Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chauncey DeVega says: On the Plight of Mixed-Race Children---Can Anyone Help These Poor Tragic Mulattoes?



There are some bad adolescent behaviors that whites do more than blacks (like drinking and smoking), and there are other bad adolescent behaviors that blacks do more than whites (watching TV, fighting, getting sexually transmitted diseases). Mixed-race kids manage to be as bad as whites on the white behaviors and as bad as blacks on the black behaviors. Mixed-race kids act out in almost every way measured in the data set.

From the New York Times article "The Plight of Mixed-Race Children" by Steven Levitt.

Sometimes the powers that be make this stuff all too easy.

My position on multiracial identity and the multiracial political movement is well documented. I am deeply concerned about the creation of a coloured class in this country, a buffer race, like in Brazil or Apartheid era South Africa into which "mixed-race" people can "graduate." As we argued here before, race is a social construct with some biological basis, so ultimately the idea of a mixed-race identity is non-nonsensical because there are no "pure" races. Thus, it presupposes difference where none exists and suffers from a crippling ahistoricism, i.e. there is nothing new or unique or unprecedented about these identities.

Moreover, and as impolitic as it may sound, the real force behind efforts to create a "bi-racial" or "multi-racial" political category, a category which exists apart from blackness, is driven by the desire of white parents, often single white mothers, to access some degree of white privilege for their kids. Ultimately, the positions held by the lightskinned girls, Association of Multiethnic Americans, and Generations Mixed's of the world, is one that is self-fetishizing, a look we're special...and magical...and different from "those" "regular" black people (to the degree these tragic mulattoes even identity with the black community) type of celebratory identity politics.

As Gordon Gartrelle said in response to our early posts on this very subject, "race messes us all up," and biracials are just messed up differently. Nevertheless, as the old saying goes, "if you are white you are alright, if you are light step ahead, and if you are black get back." While granting that there is a "rational" calculus for running away from blackness, what is so disturbing to this respectable negro is how this decision to distance oneself from negritude is masked and hidden behind such pathetic, narcissistic pleadings as "I shouldn't have to choose, I want to identity with every part of my identity" or the equally sad claim that, "I am 1/4 Indian, 1/8 Scots Irish, 1/8 Italian, 1/16 Inuit, 1/16 Cuban, and 1/4 Black, why can't I be all of these things?" To which I may add, these multiple identities often represent choices that are made quite selectively and strategically: as in "If I want a scholarship I am black, but don't expect me to have a sense of group loyalty to, or kinship with, black folk." And you know what? If I hear these rationalizations again I will insert hand into throat in order to induce vomiting.

For all of these reasons, and apart from the admiration I have for the authors of Freakonomics (any book which can simultaneously be on the top of the New York Time's bestseller list and be sold in Walmart and Price Costco is good by me), I simply love reading empirically based arguments about race and behavior which "wink" at the reader. Here, the wink is a pretty clear one: look at how messed up these self-identified "bi-racial" people really are. But to really get the humor one needs to unpack the actual article which can be found here. It isn't perfect by any means, and the conclusion is really a mea culpa which limits the range of findings, but there are some great moments and insights.

Some select passages:

1. The first relevant dimension is whether one bases the classification on the responses of the parents or the child. The second relevant dimension for classifying mixed race children is how “strict” or “inclusive” one is in defining who is mixed race. Our preferred definition is one that is child-based and strict. We use a childbased definition both because data on fathers are often missing, and even if a male guardian is present, it is impossible in our data to determine whether he is the biological father.16 A childbased approach is more direct, but relies on the child’s self-identification. Under our preferred “strict” definition at the child level, an individual is considered race A if and only if he consistently says he is race A whenever he is observed in the data. If there are any inconsistencies across waves, we code the race as missing. Using this approach we obtain 304 black-white mixed children; but we are likely to understate the number of mixed race adolescents in the data.


Thought and Comment: So, these children are actually self-identifying as "mixed-race." This throws a bit of a wrinkle into the plan because this identity is by definition anomalous and contingent on environment and background. How many "mixed-race" people choose to identity as black (or brown or white)? Are these children just outliers? What is special and particular about anyone who self-selects into this category? Is it perhaps a signal that the person is either profoundly at peace with themselves or profoundly conflicted? Wouldn't it be interesting to study discordant pairings, i.e where the parent says the child is one identity and the child gives a different response? Wouldn't it also be a rich project to study HAPA's in California and Hawaii who self-identify as white? Or to study black Creoles in Louisiana?

2. Although generally not statistically significantly different, mixed race children do worse on most of the psychological dimensions explored. The greatest observed difference is with respect to whether the child perceives his father as caring, which mixed race children do significantly less. Interestingly, blacks tend to be more content on most dimensions relative to whites and mixed race children. The exception to this finding is when asked about their chances of surviving to age 35.

Thought and Comment: Ah ha! I knew we black folk were well-adjusted. Like Jewish folk, our sense of humor has sustained us as a people. And we are happier than white folks--I always say that the privileged manufacture reasons to be unhappy. Interestingly, mixed-race children see their fathers as being less caring. Could this be because many of the fathers are not present? Where are the fathers? Did they break up because of family disapproval of inter-racial dating? And more generally, what does this mean for how the identities of these children will form? If the father is not white, how is this child learning about their raced identity? By extension, this plays directly into my theory about multi-racial identity as mom's way of trying to connect with her child through an effort to pass along some white privilege under the banner of asserting a "biracial" or "multiracial" identity for her child.

3. Because mixed race adolescents have an outside option, they must go to greater lengths to demonstrate their affiliation with the group; one way of demonstrating solidarity is to go to extremes in carrying out group-sanctioned misbehavior.

Thought and Comment: I thought young people had it hard in general, but this is a one-two punch. Poor tragic mulatto children do apparently have to be bad in the way that black kids are bad and bad in the way white kids are bad. Result: years of therapy. Question: what about parenting and local group norms? What about class? And isn't there lots of variability within groups in terms of behavior, what constitutes "good" and "bad"? Just thinking aloud.

4. It is important to note that when there are few blacks present, the costs of acting black for mixed race adolescents is lower. For example, fighting is one aspect of behavior more associated with blacks than whites. If blacks are more experienced fighters than whites, than it is less costly for a mixed race child to prove he can fight when the only opponents are whites. This force works in the opposite direction of conformity.

Thought and Comment: Huh? I thought it was Mexicans and Latinos who were the best fighters? I guess I am just out of step.

5. In contrast, in the Roy model, when there are few blacks around, mixed race children can have a comparative advantage in black behaviors, inducing them to act particularly “black.” Empirically, the evidence on this point favors the Roy model over conformity.

Thought and Comment: Another light bulb moment. I have personally seen this phenomenon in action. I cannot tell you how many mixed-race kids I have witnessed going through the not-black, to blacker than thou, to self-consciously mixed-race, to I am going to perform blackness for my white friends--they are an ambassador you know--transformation, yet who simultaneously harbor a deep fear of and resentment towards "real" black folks. This transformation is particularly common among Ivy and elite educated, young, mixed-race people. In these cases it usually involves a discovery of hip hop and b-boy culture, an embrace of post-racial politics, and a hairstyle which alternates between a wild 'fro (to signal he is black, plus women like to touch it) and a signifying set of cornrows.

6. Broadly summarizing, the data on mixed race black-white children suggests that they grow up in home environments that are similar to blacks, have academic achievement in between that of whites and blacks, but engage in much more risky behaviors and are slightly worse off psychologically.


Thought and Comment: Like we said earlier, race messes us all up and tragic mulattoes are just messed up differently. It seems that thanks to Steve Levitt we now finally have an explanation for the bad behaviors of the Halle Berry's, Mariah Carey's, Vin Diesel's, and Slash's of the world. But a mystery still remains: how do we explain the unbalanced behaviors of the Britney Spears's, Paris Hilton's, Amy Winehouse's and Kim Kardashian's of the world?

6 comments:

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

guess there is just one race after all - human

ding said...

good lord. this same piece sucked up my entire day and i wrote about it on my blog, Screed. then i asked some old friends about the author's methodology and this is what he said:

"Most coefficients presented in the regression are statistically insignificant. The author does not present levels of significance on the tables. I did not read the full paper, doubt its worth it. Ultimately, this means the conclusions are substantive at best (i.e. not objective or generalizable to the broader population), which is the likely reason for the focus group. We, however, cannot generalize from the focus group findings.

I could go on...and on...but the reality is this paper was apparently written 3+ years ago, remains unpublished, and the author is seeking attention by blogging. I'd ignore him before responses help to propel him to Maury Povich or some such tripe-ridden talk show, where his statements will not be intelligently challenged and will become a part of popular culture/belief."

basically, the study is bogus.

but, man, is it angrifying.

fictional eyes said...

Thought and Comment: Another light bulb moment. I have personally seen this phenomenon in action. I cannot tell you how many mixed-race kids I have witnessed going through the not-black, to blacker than thou, to self-consciously mixed-race, to I am going to perform blackness for my white friends--they are an ambassador you know--transformation, yet who simultaneously harbor a deep fear of and resentment towards "real" black folks. This transformation is particularly common among Ivy and elite educated, young, mixed-race people. In these cases it usually involves a discovery of hip hop and b-boy culture, an embrace of post-racial politics, and a hairstyle which alternates between a wild 'fro (to signal he is black, plus women like to touch it) and a signifying set of cornrows.

Oh, those awful high yella people, coming to terms with, embracing, and finding meaning in the ways they do! ;) Such tragedy!

chaunceydevega said...

They are horrible aren't they? It makes me happy to know I am not alone in my contempt for them ;) and it makes me doubly proud to be such a nice dark bronzed color myself...there is a joke there that will make sense in a few days if you find yourself back here again.

But then again, ronin librarians do wander around a bit...

chauncey devega

elle said...

I heard about this study first on the racialicious blog, and it is pretty biased, as many people quickly realized.

Buckin'Ray said...

WOW!!!!!!!!

Such hatred for mixed-race people......especially black-white, you know, the people that AA's try to look like by perming their hair, bleaching their skin, rhinoplasty, etc.!?!?!?!

Don't forget, one of the "tragic mulattoes" is going to run the country soon! HAHAHAHAHAHAAH