Jon Michael Spencer and those of us who Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!
By Charles Michael Byrd

The following review by Douglas A. Sylva of "The New Colored People: The Mixed-Race Movement in America" by Jon Michael Spencer (New York University Press) appeared in the 10-26-97 New York Times Book Review:

Many members of minority groups have long argued that society must recognize and accept an individual's racial identity for that individual to enjoy feelings of self-esteem. Ironically, however, the very success of this message threatens the black community, since many people traditionally considered black now think of themselves as multiracial or of mixed race. Some even demand the right to define themselves this way on government documents. In ''The New Colored People,'' Jon Michael Spencer takes on the difficult task of explaining, from a civil-rights perspective, why government should refuse to recognize such a category. Spencer, who teaches American studies and music at the University of Richmond, worries that new classifications will sap the black community of skill and vigor. He also fears that Federal relief funds for blacks will dwindle if their officially registered population declines. Whether or not he is correct, this type of argument entails a plea to put aside the desire for recognition and self-esteem for the greater good of the community. Oddly, it resembles arguments for assimilation rejected by minority leaders decades ago. Spencer believes that a new ethnic category will increase racial hatred. To bolster this contention, he vividly describes how South Africa's official acceptance of mixed-race people as a separate category created dissension and distrust. But since this classification existed as part of the apartheid system, it proves difficult to isolate its particular effects upon race relations. Spencer denigrates the motives of his opponents in this debate: ''As some multiracialists begin down the road of racial bigotry by cock-a-doodling about their alleged specialness, certainly in part to bolster the identity and self-esteem of themselves or that of their mixed-race children, they subtly assault the identity and self-esteem of black Americans.'' Such sentiments mar this otherwise thought-provoking, if not always persuasive, book.

(OMB's decision to formally incorporate the check all that apply scheme into Directive 15 makes any discussion of a multiracial category moot. On behalf of those who advocated for such a category until the very end, however, we offer a rebuttal to Spencer. We also marvel at how close check all that apply advocates come to parroting his inanities.)

If not for his prominent station in academia, we could credit Jon Michael Spencer with being one of America's more accomplished standup comics. His position at the University of Richmond, however, means that some will take his rantings seriously, perhaps even as gospel truth.

This is the same man who told N.Y. Newsday back in 1995, when he was Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that "If the multiracial movement had taken root, or a 'mulatto' category had been kept throughout the 20th century, black progress might have been no progress at all." I always thought that statement insulting and degrading to black folk. Humans are very resourceful at crafting ways to enhance their survival, yet Spencer and others of his ilk suggest that African-Americans don't have the capacity to flourish and prosper unless aided by government numbers crunchers.

Spencer assumes that in the multiracial movement, those of us who prefer to identify as mixed would not fight for the civil rights of others, that we would standby and passively observe a return to lynchings, for example, and respond with disinterested yawns. Again, separatist ideology rules as many so-called intellectuals can only conceive of a society in which each tribe is only fighting for its own rights, and no one exists who might fight for the rights of others. That mixed America would not fight for the rights of others is unconscionable fearmongering perpetrated by the Jon Michael Spencers of the world, and any intelligent person should see through it.

Spencer is an obvious proponent of the all for the collective philosophy which orders the individual to subordinate his or her own personal identity for the benefit of the larger community. This is the same Marxist/Leninist ideology that most Russians never again want to see rule the Kremlin, yet collectivist disciples in the black community demand that multiracial Americans be blindly obedient to this credo.

The most laughable of Spencer's assertions is his claim that ''As some multiracialists begin down the road of racial bigotry by cock-a-doodling about their alleged specialness, certainly in part to bolster the identity and self-esteem of themselves or that of their mixed-race children, they subtly assault the identity and self-esteem of black Americans.''

If any self-identified black person feels a drop in self-esteem because I or others self-identify as mixed or multiracial, then that person's self-esteem was abysmally low to begin with. It is incumbent upon that individual to realize that his or her choices are not necessarily other people's choices. That person needs to understand that he or she is not reacting to my decision to not identify as black but rather to his or her own feelings about that decision. I and others are not responsible for feelings of indignation, jealousy and abysmally low self-esteem within the black community, and when that community completely understand this, that community will be ready to take responsibility -- at the level of the indivdual -- for how it feels and to change it.

I can guarantee you that I and others would not hurt the feelings of, say, General Colin Powell by identifying as something other than "black." Why? General Powell does not derive his self-esteem solely from coerced "racial" group affiliation, rather it comes from a tremendous sense of self worth aided largely by strong family and ethnic ties going back to their native Jamaica. (Colin Powell is a bona fide black leader; after him, there's a precipitous drop-off to say the least.) Spencer would have multiracial and/or black kids believe that their identities should forever be defined and enforced by people like him, and that no individual worldviews should ever be permitted.

How sad.


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