This is an article from the spring 2018 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
When the United States government began taking the census in 1790, it included three categories for race: free whites, all other free persons, and slaves. Over time, it added and removed mulatto, quadroon, octaroon, colored, and Negro. The 1870 census was the first to include Indian as a racial choice. Before then, Native Americans were counted under the category heading “Color.”
The census has always distinguished black and brown people from monolithic whites, slicing and dicing them into racial and ethnic categories whose meanings change over time. Characterizing race depends on whatever political ideas are currently in favor, and it has affected how we think about race itself. Now, 50 years after interracial marriage became legal, taboos against interracial relationships continue to fade, and the percentage of Americans who see themselves coming from multiple racial backgrounds is rapidly rising—all of which raises the snarly issue of who we think belongs to what race.
Arnold Ho, assistant professor of organizational studies and psychology, has made this the focus of his research. “I think we need to consider the history of how Americans have categorized and perceived people with multiracial backgrounds as we think about the implications a growing multiracial population might have for race relations and racial inequality.”
Biologically, the concept of race is bunk. There is more genetic variation within a single race than there is between races, Ho says. “The boundaries are not nearly as sharp as people think.”
Though its biology may be baseless, the social reality of race is absolutely true. For centuries, skin color has justified cruelty and systematic discrimination. But as the number of multiracial people increases and people start to appear more racially ambiguous, perhaps we’ll find ourselves living in a post-racial society. Or perhaps we’ll develop an entirely different kind of inequality altogether.
The Psychology of Inequality Lab, Ho’s research group, investigates these kinds of questions. Research in this field is known as hypodescent: hypo, meaning lower, and descent, as in descendants or lineage. And Ho’s research has consistently found there is a tendency to associate multiracial people with their minority background rather than their white heritage.
In one study, participants were presented with faces on a computer screen. They were told that each time they pressed the “continue” button, the face currently on the screen would morph slightly—in one-percent increments—into a different race. They were told to keep pressing continue until the exact moment they felt that the person on the screen had become a member of a different race.
When participants morph a white face into a black or an Asian face, Ho says, “as soon as the face is 40–45 percent minority, our participants say that the person is a minority person.”
However, when the process is reversed and participants morph a black or an Asian face into a white face, participants don’t think the face is white until its facial features are almost 70 percent white.
“The threshold for being seen as a member of the majority group is much higher than for the minority group,” Ho says.
Until this point, research in the field of hypodescent had primarily focused on white participants. (“By definition,” says Ho, “majority members are simply easier to find.”) But Ho wanted to know whether non-white participants would categorize multiracial people differently. It turns out, they, too, grouped multiracial people more with their non-white lineage, but their underlying reasons were different.
“Black people identified black-white people as black because they were more likely to feel a sense of what we call linked fate. A feeling of ‘we’re in it together,’ that what happens to one group has implications for what happens to another,” Ho says.
“That was really interesting for us,” he continues. “Across seven studies that included more than 3,400 African American research participants, we found the same bias, but with a completely different underlying motive.”
Historically, hypodescent has been considered an exclusionary belief because the research focused on the way it developed and how the majority group perceived it. “But with this new research, we’re showing how it could be inclusionary, and not just driven by the motivation to keep groups separate,” says Ho. “Our findings show that depending on one’s own racial group membership in a minority or majority group, the motivations underlying hypodescent may be completely opposite in spirit.”
Professor Arnold Ho’s initial study of multiracial categorization didn’t examine the relation between social attitudes and hypodescent. But building on his early research, Ho found that white participants who opposed racial equality were more likely to categorize black-white people as black—especially when they were exposed to statistics that suggested a threat to the existing racial hierarchy. “When white participants who are relatively opposed to equality perceived that blacks are gaining and whites are losing,” says Ho, “those were the conditions where we saw this bias in categorization the most.”
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