February 15th, 2008
05:08 PM ET

What’s in a category? Why Race and Gender Matter

Program note:  Jane Junn is a guest on Friday's 360° special “Uncovering America: Race, Gender and Politics” at 10p ET

The political space of presidential politics in the U.S. has until the 2008 election been uninhabited by women and minorities.  Frontrunners have always been white men; they are the default category we commonly expect to be represented by American politicians. Today, however, the presence of a black man and a white woman competing for the Democratic Party nomination raise anew the questions: What’s in a category and why do Americans continue to rely on these categories?

Race as a moving target
Let’s start with racial categories in the United States.  Political analysts today talk about black voters, Latino voters, Asian voters, white voters.  How and why do these categorical distinctions make sense?  On the face of things, it seems easy to distinguish and classify by race.  Cameras pan across crowds at candidate rallies searching for people who can readily be identified as something other than the default category.

But things get more complicated if we dig a little deeper than skin color and phenotypic markers.  Racial classification, particularly for contemporary immigrants from Latin America and Asia is like trying to hit a moving target.  New Americans from countries as diverse as Thailand and China to Peru and Mexico get lumped into the categories of Asian American and Latino.  Yet new immigration is continually altering the make-up of these two communities.

Since the nation’s founding, the federal government has been in the business of racial classification, and the imperative for a census of the population is written into the United States Constitution.  Racial enumeration is specified because of the “three fifths compromise” that required the counting of “three fifths of all other Persons” to determine political representation in Congress (Article I, Section 2).  While the word is absent from the U.S. Constitution, “all other Persons” is a euphemism for black slaves.  Thus, there are reasons why these categories have risen to political importance.

We have failed to recognize that over time, racial classification has taken a number of twists and turns.  Throughout the high-immigration decades of late-19th and early-20th Centuries when nativist sentiment ran high, newcomers from Europe, particularly the Irish, Italians, and Jews were racialized as “less than white.”  In the 20th century alone, Asian Indians have moved from “Hindu” to “Other” to “Asian” in the federal classification system.  “Mexican” was a category in 1930, and in 1980, the federal government officially introduced the category “Hispanic,” specifying it as an ethnic distinction rather than a racial category.  In this system, Hispanics and Latinos can be of any race.

Race and ethnicity will get even more complicated as the government grapples with reporting demographic statistics after 2000 when Americans were allowed to describe themselves as more than one race on the census form.  As Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the U.S. Census has written, that change to “mark one or more” expands to 63 the number of combinations among the race categories. Now that is complicated.

Why race and gender matter
Does all this complexity mean that race no longer matters?  And what about gender?  Even folks who find these divisions uncomfortable or confusing, or who wish they would just go away know that categories continue to matter a great deal to the everyday fortunes and future trajectories of Americans classified by race and gender.  Despite anti-discrimination laws, working women in America still earn on average $0.78 for every $1  men take home, whether they are machine operators, marketing managers, or university professors.

Bias against minority Americans persists.  A disproportionately large number of African-American and Latino families live in poverty, and Asian-Americans are included among the poorest Americans.  Minority Americans of all races are paid fewer dollars than white Americans at identical levels of formal education.

Race and gender matter in politics precisely because they are intimately intertwined with economic fortune, social standing, and political influence.  Until these systematic distinctions disappear, inequality is what’s in a category.

– Jane Junn, Rutgers University & Natalie Masuoka, Duke University

Filed under: Race Gender & Politics
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