A Powerful Perception

The Arc of the Moral Universe, part 2

Race is such a powerful concept, yet it isn’t real. It’s not based on biology. There is no race chromosome in our DNA. (Sickle cell anemia is a hereditary blood disorder sometimes thought to be race specific. Actually, sickle cell is an adaptive response to malaria, so anyone with recent ancestry in malaria-stricken areas -- which includes Africa, the Mediterranean, India, and the Middle East -- is at greater risk of sickle cell.) People who are very dark skinned get assigned one racial category and people who are very pale skinned get assigned another, but there’s a huge area of ambiguity in between.

In 1929, if you were of Mexican birth or ancestry, you were white. The 1930 census changed Mexican birth or ancestry to nonwhite as part of limiting immigration. In 1942, with the US needing to expand its labor force during World War II, these people were switched back to being white.

More and more of us are less and less obvious – that is, not easily racially classifiable. Thus, more and more, a person's race is a matter of self-identification. 28 percent African heritage turns out to be the average threshold for identifying as black. There are individual differences, but on average, in this country, we find, someone with more than 28% African ancestry is more likely to identify as African American, and someone with less than 28% African ancestry is more likely not to identify as African American.

In our culture today, 28 percent just happens to be the average point at which a person comes to feel black. It’s not that that’s a rule. There are no formal rules. Sometimes siblings with the exact same parentage – same mother and same father – make opposite identifications.

Top: Rev. Danielle Di Bona.
Middle: Lucy and Maria Aylmer
Bottom: The Aylmer family
One of my colleague UU ministers is Rev. Danielle Di Bona. Danielle says she is biracial. Her mom was Native, and her dad was born in Italy. Danielle has a twin sister, who I haven’t met, who Danielle tells me has blue eyes, fair skin, curly hair. The sister identifies as white, while Danielle identifies as a bi-racial person of color. Danielle is a bi-racial person of color because she self-identifies as a bi-racial person of color. Her sister is white because she self-identifies as white.

The Aylmer twins have a similar story. Lucy and Maria Aylmer are sisters with the same father and the same mother. The dad identifies as white, the mom as half-Jamaican. Maria identifies as black while Lucy identifies as white.

There is no reality to race, but there certainly is a reality to perception of race. On the range between ivory Scandinavian and ebony sub-Saharan African, most of us are in between, and there are a growing number of people right around the visually indeterminate region -- that is, racial identity is not clear just from looking. For them, what they self-identify as may be the whole story. For others, there’s no escaping the perception of their race. As Adam Serwer put it:
"If you look black, you are black in America, regardless of ethnic background or how you identify. Defining himself as biracial did not prevent Tony Robinson from joining the long list of unarmed young black men gunned down by police." (Serwer, BuzzFeed)
Perception of race has been very powerful and often stunningly evil in American history. Between 1882 and 1968, there were a lot of lynchings in the South, and no state did more of that than Mississippi. Theodore Bilbo, elected Governor of Mississippi in 1915 and again in 1927, and US Senator in 1935, recognized that lynching was a tactic to suppress black voting in a state where blacks outnumbered whites. He said, “You and I know what’s the best way to keep the nigger from voting. You do it the night before the election.” (Ta-Nahesis Coates, "The Case for Reparations," Atlantic, 2014 Jun)

In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Authority. The FHA provided mortgage insurance, but only for high rated neighborhoods. The presence of a single African American made a neighborhood low rated. So while the law didn’t say, “No mortgage insurance for blacks,” the effect was the same. And private banks simply didn’t give uninsured mortgages to African Americans. A system of contract selling sprang up in which white speculators would buy a house cheap, double its price and sell it to a black family under contract terms in which the interest rates were high, the seller retained the deed until the house was fully paid for, no equity accrued, and if a single payment was missed, even if it would have been the last one, the buyer lost everything, the house and all money that had been invested in it.
“In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded in to the sight of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.” (Coates, 2014 Jun)
Beryl Satter’s 2009 book, Family Properties reports one housing attorney saying:
“It was like people who like to go out and shoot lions in Africa. It was the same thrill. The thrill of the chase and the kill.”
Race may not be real, but the perception of it has engendered chilling evil. Not that the solution is to stop perceiving race. At this point, that would only be denying the legacy of plunder and violence against those perceived as black. That legacy, of course, continues.

In one study thousands of identical resumes were mailed to prospective employers: Identical except only for the name. A black sounding name – say, Daunte Williams instead of David Williams – was 50% less likely to be called back. Fifty percent.

Bilking and plundering African Americans for profit and sport continues. Black car buyers are charged $700 more on average than white car buyers of the same car. When driving that car, multiple studies show that black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over.

When looking for a home, black clients looking to buy are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale, and black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units.

Up until the recent move toward decriminalizing marijuana, penalties have been stiff. Blacks and whites used marijuana at similar rates, yet black people were four times more likely to be arrested for it.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created much harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine, used mostly by blacks, than for a quantity of powdered cocaine, used mostly by whites, that produced similar effects?

Overall, Blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.

Doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about the option of an important heart catheterization procedure.

White legislators – in both political parties -- did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names.

When Black men open-carried firearms as the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and 70s, gun control legislation passed, and when that perceived threat was gone and whites wanted to open carry, those controls were rolled back, and white people heavily armed in public are celebrated as patriotic guardians against government tyranny.

Meanwhile, government tyranny, in the form of its police officers, is a more realistic threat to African Americans. According to ProPublica analysis last October, a young black male is 21 times more likely to be shot by police than his white counterpart.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Arc of the Moral Universe."
See also:
Part 1: Bending Toward Justice?
Part 3: Unconscious Bias and Moral Imagination


  1. Might be a good time to lighten up on the race stuff which after all is as all fake.

    1. Indeed, Bill, it is long past time for the US to lighten up on "the race stuff" -- that is, the prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and violence against those perceived as black.

  2. Someone is shot every three hours in Chicago on average. Shot dead everyone 19 hours on average. Three out of four will be African American males and usually under age 25. Often times the shots are to the buttocks or groin as sign of disrepect as if getting shot isn't disrepectful enough. Much of it will happen within blocks of the old ML seminary were I've sat listening to talks about not much from people indifferent to the slaughter about them; other than they feared walking to their cars at night. So perhaps you best look inside your own faith first before you lecture the rest of the country.

    1. Well said, Bill. Thank you for adding this important information. (You give info and draw a moral from it, so I guess we are both doing something that could be called "lecturing.") My main audience (and yours, too, when making comments here) is UUs, so, of course, we are addressing those inside our own faith primarily -- and "the rest of the country" secondarily. I haven't, however, much emphasized the complicity of people of liberal faith, so I thank you for adding your personal experience with that. It's an important point.

    2. We're both lecturing but I think you claim a higher horse while I'm closer to the carnage. Your're into #blacklivesmatter while I just see human blood, and gore; senselessness and hopelessness. You're fanning flames from a distance while I can walk out my door into chaos.

  3. Bill, is not your front door in St. Charles?