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Race No, Diversity Yes: A Suggestion for Obama's Second Term

11/20/2012 02:09 pm ET | Updated Jan 20, 2013

President Barack Obama was re-elected with more than 70 percent of non-white citizens voting for him and about 59 percent of whites voting against him. What does this suggest? We are a diverse country and many people have unequal access to the benefits this nation has to offer... and they voted accordingly. Race was not the only factor in the election by far, but the historical, political, economic and social problems among what we call "races" in the U.S. matter. We need to understand why we think about, and treat, races the way we do.

What can the re-elected administration do? They can revise official race categories and start a serious conversation about race.

Let's start with President Obama himself. We classify him as "African-American/Black." But why? His father was from Kenya, thus "black" in our system, and his mother from the U.S. descended from mainly European ancestors and thus "white" in our system. Why do we prioritize one parent's ancestry over the others? Not because of anything biological. Rather, we have a social system of classifying anyone with some recognizable "black" history as African-American/Black. This reflects a particular complicated and painful history of discrimination against those with African ancestry in the U.S. For example, our government's official definitions of races use the term "racial groups" only in defining African-American/Black as a race, and use the term "original peoples" in defining every other race. They do state that "The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically." However, by using the biological-sounding term "racial groups" only with one group and the positive social term "original peoples" with others, they create what appears to be a "natural" difference between Blacks and everyone else.

It is also worth noting that while Hispanic/Latino as a category (over 16 percent of the U.S. population) is not officially considered a race (you have to pick one of the 5 race categories in addition to being Latino), it is most certainly treated that way in practice. A bright aspect in the 2010 census is that 6 percent of respondents listed themselves as "some other race" and 3% marked multiple races. This 9 percent sees the future of our country, and its increasingly fluid diversity, and we need to follow suit. Race is not a fixed entity if we don't want it to be, and racism in not a permanent trait of a society.

Clearly our official "race" categories need fixing.

How can this re-elected administration help improve the problem of "race" in the U.S.? A first step is to change the official governmental race definitions to remove the stigma dividing African-American/Black from the rest, and to match the text of the definitions to the assertions about these categories being purely social. Make it clearer that we have the option of classifying ourselves as multiracial, and that it is a respected, and valued, category. This will enable the next census to more accurately reflect who we are.

The second thing this administration can do is to get serious about race relations in the U.S. We, as a nation, need get it through our heads that Asian, Black, Latino, White, etc., are not biological categories! Humans vary biologically a lot, we are not equal as individuals, and many populations across the globe differ from one another in substantial ways... just not by race. This is a scientific fact and it is demonstrated again and again and again by the research community. Examine the data for yourself. However, Infant mortality, poverty, education, home ownership, and many, many other aspects of our lives vary by race in this country. Even though races are not biological units, racism and inequality can have substantial biological implications (like unequal health outcomes), as well as social ones.

Our elected officials need to stop ignoring race or treading lightly around the subject and tackle it head on. Racism and a history of inequality are major problems. It is as important as national security, economic growth, and the many other priorities highlighted during the election campaign and deserves equal attention.

The U.S. is becoming increasingly diverse and soon there will be no majority "race." We are not going to be able to completely replace "race" as a category in the near future, but understanding and engaging diversity, human biology, and history can go a long way in helping us re-shaping our future. We have the knowledge and ability to tackle the issue, now we just need the political will.

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