In this weekend’s New York Times Opinion section, William Chatterton Williams deftly tackles one of the larger questions of the Obama era: how should people with one black and one white parent identify themselves? Of course questioning “the one drop rule” is nothing new, but ever since 2000 when the census added a mixed race category to its form, groups like the NAACP have been concerned that black Americans are being undercounted. This has rippling effects on social programs such as education guidelines, which have now been adjusted to account for those with “two or more races”, a group that lacks the “special interest” draw of blacks. Williams writes:

If today we’ve become freer to concoct our own identities, to check the “white” box or write in “multiracial” on the form, the question then forces itself upon us: are there better or worse choices to be made?

I believe there are. 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.

Williams goes on to explain how ridiculous it’s always been that we’ve held so steadfastly to a social construct that insists upon extremes to define human beings. As a mixed race person who recently married a white woman, he admits that things will be much easier for his future family than they were for his parents. Yet he concludes with the declaration that he will teach his children that they are black, no matter what anyone says, but only if “they wish to be.”

One drop of black blood soils white blood so much that its mere presence makes a person is black — this is the racist idea that has been so embraced by the black community that we don’t really need the NAACP to help us hope that mixed people identify as black on their own; the rule is still the yardstick for who is and is not allowed in the fold and we regularly question those who opt out of the black experience. But it seems a little bit naive — or perhaps overly optimistic — that one can declare his or her own race and have society fall into step with that declaration.

What do you think?

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