DeltaDays: Race still a confusing topic

Race has always been and continues to be a complicated topic, according to Colorado Lt. Governor Joe Garcia. And despite repeated predictions that race issues would end, the scientific, historical, and legal battles surrounding it still rage.

Garcia began by recapping the history of race in western society and, specifically, the United States. He explained that the issue of race “really became an issue in the 16th and 17th centuries with more European explorations” as the Europeans came into contact with people who did not look and act like them. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, scientists attempted to explain these differences and classify people by appearance and, some believed, mental capacities, opening the door for race-based slavery.
Garcia argued that from the beginning of European realization of race, classification and understanding proved difficult. Garcia then shifted focus to a legal history of race in America by demonstrating the difficulties the courts had had in establishing clear definitions of race and its implications. He cited the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, but diverged from the case’s primary fame and pointed out the more complicated nature of Plessy’s case. Garcia explained, “His first argument was not only that he was white, but that he had property rights in his whiteness.”

Another string of difficult cases on racial identity sprang from naturalization laws prior to the 1950s, when one of the qualifications for becoming a citizen was ‘whiteness.’ “From 1875 to 1952, there were about 55 cases where people of Japanese, Chinese, and eastern European descent” were denied citizenship on basis of their race and “sued for whiteness,” reports Garcia. Originally, the courts turned to the classifications of the 17th and 18th centuries, but the courts found these did not support their desired conclusions and eventually decried these in favor of “common knowledge.” The courts ultimately took a stand very similar to their later stance on pornography. They could not clearly define “whiteness,” but they knew what was not white when they saw it. Even for the courts, Garcia argued, racial boundaries have been elusive.

History is an interesting topic, but by definition is in the past. Garcia brought his discussion into the present by tying the definitional difficulties of race to the issue of affirmative action. He admitted up front, “Some people like affirmative action and some people hate it,” and disclosed his personal support for the practice. Affirmative action was instated ten to fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education to force school integration and make sure underrepresented populations receive the opportunities they deserve. However, Garcia openly commented that affirmative action often, “benefits most those who need it least” as people of minority racial groups, but privileged backgrounds take advantage of it. He left the issue of how to be sure underrepresented groups are truly given an equal share open to the audience as an issue to consider.

Garcia concluded his talk very honestly saying, “I don’t have a conclusion because this isn’t something we’re going to be done with any time soon.” His message on the ever-complicated nature of race, and his encouragement of discussion throughout his talk complemented the rest of the Delta Days agenda. The Colorado School of Mines was fortunate to have him as a speaker.

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