1. A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.
2. A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution: the German race.
3. A genealogical line; a lineage.
4. Humans considered as a group.
In class this week, we talked about what it means to be Lumbee. We discussed the importance of the name and whether the name—the label—was important or not. This got me thinking about my own research topic, racial classification. This week’s readings are very closely related to racial classification but before considering the readings, I first wanted to get a better idea of what “race” actually means. Isn’t racial classification, after all, just a label? I have listed above a straight-forward dictionary definition for the word. Under the definition, however, the online dictionary (thefreedictionary.com) provides a usage note which I found to be quite relevant:
“Usage Note: The notion of race is nearly as problematic from a scientific point of view as it is from a social one. European physical anthropologists of the 17th and 18th centuries proposed various systems of racial classifications based on such observable characteristics as skin color, hair type, body proportions, and skull measurements, essentially codifying the perceived differences among broad geographic populations of humans. The traditional terms for these populations—Caucasoid (or Caucasian), Mongoloid, Negroid, and in some systems Australoid—are now controversial in both technical and nontechnical usage, and in some cases they may well be considered offensive. (Caucasian does retain a certain currency in American English, but it is used almost exclusively to mean “white” or “European” rather than “belonging to the Caucasian race,” a group that includes a variety of peoples generally categorized as nonwhite.) The biological aspect of race is described today not in observable physical features but rather in such genetic characteristics as blood groups and metabolic processes, and the groupings indicated by these factors seldom coincide very neatly with those put forward by earlier physical anthropologists. Citing this and other points—such as the fact that a person who is considered black in one society might be nonblack in another—many cultural anthropologists now consider race to be more a social or mental construct than an objective biological fact.” (thefreedictionary.com)
In other words, race is not as simple as black and white. And (bad puns aside) this week’s readings showed that defining race, and therefore classifying people by racial standards, is actually quite complicated.
Guy B. Johnson’s article, “Personality in White-Indian-Negro Community,” largely portrays Indians as a confused race, floating somewhere in between being white and black. The Lumbee, or Croatan as he refers to them, are the largest group of mixed race Indians in the South. He says the Croatan were formed by the mixing of runaway slaves, Indian tribes, and white adventurers, amongst other groups. Johnson believes that Indians do not want to be classified as “Negroes” but whites do not want Indians to be classified as white, so they are neither. He calls them an “exception to biracialism of the south.” He then proceeds to break down the residents of Robeson County into three racial classifications (instead of two): white (47%), black (34%), and Indian (19%). He does not acknowledge that perhaps 100% of the residents are of mixed ancestry, but instead just adds a third racial classification to lump people into, saying that most residents are not “bona fide Indians.”
In his article, Johnson portrays the Croatans as racist towards black people. This was the section of the article that I struggled the most with. He claims that the Croatan people are classified as colored but want to be white. I wholly disagree with this claim. Perhaps the Croatan people do not want to be white but simply want the same rights—the rights to govern themselves independently—as those afforded to white people. Similarly, the Croatan Indians desire to disassociate with the black community most likely stemmed from their own desire to be recognized as an independent Indian race (not simply labeled “colored”). This is best illustrated by their giving up their Croatan legend just to be associated with a recognized group of Indians (the Cherokee).
In his article, “Shifting Boundaries of Race and Ethnicity,” Daniel R. Mandell provides answers to the question of why it is so difficult to racially classify many Indian tribes like the Lumbee today. For groups with perhaps fewer numbers and less cohesion, like the Lumbee, intermarriage became a way to survive. Assimilating, or acculturating (Mandell makes the distinction in his article), other ethnic groups became a double edged sword, however, when a shift in ethnic identities caused the Lumbee’s indianness to come into question. If intermarriage leads to a mixed race, and mixed race cannot be Indian, people argued, then the Indian was dead. This is the moment when racial classification—distinguishing the Lumbee as Indian became very important.
Today the Lumbee are not fully federally recognized and one of the arguments against full recognition is their lack of “Indian” culture. Mandell explains where part of the culture loss came from. Indians and black Americans, he explains, were brought together by multiple reasons. Indians, Mandell says, at the time of racial mixing were not concerned with racial purity. In fact, tribes often welcomed newcomers and even sometimes adapted older customs to new situations. To me, it makes sense that Indians accepted black Americans into their culture. After all, last week we learned that tribes often combined or overtook other tribes when their numbers dwindled. To an Indian living pre-Columbus, was another tribe not very similar our concept of another “race?”
Where Johnson argued that an Indian is anyone recognized as one by other Indians, Mandell argues that kinship is not enough. He cites examples of generational differences in racial associations. In other words, an individual may identify with one group while his son/daughter/brother/sister identifies with another. For Mandell, it is more about personal identity rather than a label based on blood quantum or even cultural norms.
It was not until white colonialist began viewing race as a science and placing value on race that Indians needed to have any concern for racial purity at all. In fact, Mandell argues that group survival in a multiethnic world would be greater with less rigid boundaries. If this is true, then shouldn’t the Lumbee be thriving in today’s multicultural America?
In Gary B. Nash’s article, “The Hidden History of Mestizo America,” he describes what should have been: a new, mixed American “race.” He cites numerous reasons this was prevented including war with the Indians, white people’s fear of an Indian-black alliance, and the Indians’ desire to retain their homelands. Mixing races was more common than I had realized; I assumed racial hierarchy was always an issue. According to Nash, however, it was not until science and culture became inextricably linked that the issue of racial purity became one of importance. In fact, as early as 1650, Spanish-Indian children were recognized for being mixed-race. Over 300 years later and we still do not consider “mixed-race” a real racial classification!
Nash recognizes racial mixing in the early Americas as natural and even calls it the “fundamental cohesion of the human race.” He is careful not to over-romanticize it, but illustrates racial mixing as something much more common and accepted than American History often makes it out to be. In the early 19th century, however, racial mixing took a turn to become more about Americanizing the Indians than mixing with them. Today, the situation is quite different and only about 1 in 5 Americans are of British descent.
Although racial mixing is accepted today, it generates confusion for those who are products of it. Racial reduction limits a person’s identity to one dimension, Nash argues. Furthermore, pride in a mixed ancestry does not run high in America. Is it because “mixed-race” is not considered a true racial classification? Why must we be one or the other when none of us truly are? Why is race something that defines our identity at all—why not simply culture or even ethnicity? Nash ends his article with a call to celebrate racial differences. This left me wondering where the importance of racial classification comes in. Is racial classification even important or is it a topic that limits our identities and should be ignored? One the other hand, does a “color-blind” mentality solve the problem of racial injustice or perpetuate it?
To answer some of the questions I have listed throughout and a few more, I am providing these resources as a starting place:
Use the annotated bibliography on the Lumbee for information on Lumbee economics: http://linux.library.appstate.edu/lumbee/21/index.html
Greenbaum, Susan. “What’s in a label? Identity problems of Southern Indian tribes.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 19.2 (1991):107-126.
Daniel, G. Reginald. “Triracial isolates: runaways and refuseniks.” More than Black? Multiracial identity and the new racial order. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2002. See especially pages 68-75.
“Reds and Blacks in bloody fight: Croatan Indians and Negroes have a mix in North Carolina.” Atlanta Constitution Thursday, August 6, 1903.
Katz, William Loren. “Blacks-Indians alliance has deep roots.” New York Times March 2, 1988, page A22. 413 words.
Jones, Rhett S. “Black/Indian relations: an overview of the scholarship.” Transforming Anthropology 10.1 (2001): 2-16.
Harrell, Hannah B. The Question of Race in Robeson County, 1864-1885. Undergraduate honors thesis. 23 pages. University of North Carolina at Pembroke, 2005. Not seen. Located at UNC-P’s Sampson-Livermore Library Special Collections. Not available through Interlibrary Loan.