Merrick Garland, religion, race and American identity

tags: Supreme Court, SCOTUS, Merrick Garland

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

... When Max Garland came to America, the Bureau of Immigration still classified Jews as a distinct race. And you couldn’t “choose” a different one, the argument went, any more than a leopard could change its spots.

That conception of Judaism lost currency with the defeat of Nazism, which was dedicated to eliminating the “Jewish race.” But we held on to the idea of race itself, of course, even creating a few new ones along the way.

So when President Obama nominated the first Hispanic justice to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, few people paused to note that Sotomayor wasn’t Hispanic when she was born in 1954. That’s because the category didn’t come into use until the 1970s.

It’s still not an official race on the federal census, but it’s surely a de facto one. We’re often reminded about America’s growing fraction of Hispanics, who are inevitably measured against the percentage of whites, blacks and Asians. Government agencies and educational institutions count Hispanics — or, sometimes, Latinos — as a race in affirmative action and diversity reports.

As their numbers grow, however, Hispanics also have more room to define their identities. And the rest of us are less likely to pigeonhole them in racial terms. Amid all the talk of immigration control in this year’s GOP presidential primaries, how many voters identified Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as Hispanic? And if Cruz and Rubio checked “white” on the census — as do most American Hispanics, when asked by the census to name their race — how many of us would care?

But now suppose that Obama — the product of a black father and white mother — declared himself white. It wouldn’t fly. That’s because people of African descent simply don’t have the same choices as the rest of us.

That’s a product of the ugly history of race in this country, which defined anyone with “one drop” of African blood as “black.” And it lives on, in the all-or-nothing way we still define African-descended citizens. If you’re biracial, you’ll be presumed black; and if you say you’re white, you’ll be seen as a fraud. ...

Read entire article at New York Daily News

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