The Black-White Binary Obfuscates and Distorts: Why the Antiracism Movement Must Reject It.

Robette has been Executive Co-Director of Crossroads and a Core Organizer/Trainer since 2002. As a Karuk Indian, Robette brings a specifically indigenous perspective to antiracism organizing. She is a founding member and past president of Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), the continental support and advocacy organization for UUA People of Color. She is currently Board President of Oyate, a Native American resource and advocacy organization. Robette has over a decade of experience in antiracism training, technical support and advocacy.

If I could change ONE THING that would have unprecedented impact on racial justice, racial equity and antiracism, I would change the way the United States “thinks” and “talks” about race. Because the way we typically think and talk about race, has no basis in the reality of how this country actually DOES race.

The prevailing discourse and analysis of race and racism focuses on a Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm.  This paradigm is so ubiquitous, so persistent and so contrary to rational thought, historic evidence and lived experience one can’t help but grasp there is something powerful about it that keeps us heavily invested in maintaining it. The Black/White Paradigm is one of the most rigid constructs maintaining white supremacy and systemic racism. And the really diabolical thing about it is one can be whole-heartedly committed and working to dismantle racism, while maintaining it at the same time. And when it’s People of Color who live race in the Black/White Paradigm, it is an effective divide and conquer strategy and a toxic internalized oppression dynamic.

Some definitions are in order. First, what is a paradigm? And then, more specifically, what is the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm?  A paradigm is a shared set of understandings or premises which permits the definition, elaboration and solution of a set of problems that are defined within the paradigm. Paradigms control fact gathering and investigation focusing only on the facts and circumstances the paradigm teaches are relevant and important.[1]

For a description of the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm, I again turn to Perea:

“I define this paradigm as the conception that race in America consists, either exclusively or primarily, of only two constituent racial groups, the Black and the White. Many scholars of race reproduce this paradigm when they write and act as though only the Black and the White races matter for purposes of discussing race and social policy with regard to race. The mere recognition that “other people of color” exist, without careful attention to their voices, their histories, and their real presence, is merely a reassertion of the Black/White paradigm. If one conceives of race and racism as primarily of concern only to Blacks and Whites, and understands “other people of color” only through some unclear analogy to the “real” races, this just restates the binary paradigm with a slight concession to demographics. [2]

What this means is, if we only understand race as being Black or White, and we only have a framework for understanding racism as dynamics between Black people and White people, defining the “race problem” as the legacy caused by African enslavement, then the only solutions we can imagine are constrained to rectifying that dynamic. In the real world, this means we could solve the problem of civil rights, full inclusion and control of resources for African-Americans, we could even make reparations but still not have touched American Indian’s racial justice struggle to reclaim land and sovereignty. Nor would we have solved any issues around immigration and civil rights for people from (or whose ancestors were from) parts of the world that the US restricts legal immigration like Latin and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  The homelands of Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, Alaska and Guam would still not be returned to their people.  And our economy would continue to depend on neo-colonial practices around the world.

The Black/White Binary prevents us from seeing the totality of white supremacy and thus from diagnosing and solving the totality of the problem.  All People of Color are exploited and harmed by racism, but the vehicle of exploitation differs and the differences are important. All People of Color have history and experience with the United States, its often oppressive political, social, economic and cultural systems, but that history and experience are not all the same and the differences are important. They are important for recognizing our individual humanity and important for effective organizing to dismantle white supremacy.

Here is an example of what I am talking about using a report from the US Center on Disease Control  (CDC), National Surveillance of Asthma: United States, 2001–2010.  The way the CDC collects and reports its data is highly problematic, for example: using the Black/White Racial Binary to refer to race while ignoring Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Alaska Natives; and classifying Latin@s as Hispanic ethnics and not a racialized group. In some regards they are following the pattern established by the US Census, which completely mystifies the way race is actually lived out in the United States (a topic for another day).  Refer to the following chart which summarizes some of the CDC asthma data, Figure 2. Current asthma prevalence, by age group, sex, race and ethnicity, poverty status, geographic region, and urbanicity: United States, average annual 2008–2010, which clearly indicates Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma.

chart radias 1

The narrative of the report also confirms Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma as follows:

“Race differences in 2008–2010 current asthma prevalence—Current asthma prevalence was higher in black persons (11.2%) than in white persons (7.7%). “

“Ethnicity differences in 2008–2010 current asthma prevalence—Among Hispanic persons, Puerto Rican persons had higher prevalence (16.1%) compared with Mexican persons (5.4%).”

What this tells us is Puerto Ricans have the highest rate of asthma prevalence, but they are not racialized, so the racial group with the highest prevalence are Blacks.

The CDC generates a multitude of reports based on the data it collects presumably intended to communicate the results to a variety of audiences. One such document pertaining to asthma, intended for broad (media for example) distribution is CDC Vital Signs: Asthma in the US which reports, “About 1 in 9 (11%) non-Hispanic blacks of all ages and about 1 in 6 (17%) of non-Hispanic black children had asthma in 2009, the highest rate among racial/ethnic groups.”  That’s not what the data says. Throughout the report Black and White statistic are paired together, usually in contrast to one another, and only occasionally placed in relationship to the “Hispanic” statistics which are typically reported paired as two contrasting ethnicities Mexican and Puerto Rican. As if those two ethnic groups somehow comprise the totality of “Hispanic” ethnic identity.

All this to say, reporting data this way makes sense only within the context of the Black/White Binary. The more appropriate racial term Latin@s would generate more meaningful data than the “ethnic binary” Non-Hispanic or Hispanic (which simply means “Spanish speaking”), and I would also argue it is important to disaggregate the data by ethnicity within all racial groups too. This would better reflect the lived reality of racial differences in the United States. Using statistics gathered according to the rules of the Black/White Binary to monitor progress toward racial equity (or not) is impossible, and yet, we spend inordinate quantities of money and human resources trying to do it. We need to track racial disparities in order to determine progress in eliminating them, but we need to track racial disparities (not the convoluted confusion we current track).

The Black/White Paradigm prevents us from fully understanding the problem of racism and therefore prevents us from finding systemic solutions that are effective. But it also prevents People of Color seeing one another and supporting one another in very human ways.

I recently watched the video “How Does it Feel to be a Black Student at UCLA Law School” on the ColorLines website. The video is intended to “raise the awareness of the disturbing emotional toll placed on students of color due to their alarmingly low representation in the student body. Notice how the video conflates “Black” with “People of Color?”  The video tells us there are 33 Black students out of an approximate total student body of 1100. According to UCLA the law school student body is 35% students of color. Institutions of higher education have a variety of strategies to inflate their diversity grades, counting some foreign students as People of Color for example. The more conservative numbers from the Law School Numbers website, indicate UCLA law school is about 29% students of color. It’s not great (UCLA is in Southern California after all) though statistically it’s a lot better than a lot of law schools. But this is where the Black/White Binary is truly insidious.

My observation watching the video is the Black students feel “isolated” and “unsafe” in their classes and do not feel solidarity with the other 29% of the students of color. And presumably, the other students of color are not feeling solidarity with the Black students. The reality is they share a lot of common ground in relationship to white supremacy and if they would act like it, they would be a force to be reckoned with. I’m not blaming the Black students or the other students of color for this, it’s the set up of the Black/White Binary that keeps them from understanding their racial kinship. I “get” the isolation the Black students feel and my heart goes out to them. As an American Indian in institutional settings, I’m often the ONLY one in the room, I’ve learned building solidarity with other People of Color is survival, literally. (BTW there are 18 American Indian students and 1 Pacific Islander student at UCLA law school—talk about lonely).

Sometimes I feel like Harriet Tubman, I know why Harriet carried a gun. Sometimes the people you are trying to lead to freedom are their own worst enemy. That’s how Internalized Racist Oppression works. People of Color have the power to change the Black/White Paradigm, and yet People of Color are some of the most rigid defenders of it. The discussion often devolves to some version of the “oppression olympics” with each group, trying to assert how they are the “most oppressed.” And then when White folks get involved and say the reason for the Black/White Paradigm is because the race construct was created to justify African enslavement, that’s how it all started. And Black people’s oppression is the worst oppression (and sometimes its not just the White people who say this). History, current social indicators and lived reality do not support ANY of these arguments.

Crossroads is evidence of the power of an alternative paradigm. The paradigm we use is radically inclusive of all People of Color. We understand The Paradigm we are up against is white supremacy that justified colonialism, and a multiplicity of economic and cultural exploitation. If you shift the paradigm there is room for all People of Color, their lives and experiences. It also creates space for people with mixed race ancestry who have been part of the race construct all along too (another topic for another day). If you shift the paradigm it shifts the organizing terrain and opens up a whole lot of possible transformative solutions to systemic racism.

[1] Juan F. Perea, The Black/White Binary Paradigm of Race: The Normal Science of American Racial Thought, 85 CAL. L. Rev. 1213 (1997).

[2] Ibid


Categories:Antiracism Analysis, Commentary, Racial Equity, Racial Justice
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