On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case related to affirmative action and today the Atlantic wonders, “Is Race Really the Best Metric for Diversity?” In particular, the magazine highlights the opinions of readers who argue that we live in a country that, for instance, defines Middle Easterners, North Africans, Jews, Italians, Irish, English, and Argentinians as “White.”
“I’m not sure,” one reader writes, “how such disparate groups can be all grouped together, and even with those ‘groups,’ there is so much diversity and difference.”
Regardless of your views on affirmative action and race, thinking about this in terms of what’s white and what’s non-white has it backwards, at least in terms of the history. That’s because what is white, at least in Virginia, has traditionally been defined as that which is not black. To see what I mean, read our entry on the Racial Integrity Laws in Virginia. It shows how, from the earliest days of the colony, the racial identities of people of color were subjected to a ruthless series of definitions:
In 1705, the General Assembly articulated specific racial groups and restricted the rights of African Americans, Indians, and mulattoes, defining the latter as anyone who was the child of an Indian or the child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of an African American. In 1785, that definition was simplified: a mulatto was anyone with one-fourth or more “negro blood.” In 1860, the definition stayed the same. Six years later, however, “mulatto” was replaced by the word “colored,” and Indians were now defined as being not colored and having one-fourth or more “Indian blood.” That definition remained the same in 1887 and 1910. But in the latter year, the assembly broadened its definition of a colored person to someone with one-sixteenth or more “negro blood.”
Such definitions did not, you’ll notice, exist in reference to white people, at least not until 1924. That’s when the General Assembly passed a law that attempted a first in Virginia history: defining a white person. Said white person was anyone who possessed “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.” That same year, the General Assembly declared a “colored person” to be anyone “having one-sixteenth or more of negro blood.”
In other words, a black person was black because he or she was … well, black. While a white person was white because he or she was not black.
Why was this distinction important? Because 1924 is when the General Assembly passed a new version of an old law banning interracial marriage. (This is the same law the Supreme Court later overturned in Loving v. Virginia.) Except that it didn’t, as some still presume, ban all kinds of interracial marriage. African Americans could marry Asians, and Indians could marry African Americans. No, it just banned marriage between whites and non-whites, and in order to do that, the assembly found it legally helpful to define who, in fact, white people were.
Getting back to the Atlantic‘s dumbfounded readers—”I’m not sure how such disparate groups can be all grouped together”—well, this is how. In support of a long tradition of white supremacy, the law has been less interested in how Irish, English, and Argentinians are distinctive cultures that might offer something valuable to the college classroom. Instead, it has been enough to simply take note that they are not black.
IMAGE: Detail from a 1924 bulletin issued by Virginia’s Department of Health instructing agents in how to properly register citizens’ racial identities (University of Virginia Special Collections)