The Multiracial Movement:
An Uncomfortable Political Fit
by Nathan Douglas
NOTE: What follows is the text of a speech prepared by Nathan Douglas for the “Anatomy of Multiracial Politics” conference, originally scheduled to be held October 10, 2003, in Washington, D.C., by the Interracial Women’s Political Consortium. The conference was canceled due to apparent apathy.
Greetings, everyone. I’d like to begin by thanking Valerie Wilkins-Godbee, of the Interracial Women’s Political Consortium, for inviting me to speak. I have a reputation of shooting from the hip, so she exhibited some degree of courage by including me.
To get started, I’d like to recite a prayer of sorts. One that you’ve probably heard before, in one version or another. It goes like this: “Lord, please give me the courage to change what I can; the serenity to accept what I cannot; and the wisdom to know the difference.” May you all take that to heart.
Today I’m here to share with you as much as I can of wisdom accumulated from seven years of directly participating in, and critically observing, the so-called Multiracial Movement. If you walk away with nothing else from my talk, please remember an observation I made in May of 1998, during a heated exchange on C-Span with Harold McDougall. He’s a Catholic University law professor and the former representative of the NAACP in their fight against the multiracial category. For those of you who don’t know, the NAACP was our primary opponent in the push for a multiracial category to be added to all government forms and surveys.
During the broadcast, I challenged McDougall to explain some incendiary remarks he made in front of Congress during the hearings. In particular, I was incensed by his reference to a “kinky hair machine” device used in South Africa to determine the race of an individual. McDougall mentioned it to Congress, as if the device would find a place here, should the multiracial category be established. Yes, I realize this probably sounds bizarre to you, but he said it. It’s documented and I’ve written about it at the Project RACE and Interracial Voice websites. Check out their archives.
Anyhow, McDougall immediately accused me of being from “the extreme right wing of the multiracial movement,” to which I replied, “there is no right wing of the multiracial movement”-a statement I believed to be true at the time. Certainly I didn’t consider myself to be right wing or conservative. One look at my life, and the way I’ve chosen to lead it, would reinforce this. Plus I never perceived the movement to be about political identity anyway, internally or externally. It was an individual identity movement. That’s idealistic, perhaps, but to me it was always about something much grander than the crass nature of politics.
Be that as it may, things escalated from there and Clarence Page, the panel moderator, stepped in to cool down the rhetoric. Page asked me, “Why is it so important to have a multiracial category?”
I said, quite extemporaneously, “It’s to give these kids a sense of identity that allows them to be more than one thing at one time, and it states it clearly. It’s as simple as that.” I went one to clarify, and this is what I hope you’ll remember, so I’ll say it twice: “People are uncomfortable with the concept that somebody could be more than one thing at one time.” Again, “People are uncomfortable with the concept that somebody could be more than one thing at one time.”
Let’s try putting that observation into a political context. As I’ve stated before, I’m not from the right wing. But guess what? I’m not a liberal, either. Which is also to say I’m neither Republican nor Democrat. Call me an independent. Or, building on my prior observation, I’m more than one thing at one time, and that makes political people, like Harold McDougall and the NAACP, very uncomfortable. Because they see the world as “either/or.” Either you’re a liberal Democrat like them or you’re a conservative Republican, like whom they perceive all their opponents to be.
And when McDougall tried to label me as “right wing,” he was basing his assessment solely on one issue. I submit to you that it is impossible to accurately determine where someone resides politically from his-or-her position on one issue. And instead of answering my questions about his previous statements, McDougall tried to place me on the defensive to prove that I was not from the “right wing.” When he failed to elicit the response he desired, he just refused to answer my questions.
Deborah Tannen, a popular author and avowed Democrat, wrote an interesting book in 1998, entitled The Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue. Let me give you a few quotes that relate to what I’m talking about…
“The argument culture urges us to approach the world-and the people in it-in an adversarial frame of mind.” (p. 3)
“Our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides leads us to believe that every issue has two sides-no more, no less.” (p. 10)
“But opposition does not lead to truth when an issue is not composed of two opposing sides but is a crystal of many sides.” (p. 10)
She goes on to address the race issue by saying that there’s a “tendency to reduce our understanding of race to a simple black/white dichotomy. This tends to obscure, first of all, the existence of many other races: Asian, American Indian, Polynesian, Semitic, Arab, East Indian, Mongolian, and so on. Even within the framework of Americans of European and Americans of African ancestry, there are many who are biracial or multiracial.” (p. 43)
She concludes by stating, “no sooner do we conceive of something composed of two-and just two-elements than we begin to think of those elements as more different than they are, opposed to each other, and potentially in conflict.” (pp. 43-44)
Okay, let’s talk about the elephant in the living room. No, it’s not me; it’s the Republican Party. Let’s face it, this figurative elephant makes many of us uncomfortable. But he’s just too damn big to ignore. Not only is the elephant in charge of government right now, whether we like it or not, it is also true that the elephant was virtually our only ally during the struggle for a multiracial category. Congressman Petri, a Republican, was the principal sponsor of the so-called “Tiger Woods Bill,” H.R. 830, which would have mandated a multiracial category. And Newt Gingrich, a Republican who is perennially portrayed by Democrats to be Lucifer personified, was also a supporter.
Yes, in the crazy world of racial politics, our supposedly natural allies, the civil rights establishment, became our enemies; and our supposedly natural enemies, the right wing establishment, became our allies. Or at least, so it appeared. Let me give you some more political observations.
In June of 1997, I was a guest on Kweisi Mfume’s Baltimore-based TV talkshow, The Bottom Line. I substituted for Susan Graham, the head of Project RACE, who asked me to take her place on the show. As previously established, I’m a feisty fellow, so not long after taping began, I got involved in a somewhat heated exchange, not with Mfume, who was on his best behavior throughout the show, but with an audience member. She raised the Republican specter with me by saying, in reference to H.R. 830, “The people behind it want to gut the enforcement of civil rights laws and that’s what’s behind the issue.” She also said, “When you have a conservative Republican sponsoring this kind of bill, you have to think twice.”
I replied that I thought hers was a mischaracterization, saying quite candidly, “You’re defining this in political terms.” Let’s stop there a moment. Because that is, perhaps, the greatest irony of the debate that swirled around the establishment of a multiracial category. You see, as hard as it was for others to understand, and as difficult as it may be for some of you to realize even now, the quest for a multiracial identifier was, for me and many others, NEVER political in nature.
This was and is an identity issue, pure-and-simple. We just wanted the ability to answer truthfully the question being proposed: what is your race? To do so required an option or options not available at the time.
I felt a tremendous affinity for the plight of multiracials wanting to self-identify. Not just because my son is multiracial, but because for all practical purposes, I am multiracial, meaning I draw from eclectic sources to be who I am. I may appear to be one thing physically, but there are plenty of other cultures swirling around inside me. At the very least, I’m multicultural.
That’s why I testified before Congress in 1997, on behalf of a multiracial category. Although I had given a speech at the 1996 Multiracial Solidarity March on the Mall in Washington, after being invited to participate by Charles Byrd; when I showed up to testify alongside Ramona Douglass of the Association of Multiethnic Americans (“AMEA”) and the aforementioned Susan Graham, I was met with some skepticism. The two of them, who were getting along well at the time, wanted to know how I had secured a spot to testify, since they had hoped to include some other, higher profile, more established representative from the movement. (I think it may have been Maria Root.)
We were at lunch, and they asked me directly, how had I gotten a slot on their panel? I declined to say precisely how I had aced out a member of their emerging multiracial political establishment. I just said I was testifying because “I asked politely.” Well, that was the truth! Although I can’t help but think they assumed I was some kind of a Republican spy or operative placed by Stephen Horn, the Republican congressman in charge of the congressional subcommittee overseeing the debate on the multiracial category.
Well, up until now, I’ve never publicly revealed how I got on that panel. Would you like to know? Okay, when I was in college at Cal State, Long Beach, I was a member of an honor society called the Mortar Board. One of the community service jobs we performed for the Mortar Board was to help the university president and his wife host a reception being held at their house. And you’ll never guess who the president of Cal State, Long Beach was back then. Stephen Horn, the same guy who would end up being a Congressman years later. Life is miraculous, isn’t it? Praise God.
So that’s how I got on the panel. Just a polite letter reminding him of our past encounter, and requesting consideration to be included in the congressional debate. I wasn’t a Republican then or now. And his staffer never asked if I was. He screened me to be sure I was presentable and not a nut, I guess, and then I was on board. Because I had something relevant to add. And what was that? Let me give you a quote from my testimony…
“No organization or individual has the moral authority to impose racial patriotism over others. Some of our opponents appear to have commissioned themselves as members of a ‘racial border patrol.’ They dutifully stand guard over America’s imaginary borders between the races, scanning the horizon for ‘illegal racial immigrants.’ And when they see one, they swoop down with all their might and unrighteous indignation. Well, it is sometimes said that ‘the truth shall set you free.’ If our opponents are truly interested in freedom, then why are they afraid of the truth?”
Okay, let’s move on from dealing with externals and talk about some of the internal political and philosophical struggles that have occurred within the Multiracial Movement. Hopefully, you all know who the key players have been.
Essentially, there were and are three factions: Susan Graham and her Project Race followers; Ramona Douglass and the Association of Multiethnic Americans coalition; and, God bless him, Internet publisher Charles Byrd with his loose band of racial iconoclasts. (You can count me among these radicals, if you’re looking for some place to pigeonhole me.)
Susan’s efforts were initially at the local level, where her organization was successful in establishing some versions of a multiracial category in several states. Ramona, working with Carlos Fernandez, was able to establish herself as an official representative serving on a Census planning committee. It should also be said that Susan and Ramona, for a time, worked together tirelessly to lobby Congress and other political powers-that-be on behalf of a multiracial category. Although it should be acknowledged that the AMEA group and Project RACE ended up not agreeing on a choice of format and wording, to include, believe it or not, the term “multiracial.”
Meanwhile Charles Byrd, editor of the cyberzine Interracial Voice, became a very visible spokesperson on behalf of multiracials. As an aside, the most exciting moment for me during this period was when Charles appeared on the nationally televised PBS program, The NewsHour, making his case for multiracial recognition. Man, that was great! I even gave him one of my ties to wear. Every time I watch a tape of the show and see that tie, I chuckle. It’s like an inside joke, you know?
Okay, so for a limited time I was fortunate to be associated with this grand triad. My inclination, at least initially, was to remain independent and non-aligned, as is my nature. I had extensive interactions with all of them. But let me assure you, the content of the e-mails that used to fly among us serves as a telling reminder of the political and philosophical conflicts apparently inherent in this issue. In other words, many of the battles that were going on outside the movement were also going on internally, as some of us were being pulled and pushed among opposing camps or positions of interest.
G. Reginald Daniel, author of the book More Than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order and an academic with whom I had some e-mail debate around the time of the congressional hearings, has characterized the internal squabbling, at least in the early nineties as follows…
“The leadership of the AMEA and Project RACE continued to disagree on strategy, and their differences were exacerbated by different leadership styles. (Project RACE was more confrontational, while AMEA tended to be more conciliatory.)” (p. 137)
I would tend to agree with that assessment, although it seems to be imbedded with a subtle value judgement. “Conciliatory” sounds better than “confrontational,” doesn’t it? Anyway, many of us in the Movement leaned toward the Project RACE end of the spectrum for one simple reason: we thought AMEA and its affiliates were a bunch of wimps. Be that as it may, what’s more important to our discussion today was AMEA’s apparent fear of a stealth Republican agenda. Reg Daniels describes it this way.
“Republican support for a multiracial identifier led many individuals to view the multiracial consciousness movement-particularly the stand-alone identifier-as part of a right-wing ‘conspiracy.’ The multiracial movement and its Republican supporters were seen as enemies of civil rights and other claims aimed at achieving social and economic equity and redress. Despite this guilt by association, some activists felt that the Republican majority in the House made their support essential, particularly if it became necessary to pursue this struggle through legislative channels. This was a devil’s bargain, but one based more on the political opportunism of some activists in the multiracial movement than on actual support of the Right (although some segments of the multiracial movement have supported the Republican agenda.)” (p. 146)
Let me stop and give a plug for the author, G. Reginald Daniel, an apparent Democrat, probable socialist. Hell, he may be a Marxist. But Mr. Daniel, that “devil’s bargain” comment aside, has done us a service by writing and documenting a somewhat bias version of what happened back in 1997, in Chapter Seven of his book, More Than Black? He even included me in a couple of his footnotes, but he left out many important facts, especially that a leading Democrat, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, actually publicly supported a multiracial identifier with subcategories, our Holy Grail, for a brief period during this time.
I should also mention that Kim Williams, a professor at Harvard, has also written about the movement. I met her when she was working on her dissertation at Cornell, and she interviewed me. Although I have never seen Kim’s writings, gleaning from quotes and course descriptions on the Internet, I assume she, too, took an liberal academic slant on things, like Reg Daniel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se, but the results should be approached with caution because they are not objective reporting.
What the heck. While I’m taking benign potshots, let me make some comments about Ramona Douglass, since she’s not here to defend herself. Ramona is a very articulate, intelligent, passionate crusader for multiracial rights. She deserves praise for her tireless efforts over the years. She, like Susan Graham, worked countless hours on our behalf without pay.
My understanding is Ramona came from a liberal tradition that included extensive involvement with the civil rights establishment. And that’s all well and good. But when it came time for her to stand up to that same civil rights establishment, our principal opponents in the struggle for multiracial recognition, she was, in my opinion, already compromised. That was very unfortunate, but probably inevitable, given her background.
I remember arguing with her about what she called “building bridges” to the civil rights establishment, principally the NAACP. I kept saying she was “building bridges to nowhere,” and that she needed to see the civil rights establishment for what it was on this issue-our opponent. As such, they were not to be coddled nor trusted. She did both, in my opinion, arguably to the detriment of our movement. But in all fairness, she can reasonably assert the opposite, claiming victory, albeit a hollow one to many of us in the know. Try to keep Ramona’s inherent conflict of interest in mind, as you try to formulate your own multiracial strategies in the future.
I also remember a silly e-mail exchange with Ramona, where I was taking a position regarding the multiracial identifier. I was saying this is an issue of truth: meaning at its most basic level, the ability of a multiracial child to truthfully and accurately self-identify as being multiracial rather than monoracial. (Remember there was no “check all that apply” provision at the time.) Ramona did not agree with my premise of truth. She said there was no such thing as truth-everything is relative, depending on culture and context, etc. I distinctly remember countering that surely she would agree the laws of physics qualified as indisputable truth. You know, if you drop an apple, it falls to the ground. That’s true, isn’t it? She wouldn’t even concede that much.
Reg Daniels has characterized this philosophical divide as post modernistic in nature. He says, and he must have been thinking about Ramona and her coalition of AMEA academics, that…
“Post modern thinkers interrogate the conception of a linear connection of subjects to an objective world. This has led them to dismiss the notion that the ‘truth’ can be found in any absolutely impartial sense.” (p. 12)
If only I had realized where Ramona was coming from, I might have saved myself and others a lot of aggravation. But the point to be made here is that the Multiracial Movement is a big tent affair. It’s full of diverse political and philosophical viewpoints. We were all united for awhile by one thing, and one thing only-our desire for multiracial recognition. Unfortunately, in the end we were unable to overcome our differences long enough to sustain the effort required for a full victory in our battle for that recognition. This should be a lesson for others in the future. The movement must remain above politics to sustain its credibility and usefulness.
And a further word about Susan Graham. Back in 2000, she refused to participate in a post-Census gathering of multiracial leadership held here in D.C, primarily because Ruth and Steve White of A Place For Us were presenting Ward Connerly an award. When I spoke with Susan about attending the conference at the time, it was clear that she did not want to be associated with Connerly and his efforts to abolish racial preferences. She even told me that if I attended, not to do so on behalf of Project RACE, the organization she headed and of which I was member. I attended the gathering, which was televised on C-Span, but you will not see me among those in front of the cameras. Not only was I honoring my agreement with Susan, by then I had decided to retire from the activist ranks. But I did present some background information to the group, much as I am doing here today. And I enjoyed getting together with Charles Byrd, James Landrith, William Javier Nelson and others who attended.
The reason I bring all this up is to point out that even Susan Graham, who had enlisted the help of Newt Gingrich in the struggle for multiracial rights, was afraid to become too strongly identified with Republican icons. The irony is, of course, Ward Connerly apparently perceives himself to be somewhat politically independent. And I should also remind everyone that it was a natural thing for Susan to go to Gingrich because at that time she resided in Georgia, and he was her congressman. Plus he was the Speaker of the House, which was potentially a big political boost for the movement, in terms of setting and completing an agenda.
Well, I’ve droned on too long. Let me make some closing observations.
First, our opponents consistently attacked us for an alleged affiliation with the Republican party, instead of attacking the merits of our position. An affiliation that presumably was so odious that the mere mention of it would send all good liberals fleeing from us and the evil around us. We were therefore being presumed to be guilty, by association, of any-and-all alleged wrongs, past and present, of the Republican party and the right wing.
One can have a position without an accompanying affiliation. Likewise, one can have an affiliation without an accompanying position. Even Al Sharpton has called for African-Americans to consider political affiliations beyond the Democratic party, so the party will not take that racial/ethnic group for granted.
Second, writers and political commentators like Stanley Crouch and Larry Elder, who question the traditional liberal Democratic party line, are routinely labeled “race traitors.” Legitimate Republicans like Colin Powell and Condelesa Rice are also called race traitors and worse-house slaves-by longtime civil rights activists and others within the Democratic establishment. And, of course, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who dared quite publicly to be an African-American conservative, has for years endured the worst kinds of vilification. All because he chooses to believe other than what the civil rights establishment would have him believe. Character assassination of this sort is unwarranted, outrageous and highly pernicious to progressive dialog.
We live in a democracy where differences of opinion are a good thing. I would remind everyone that no one is entitled to a stranglehold on opinion. Just because someone does not agree with your opinion does not necessarily mean he or she is automatically a member of, or affiliated with, an opposing political camp. That opinion, and the person behind it, is worthy of respect and consideration. And if the accompanying proposal is valid, it may be worthy of implementation, not because it represents a particular political interest, but because of its merits.
Third, if you keep doing things the same way, you’ll get the same results. There is enormous pressure on the Multiracial Movement to follow precedent. To shape itself in the mold of other political movements. Some even appear to want multiracial entitlements. But this movement, as I understand it, is unique because it is primarily about identity. That should make it an apolitical social movement, if there is such a thing.
Enlightened people of consciousness need to lead the way for others by doing things differently. I encourage every one of you. Do things differently. Challenge the political and racial status quo. Help our society and the world to get beyond race. In doing so, do not align yourselves with one political party anymore than you would align yourself with one race. Most important: be consistent; be truthful; be yourselves.
Thank you for your time and attention. If you have any questions, ask away.
Copyright © 2003 Nathan Douglas and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.