Is the racial discrimination experienced by multiracial people fundamentally different from the racial discrimination experienced by minorities who identify with a single race? The significance of this thorny question only continues to grow as the United States becomes increasingly multiracial with critical race scholars producing some of the most trenchant ideas about the issue in recent years.
One such scholar is Fordham Law Professor Tanya Katerí Hernández, whose new book Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination addresses the issue from a legal perspective. In the book, Hernández uses evidence from a wide variety of court cases to show that multiracial people face the exact same kind of discrimination that other racial groups do; complex theories of mixed race discrimination do not seem to hold, at least in this context, when held up against the stark realities of the white/nonwhite binary in modern American society.
“The danger is in this idea that multiraciality is new and misunderstood by the law,” said Hernández at a panel discussion on the book held at Fordham Law School on September 26. While some scholars have argued that the realities of multiraciality require legal upheavals, Hernández is skeptical.
“We don’t need brand new laws,” she said. In the end, racial discrimination in America is still “about nonwhiteness, in whatever variation.”
Indeed, enforcing existing civil rights laws to the best of our abilities should be our country’s priority, Hernández argued.
Joining Hernández on the panel were four experts from an array of fields involving racial and legal scholarship.
Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of Latino Justice, a New York-based national civil rights organization, responded to the book by speaking about modern race relations and perceptions of race, particularly in the Latino community.
He also told the story of a Puerto Rican man who, upon being caught on camera beating a black man with a lead pipe during the violent protests in Charlottesville in 2017, said, “I can’t be racist, I’m Puerto Rican.”
Does Puerto Rican count as a race? What makes some people assume that they can’t be racist if their skin isn’t white? These were open-ended questions that Cartagena left the audience to ponder.
For Hon. Raymond Lohier, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Hernández’s book was a welcome introduction to an academic debate that he had little prior knowledge of—and as the father of two multiracial sons, it had great personal relevance for him as well.
Judge Lohier ultimately agreed with Hernández’s argument. In his work as a federal judge, he said, “I wouldn’t look at the ‘multi’ part,” in cases involving racial discrimination against multiracial people, “I would look at the ‘racial’ part.”
Following Judge Lohier was Ann Morning, associate professor of sociology at New York University. Morning brought the perspective of her discipline to bear on Hernández’s arguments, noting that “way too much of our research is focused on questions of individual identity,” and that it was thus refreshing to see a scholar take a step back and address the ways in which group identities—and the way others perceive those group identities—have tremendous real-world consequences.
Cara McClellan, a Skadden Fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., rounded out the panel by talking about recent attempts to deploy a colorblind system of legal justice. Multiracials and Civil Rights, McClellan added, “is in tension with the colorblind approach we often see in civil rights cases.” A towering, perhaps inconvenient, truth looms over the problem: people are not really color blind in modern America, and overwhelming evidence shows that they certainly do not act as if they are. “Civil rights need not sacrifice a race-conscious approach,” McClellan stressed. Indeed, to do so would result in an increase in injustice, not the other way around.
The event was moderated by Professor Robin Lenhardt, faculty director of the Center on Race, Law & Justice, who concluded that Multiracials and Civil Rights is important because it shows “what is new in the eyes of multiracial identity theorists is not new at all.”