A few days ago Thomas Chatterton Williams published a long essay in the New York Times, “As Black As We Wish To Be,” presuming to instruct other mixed-race parents that they should inculcate blackness in their children. By “mixed-race” he assumed black-white, and thus neglected to specify what racial identity should be injected into their children by, say, Asian-Hispanic or Hispanic-black parents, a point (among several others) made by Ilya Somin.
But let that, and other omissions, go. Here’s the money quote:
Mixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black — and interracial couples share a similar moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children, regardless of how they look.
The reason is simple. Despite the tremendous societal progress these recent changes in attitude reveal in a country that enslaved its black inhabitants until 1865, and kept them formally segregated and denied them basic civil rights until 1964, we do not yet live in an America that fully embodies its founding ideals of social and political justice.
As the example of President Obama demonstrates par excellence, the black community can and does benefit directly from the contributions and continued allegiance of its mixed-race members, and it benefits in ways that far outweigh the private joys of freer self-expression.
I have no idea whether or not it is better for “the black community” if everyone who could claim to be black did claim to be black, and I will leave it to Somin and others far better qualified than I to discuss the belief expressed here that what’s good for “the black community” should be the ethical and moral standard that trumps all other considerations for everyone who is at least partly black. My strongest reaction to the passage quoted above was much more personal than philosophical or political: here’s yet another scold telling me I’ve failed my daughter, and by his lights I have.
As some of you may know, Helene (my wife and Jessie’s mother) and I are a mixed-identity couple — not because I’m Jewish and she’s not (even though her mother was Catholic, which is all that matters to some Jews, her father was Jewish), although it is true that I have already been scolded on more than one occasion for not insisting and ensuring that our daughter, Jessie, be raised Jewish. Jessie is the sort of person for whom “the private joys of freer self-expression” rank far higher on her scale of values than Williams’ preferred tribal loyalty. I both respect that in her and also figure that the Jews can get along quite nicely without her help if she chooses not to identify with them.
No, what troubles me is that I did not make the effort to instill in her identification with, and loyalty to, another despised minority: white Southerners. I was born and raised in Alabama; Helene, though born in Washington, D.C., is a Philadlephian, and hence a Yankee; and Alabama/Yankee is as mixed as any other combination you can conjure.
Despite “recent societal progress” and “changes in attitude” spurred no doubt in part by the examples “par excellence” of Presidents Carter and Clinton, the white South has indeed come a long way, but who can deny that white Southerners are one of the few minorities in our nation — maybe the only one — that it remains acceptable to attack and ridicule in polite company? The white South, in short, needs all the help it can get, and I’m afraid I let a good one get away.