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The Absurdity of Race

by R. Anthony Arnold
Photo by James A. Molnar
March 2023

If you are checking a racial category box on the U.S. Census form for the actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, from West London, England; or for the former Osama bin Laden from the Riyadh region of Saudi Arabia, which racial categories would you choose, for each of them?

On the most recent U.S. Census form in 2020, there were five racial categories from which to choose:

    • White
    • Black or African American
    • American Indian or Alaska Native
    • Asian and
    • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
Based on the definition and standards of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which guides the U.S. Census Bureau’s race classifications, we can immediately eliminate American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander for both men. Maybe you'd choose Asian, for bin Laden, figuring that Saudi Arabia isn’t too far away, and people from nearby countries are Asian; but you’d be wrong. Maybe you'd think that since the spectrum of their skin color includes dark skin, and the country isn’t too far from Sudan, which is African, they might be African. Wrong again.

A person from Saudi Arabia, based on official race classifications, is White.

The census defines White as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

Also, Afghans would be categorized as Asian, despite broadly being considered part of the Middle East. Sudanese would be African American, even though Sudan really is in the Northern part of Africa, but Egyptians would be White, even though Egypt is directly to the North of Sudan.

Now that we know that “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa” is White, we can expand our understanding to the following:

  1. Benedict Cumberbatch, aka Doctor Strange and Sherlock Holmes, who was born in West London, is White.
  2. Osama Bin Laden, born in Saudi Arabia was White.
  3. White people flew the planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11, because the 9/11 attackers, 15 of whom were from Saudi Arabia, along with two from the United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt, and one from Lebanon, were all White people. The UAB and Lebanon both fall under the category of White.
All true, according to our own government.

So, let me be clear, the color or race of the terrorists who dealt a death blow to our country on 9/11 is completely irrelevant. Evil is evil, regardless of color, regardless of race. What I am trying to drive home is how little we understand how race is applied; and its possible implications.

How did we get here?

The short answer is that America’s racial categories have always been constructed to fit shifting politics. I use “constructed” quite intentionally. Our racial categories were built by looking at the people in the country and saying, “We’ll just assign them into these handy categories that just so happen to serve whatever political, economic, or power grabbing aims we have.” That’s kind of it.

Here’s an example of how this works in practice: Mexicans were White until 1930, when they got their own category, which the government of Mexico successfully lobbied to have reversed. That’s why no census records before 1930 show any racial Mexicans; and then 1930 has 1.4 million of them. Mexicans would revert to being White until 1970, when Hispanic became a category.

Constructed. Built. Haphazardly assembled like a child looking at a pile of Lego pieces and building some kind of tower that, upon closer inspection, looks dangerously unstable. That is how race is constructed in America, and in many places around the world, as if to shackle people to some societal value, before they are even born.

When I pitched this piece to the boss lady/my editor, she asked me, “Who do you think is benefitting from this?”

My honest answer is nobody. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t individuals using our “racial tower” for their own ends. Of course there are. There are always grifters and hustlers and politicians using race and all of the implied notions of race for their own gains.

But, what I really think is that this callous and arbitrary categorization of humans grievously harms us all, much more than it benefits anyone. Everyone in this country is assigned into one of these assembled categories. Programs, policies, and benefits are planned and administered on the basis of them. Self-identities are formed, in part, around them. Cultural discussions occur, many times first and foremost, by sorting people into one of them. We make assumptions about people, about each other, because of them.

And it’s made up – it’s all pretend.

That’s not to say that the consequences of them aren’t real. They are. You need only observe the deplorable state of American policing and inequalities in our justice system.

But, the categories, themselves, not only make those consequences possible, they also make progress towards fixing the consequences difficult, by clouding our judgment and poisoning our discourse.

Lately, there’s been a push by people from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to have their own category created on the census. For their own reasons, they’d like to be removed from the White race category and given their own way to identify, similar to Hispanic. This, at least, would bring their government category more in line with how they perceive themselves.

Although, if any group of people can just make up their race and if racial categories can be so easily changed, reassigned, altered, and warped, then doesn’t that make them pointless?

I’m 37, soon to be 38. My age is permanent, easily understood, and allows for very clear lines when counting and categorizing the population of the country. Our racial categories offer none of that.

I’m not naive enough to believe they’re going to disappear anytime soon, if at all. They were poured into the very foundation of our country, where they’ve stayed ever since. But, maybe the next time you hear them tossed around in a way that suggests they carry deep meaning, you’ll remember that Osama Bin Laden was White, there were no racial Mexicans in the country until 1930, because they all used to be White; and at the end of the day, race categorization, by any government or group, is possibly the greatest instrument of divisiveness and polarization, in modern American society.