This article offers an interdisciplinary and transhistorical account of race authentication as it has evolved over the past two centuries within American law and culture. As 21st century Americans, we find ourselves in the midst of an authenticity revival – a reaction to the increasingly vapid and digitized world in which we live. We generally crave authentic items and experiences, and this impulse has gained increased traction in the racial context. Most commentators agree that American society has become increasingly multiracial, and that race now takes on diminished significance as a determining factor of one’s life chances. Yet there are many who believe that race can and should continue to matter – perhaps a great deal – for the foreseeable future. And, thus the need to authenticate race persists in order to sustain a system in which race retains social meaning.
By race authentication, I refer to the means by which we validate race as a socially meaningful concept and sort individuals into the socially constructed categories of race. The power that race exerts upon society is directly correlated to the robustness of the concept of race and our ability to confidently sort human beings into racial categories. Put differently, for race to have any social significance, we must believe that race is not only “real,” in some sense, but that we can “know” it when we see it.
Modes of authenticating race, much like the concept of race itself, evolve, take shape, and transform over time. Historically, racial authentication functioned much like a blunt sorting mechanism that shunted individuals into a prevailing set of racial categories. Rights, status, privilege or the lack thereof gave social meaning to the racial categories and attached to members identified within the racial group. Race authenticators, whether courts, law officers, or everyday people, made threshold race distinctions designed to police racial boundaries and preserve the integrity of the racial order of society.
Today, race authentication is less about rough policing of categorical boundaries and more focused on racial salience – the depth and saturation level of one’s professed racial affiliation. Race authenticators fetishize a presumptively known yet largely unarticulated core of authentic racial identity. A person who wishes to authenticate his own race seeks to demonstrate racial salience through performance of a racialized identity. Similarly, an individual or group seeking to authenticate the race of another engages in a racial performance critique, examining the demeanor, life experience, community ties, culture, politics, and normative commitments of the race claimant against this backdrop to test the authenticity of the claim. Fidelity to the core is paramount, for the virtues of race, be they status, benefit, or kinship, are reserved for the most racially salient – those select individuals whose racial credentials and performance of racial identity meet or exceed our expectations.
An analysis of the “long view” of race authentication sheds important light on how society and individuals invest the concept of race with tremendous social meaning, become culturally and legally dependent upon that concept, and how this dependency fuels the endless pursuit to validate the concept as a meaningful analytical category. At the same time, it provides an opportunity to consider whether the prevailing insistence upon racial authenticity does more harm than good for American race relations.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/christopher_bracey/1/