Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America
by David E. Bernstein
There was a brief period when, at least from my naïve high school freshman understanding of US politics, the election of Barack Obama was supposed to herald in a new age of improved race relations in America. Obviously, that did not happen, and instead it seems that in the past decade America has become more obsessed with race and wracked with racial conflict than at any point in several decades. Interpretations of American history that argue that the US is more or less congenitally infected with racism, such as that of the 1619 Project, and critical race theory and other Far Left perspectives have exploded into the mainstream and have increased social conflict and division.
As a result, David E. Bernstein’s new book Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America is a most timely and needed addition to the complicated and convoluted state of American racial discourse. In this relatively short (about 184 pages) and easy to read, yet detailed, book, Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University, explains the rather hard to believe and rather strange government racial classifications in American law and their negative consequences.
Today, one might be excused for thinking that the categories of black / African American, white, Latino, and Asian are divine knowledge that descended from the heavens. These classifications manifest everywhere, not only on bureaucratic forms, but also in popular culture, where people have over time begun to adopt these rather arbitrary and often illogical classifications. However, as Bernstein explains, these classifications only began to emerge in the 1960s and ’70s, through a rather hodge-podge implementation among various federal agencies, with the current categories (American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, and White) being established in the late ’70s.
Yet Bernstein points out how these categories (unsurprisingly) have little to no logical consistency, and often encompass peoples who share no ethnic or cultural similarities. For some reason, people turn white west of the Pakistani border, so that people in Iceland and Afghanistan are considered white (also everyone in the former Soviet Union, which extends to the Pacific Ocean, are also classified as white), whereas everyone from India all the way to Fiji are considered to be in the Asian / Pacific Islander classification. The amount of diversity and differences covered by each of these labels is dizzying in its complexity. Yet, as far as the government is concerned, they are all the same.
Bernstein also goes into detail about the category of Hispanic/Latino and its rather arbitrary character. To begin with, the label encompasses anyone of “Spanish origin or culture” but also sometimes includes those of Portuguese or Brazilian ancestry (though he notes that only 2 percent of Americans with this ancestry identify as Hispanic). But in reality, the definition is extremely broad and, to quote Michael Lind, “include[s] blond blue-eyed South Americans of German descent as well as Mexican-American mestizos and Puerto Ricans of predominantly African descent.”
Remarkably, Bernstein points out that more than half of the Americans of Spanish-speaking descent consider themselves to be white and not part of a minority group at all.
Or take African Americans, another grouping that is often considered to be monolithic. I was quite surprised to learn that a full 10 percent of people of African descent in America were born outside the country. Recall that these classifications are supposed to be used to help make up for the historical injustices of slavery and state-sanctioned discrimination, yet nearly two-thirds of black undergraduate students at Harvard are immigrants, children of immigrants, or biracial.
This has prompted outrage among some descendants of slaves, who feel that grouping recent immigrants from Africa with black Americans whose families have been in America sometimes for centuries (African descendants of slaves, or ADOS) is allowing immigrants to take advantage of affirmative action policies and crowd out the people for whom such policies were designed in the first place.
Beyond incoherence, these government racial classification systems have led to numerous negative unintended consequences for Americans.
To begin with, Bernstein notes that it has incentivized racially based rent seeking. In fact, a great deal of the book discusses various cases where courts have had to litigate someone’s race, usually in relation to the person’s eligibility for government subsidies, preferential contract bidding, or reduced standards for government jobs. Since government racial classifications are entirely arbitrary and race does not exist as an objective human biological factor, this inevitably leads to both genuine disputes and obvious attempts to game the system.
Readers are no doubt familiar with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of being of American Indian descent and how she made this claim on her law school application. However, it turns out such a practice is stunningly common. Bernstein cites one study that found that ten times as many law school applicants as lawyers identify as Native American.
This is replicated all around the country at every level of government and leads to rather ugly feuding about who is what race “authentically” and who is just a money-grubbing poser.
Beyond just adding another avenue of rent seeking, which is widespread already, the government’s racial classification system encourages Americans to think of themselves in such terms and in opposition to other groups. In the author’s words “implicit in America’s racial classification scheme is the notion that society will be permanently divided into suspicious or hostile racial groups.” Rent-seeking resources are limited, so if more and more minority groups become recognized by the government, then there will be less of the pie for already established interest groups. (Bernstein’s exploration of the case of the Cherokee freedmen, with which I was entirely unfamiliar, is an especially interesting, though rather cringe-inducing case of vicious fighting of this kind.)
Bernstein is especially insightful when it comes to the negative effects of promoting a white identity, quoting Michael Lind, who calls it “a single government-created pseudo-race.” The idea that Americans with ancestors from Iceland, Tunisia, and the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East not only all share some sort of common heritage and culture, but that they also share common interests when it comes to the domestic politics of the United States is simply absurd.
However, there is no doubt that white racial consciousness is increasing (at a time, Bernstein notes, where racial intermixing is occurring more than ever before) and that this is not a good development. It is quite ironic that it is often critical race theorists who push for people to become aware of their “whiteness” with the hope that they will repent of their “privilege,” but in reality, the data shows that once someone embraces a “white” identity, they are more likely to embrace ethno-nationalism and to support specifically white-focused collective political action.
Bernstein also has a fascinating chapter on the negative consequences of government-required racial categorization on scientific and especially medical research. He notes that there is no known case of genetic variation that is “found exclusively in any particular ‘racial’ group” and quotes an amusing editorial that claims that “pooling people in race silos is akin to zoologists grouping racoons, tigers, and okapis on the basis that they are all stripey.”
Despite the long laundry list of evils created by government racial classifications, Bernstein does not leave the reader without hope for the future. For one thing, due to the high degree of intermixing, it appears likely that within a generation or two, most Americans will technically qualify as a recognized minority and therefore be eligible for things like minority business enterprise preferences. Once everyone is a minority, no one will be, and some degree of reform will almost certainly be forced in the face of ever-mounting absurdities and inconsistencies.
Bernstein points to a French-style solution, where the government does not recognize or classify racial or ethnic differences among citizens. In other words, remove government from race altogether (though Bernstein leaves room for government policy on objectively defined groups, such as Native Americans and ADOS, if a need is felt to use policy to address historic issues and injustices).
Overall, Bernstein has written a fascinating and detailed book that is chock full of interesting information that makes us question the logic of what for many of us is just an ingrained way of looking at the world. What’s more, Bernstein does this in a very easy to understand way that ensures that both the interested layman and the more focused academic walk away with many useful insights into what has unfortunately become one of the most hot-button issues of the day.