All persons of good will have reason to rejoice over the progress made in recent years in building a society of racial justice in America. More progress may confidently be expected under the present Administration, which has put diversity on the national agenda all the way to the highest levels of government. (In this Administration, there are white public interest lawyers, black public interest lawyers, gay public interest lawyers . . . ) Still, as was to be expected, there are problems. Under the leadership of the President, these problems will be faced squarely and tackled in the spirit of principled pragmatism for which he has been justly praised.
Inside reports indicate that, since there had been some confusion in this matter, the Department of Justice, under instructions of the Attorney General—who, if this were England, could look forward to retirement as Lady Janet of Waco—has recently put together an official list of Federally Scheduled Ethnic Entities. (According to Washington gossip, this term was coined by a political appointee who had been a Peace Corps volunteer in India. He had been greatly impressed there by the progress made in combatting the injustices of caste by the Schedule of Castes, Tribes, and Other Backward Classes, who are given preferences in education and government employment. Added up, they now include some 70 percent of the population.)
Those involved in the drafting process insist on two important points. First, they emphasize that in preparing this list the Department is well aware of the fact that it pertains to only one category of victims of injustice. In seeking to facilitate redress for those who have suffered as a result of ethnic or racial discrimination, the Department will not relax its vigilance against all the other forms of oppression—those based on gender, sexual orientation, age, appearance, physical or mental handicap, veteran status, and—oh yes—religion. (Speaking on deep background, a spokesperson clarified the last point by supporting the rights of groups using hallucinogenic substances in worship, though she admitted to some doubts about animal sacrifice.) Second, drafters insist that the proposed list of FSEEs is simply intended to help employers and others to define more clearly the categories of people to be scheduled for inclusion in a properly diversified labor force. These schedules are to be understood as goals, not quotas.
A leaked copy of the draft indicates that the list is indeed clear and simple. It consists of African Americans, Latinos/Latinas (a.k.a. Hispanics), Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and People of the Northern Sun (a.k.a. Eskimos). No hyphens, please. All other people are to be designated as whites (lower case).
So far, so good. Still, there may be problems. What if individuals, unhappy with being in lower case, try to sneak in? How is one to catch cheaters? And even with the best intentions of joining the struggle for racial justice, some individuals may have difficulty categorizing themselves. Given the history of past injustices, it may be supposed that any degree of descent from an FSEE would allow a white to move up from lower case. (There is an element of poetic justice here. Remember how octoroons were treated in the Old South?) But what if a Person of the Northern Sun marries an African American? How is the offspring of this union to be properly classified and scheduled?
The matter of possible cheaters is not at all academic. Quite recently, a municipal employee in a New England community was brought up on charges for allegedly having misrepresented his racial status. The man looked very white indeed, but he had declared himself to be black. By way of evidence he produced a faded photograph, allegedly depicting his black grandmother. One can see the problems faced by the disciplinary board. Even if, by the use of whatever methods of forensic technology, the photograph could be definitely determined as depicting an African American woman, and even if the latter's grandmotherly identity could be verified, would this be enough to validate the employee's claim to legally acceptable blackness?
However, deliberate cheating is not the main problem. By and large, Americans are honest people. They are also amorous in thoughtless disregard of the requirements of legal orderliness and social reform. This is nothing new. (Think again of those ante-bellum octoroons.) It becomes a serious problem in the present phase of the long march toward a society free of racism. If unemployed whites will try to sneak into the quota—pardon, the scheduled goal—for African American municipal employees—and, worse, if Eskimos will insist on marrying and reproducing with, say, Asian Americans (or even, horribile dictu, with individuals in lower case), well, something will have to be done.
If there's a will, there's a way. A few years ago South Africa abolished its Population Registration Act, under which every individual had his or her racial status officially determined and recorded. A large body of experts was employed in the administration of this law. Many of these people are now unemployed or, if lucky, employed in positions where their special skills are unused. They would no doubt welcome an invitation to come to the United States and assume jobs in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Those people can spot a black a mile away. They are also pretty good at spotting Asians. (Some of them, especially those with German surnames coming from what used to be Southwest Africa, also have expertise in detecting Jews. Since Jews will not be considered FSEEs in this country, this particular skill will presumably have to remain unused.) Some training may be necessary for the determination of Hispanic and Pacific Islander identity. This should not be difficult. After all, it's the attitude that counts. As they say in Afrikaans, “What's bred into the bones will come out in the teeth.”
Of course, these experts had something else going for them—the Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations (in marriage or outside) across the officially defined racial groups. This may be a more difficult idea to put across in the United States. Even though the combined effects of radical feminism and the fear of AIDS have greatly reduced the frequency of sexual intercourse in this country, large numbers of Americans continue to copulate with some enthusiasm and with little regard for the imperatives of social justice. The Administration will have to apply its best brains to the search for further pragmatic solutions.
Anyway, who said that apartheid would be easy?
Peter L. Berger, a member of the Editorial Board of First Things, is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University. This is the first in a series of reflections.