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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .

The New Colored People
Jon Michael Spencer

(NY: University of New York Press, 1997)
Index. Bibl. ISBN 0-8147-8071-7. $24.95.

At it's dawn W. E. B. Du Bois famously predicted that the major issue of the twentieth century would be the 'colour line'. Towards it's end Spencer's valuable book provides an incisive account of how accurate this prophecy has proven. Recent debates in the United States over the equity and efficacy of affirmative action have demonstrated that the issue of racial classification remains controversial. Information regarding ethnic differences is gleaned from the US census which allows citizens only four racial categories with which they may align themselves. Thus individuals of 'mixed race' descent are forced to identify themselves with one group or another, an absolute process of assignment which pays no regard for the great diversity of ethnic and racial identities evident in the contemporary US. Spencer traces the arguments of those who wish to include a new 'mixed race' category in the 2000 Census, but the controversy that continues to dog these demands suggests that Du Bois's warning may serve equally for the next century as it has this one.

Spencer rejects the claims that a new 'multiracial' category be devised on the grounds that a better strategy is to undermine racial essentialism of any kind. The inclusion of a 'multiracial' box to be ticked on a census form will not, he argues, circumvent the inevitable aggregation of diverse people into simplistic and untenable racial categories. The book draws fascinating contrast with the post-apartheid experience of South Africa and advocates that, as in that country, progressives in the US ought to seek to move beyond racial classifications and establish an open and porous American national identity. The book reflects the debates about legal categories and more might have been included on solutions to the broader structural and political obstacles to equality between ethnic groups. Although the nomenclature of 'racial categories' is important there are clearly other social, political and economic issues which impinge upon the racial politics of the United States, and Spencer might have made greater allusion to these. This limitation aside, this cogent account will be of great interest to those interested in the ontology of 'race' and the difficulty of forging coalitions for change.

Mike Rowe, Leicester University

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