census Bureau is considering the plea of groups such as the student coalition to add a biracial or multiracial category on the next
Census, until now people of mixed ancestry have had to choose which part of themselves to claim. And over time that can change.
“A lot of people want to become Indians,” says Dr. Lathel Duffield, chief of tribal enrollment services for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “We get a lot of letters saying `I’m a descendant of the Blackfoot,’ or `My grandmother was an Indian princess with the Blackfoot Tribe.’ Only there is no such thing as Blackfoot. There are Blackfeet out of Canada, but no Blackfoot.”
Different tribes have different requirements for membership. Some require only that an individual have at least one Indian ancestor, others stipulate a certain “blood quantum.” But for the purposes of the 1990 Census, an Indian is anyone who claims to be an Indian. The result: a 38 percent jump in official Indian population in the 1980s. In Alabama the Indian population soared by 118 percent, and in New Jersey it rose by 78 percent, figures that bear no relation to the birthrate.
“It’s fashionable to be Indian. We have a word for them– `wannabes,'” says Holly Reckord, the anthropologist in charge of analyzing whether a
group of Indians applying for federal recognition is authentically a tribe.
“Dances With Wolves really increased our load,” Duffield says.
If some who like to think themselves Indian may find the actual criterion too stringent, some people who are defined as Hispanics find their category
What’s Hispanic? When it comes to school integration or affirmative action, it’s counted as if it were a race, as in “white, black or Hispanic.”
But Hispanics are not a race. Hispanics can be white, black or Indian, and quite often a combination thereof. On the 1990 Census, slightly more than half of Hispanics described themselves as white, three percent as black and 1.5 percent as Asian, mostly Filipino. The rest said they were “other race.’
More accurately, Hispanics are a geographic group. For affirmative action purposes, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines
Hispanics as all persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.
Yet even that definition is not universally recognized. The Boston Public Schools does not consider someone from Spain to be Hispanic for affirmative
action purposes. In San Francisco, a Mexican-American firefighter charged it would be “ethnic fraud” for Spanish-Americans– who are after all whites of European descent– to benefit from a program intended for the disadvantaged.
There lies the enduring conundrum of affirmative action: a program designed to improve the lot of those who have historically suffered
discrimination can inadvertently benefit those who have suffered none of the hardship but simply shared membership in some ersatz “race.”
It is with blacks that any fluid notions of race and ethnicity run splat into a wall. It is the iron law of American race relations– the so-called
one-drop rule. Anyone with any known African black ancestry (therefore theoretically having at least one drop of African black blood) is black.
Period. And the rule has an implicit corollary, according to sociologist F.James Davis: “It’s better to be anything than black.”
Davis, the author of Who Is Black?, says the one-drop rule is the effective standard, whether by statute or case law, in every state of the
union except Hawaii, where being mixed-race is the rule rather than the exception.
But this stark line between black and white cannot undo some rather basic genetic facts of life. Physical anthropologists have estimated that about a quarter of the genes of American blacks come from white ancestors and up to 5 percent of the genes of the white population are from African ancestors.
The one-drop rule is unique to America. Everywhere else– even in South Africa– there is official acknowledgment of mixed-race people. The 18th
century Spanish colonialists had 64 discreet categories covering precise permutations of white, black and Indian commingling.
Susie Guillory Phipps claimed it wasn’t until she saw her birth certificate in 1977 that she learned that the Louisiana Bureau of Vital
Statistics had her down as “colored.” Phipps said she had been raised white, schooled white, lived white, looked white and twice married white. She went to court to have her race legally changed. But it turned out that Phipps’ great-great-great-great-grandmother had
been a black slave whose owner had freed her in 1762 after she bore him four children. By the time the state of Louisiana was finished with its racial
arithmetic, Phipps was counted 3/32nds black, well over the 1/32nd standard by which someone could legally be considered black. For nearly a decade Phipps fought to have her race changed. But she lostin the Louisiana courts and in 1986, the Supreme Court refused to review her case.
Interestingly, Davis and others say that the rigid divide between black and white was not a precursor of slavery but a consequence of it and a way to try to secure slavery’s future. Columbia University history professor Barbara Jeanne Fields argues that
blacks were conceived of as a race– separate, distinct and, because they were slaves, inferior– in order to justify the outrageous anomaly of slavery in a republic that proclaimed liberty and justice for all.
The final irony of the rule, though, is that a standard intended to cement blacks in a subordinate caste is now mostly upheld by the black community.
For reasons of pride and solidarity, blacks insist that anyone with black blood is black and that anyone who would deny that reality and try to pass for white, or even mixed race, is a traitor to his race. Davis notes that Alex Haley traced onlyhis black Roots, neglecting to trace his white ancestry back to the British Isles. For very practical purposes it is also important to blacks– for example in the calculation of their voting rights strength– to
be counted in as great numbers as possible.
For white middle-class Americans, ethnicity tends to be less stressful. Rather it is largely a “flexible and symbolic and voluntary” pursuit,
according to Harvard sociologist Mary Waters, the author of Ethnic Options:Choosing Identities in America. For example, a person of Polish, German and Irish ancestry can pick and choose at will which, if any, heritage he or she wants to identify with in order to feel special or proud or part of a group. All the while that same person can remain comfortably ensconced in being white, a designation that Queens College political scientist Andrew Hacker
says has demonstrated “remarkable elasticity.”
Early on, Irish and Italian Catholics were not considered altogether white, but they are now, says Hacker. He sees the same merging into white of
many Hispanics, Middle Easterners and Asian Indians, whose skin may be relatively dark. Hacker says that even many far-Eastern Asians, if not
literally white, are being accepted as effectively white. He predicts that the offspring of the growing number of Asian-white marriages will come to be
considered “a new variant of white.”
Over the years, blacks have found one exception to the one-drop rule. Throughout American history, Indians have proven far more open than whites to intermarrying and sharing their communities with blacks. About a quarter of American blacks also have some Indian blood. There are many Indian tribes with significant black blood and there are also a handful of small, isolated, self-contained mixed-race communities
around the country– sometimes called American Mestizos– that have found refuge in their Indian identity.
The Ramapoughs are a poor community of some 2,000 people, mostly keeping to themselves and marrying among themselves, in the Ramapo Mountains straddling the New Jersey-New York line. Their petition for federal recognition as an Indian tribe describes them
as a “closed society highly resentful and distrustful of outside intrusion” where “until very recent times . . . visitors driving through the enclaves,
unaccompanied by Ramapough members, were welcomed with a barrage of stones.” Some look Indian, some white, some black– sometimes all three in the same family– and many a mixture of all three.
The Ramapoughs incorporated as a tribe in 1978 and have been recognized by both the New York and New Jersey legislatures.
Jocelyn Van Dunk is a card-carrying Ramapough Indian. On her birth certificate, it says that Van Dunk is colored. But, Van Dunk says, to her dying day her mother insisted she was all Indian.
Van Dunk said, though, that she is not any one thing. “I can’t sit here and say I’m an American Indian. I can say my heritage is American Indian. I’m clearly not a pure-blooded Indian. Maybe my mother was. I don’t know.”
For generations the Ramapoughs were known locally as Jackson Whites, a term they consider a racial slur. The name refers to stories about the group being the jumbled progeny of Tuscarora Indians, Hessian mercenaries who fought for the British in the American Revolution and some 3,500 prostitutes – whites from England and blacks from the West Indies – brought to comfort the British troops by a ship’s captain named Jackson.
“It’s a slap in the face,” said Ronald Van Dunk, who is also known as Chief Redbone, the Ramapough’s elected chief.
In the 1970s, a young historian named David Cohen, who had lived with the Ramapoughs for a year, wrote a doctoral dissertation that became a book in which he debunked those origins as myths. Instead, Cohen said, the Ramapoughs were the descendants of free blacks and mulattos who had lived among the Dutch in New York– thus names like Van Dunk, DeGroat, DeFreese. There may have been later intermarriage with Indians and whites, but Cohen concluded they were essentially a black people.
The Ramapoughs were not pleased. For generations, they had come to think of themselves as Indians and to them, Cohen was denying them their heritage.
“I am an Indian,” says Linda Powell, the tribal secretary. “An Indian is an Indian. I find it a little ridiculous that you have to prove to somebody what your nationality is.”
The stakes are high. If the Ramapoughs become the first federally recognized tribe in New Jersey, they would become eligible for a whole host of health, education and welfare services provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And, like other Indian tribes, they would be in a position to set up lucrative gaming operations, in their case with the Manhattan skyline faintly shimmering in the distance.
“It’s win-win,” says their lawyer, George Schneider. “The Indians can’t lose.”