Bob Higgins

All My Cousins, On Race and Ethnicity

Posted in History, Politics by Bob Higgins on February 16, 2011
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Sicily Castellammare

In his column at the Boston Globe this morning Jeff Jacoby expressed his disdain for “Irrelevant racial criteria” that are asked for on census forms and other places as, somehow, important data.  He points out that many of us have backgrounds that have been graced with multiple ethnicity and that multi-racial marriages are  much more common today than they were a half century ago, making race a largely meaningless criterion.

Thurgood Marshall, he points out, “wrote in a brief for the 1950 Supreme Court case of McLaurin v. Oklahoma: “Racial criteria are irrational, irrelevant, [and] odious to our way of life.’’”

I agree with Marshall and Jacoby that these criteria can be odious and are sometimes irrelevant, yet, as someone who came of age during the civil rights struggles of the 50’s and 60’s, and lived through school integration, busing, the battle over affirmative action, the war on poverty of the “Great Society,” and witnessed  the effects of Jim Crow on society, I understand why the data were necessary at that time and in some cases are still relevant and sometimes necessary today.

But I don’t want to fight that battle today. What Jacoby’s column triggered in my mind was something much simpler than the complex and contentious argument over race.

My Mother’s parents were both from Sicily.  She sat me down when I was seven or eight and talked to me about race and prejudice, explaining that the blood of the entire Mediterranean region coursed through our veins.

She told me that since Sicily had been conquered, colonized, controlled or settled by nearly everyone in the region, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs, Carthaginians, Spanish, French, you name it, I should not be concerned with anyone’s race or color because I was a cousin to all of them.

Her advice confused me briefly but I soon understood the common sense and the beauty of having so many relatives.

Thirty years later I read a book by Guy Murchie titled “The Seven Mysteries of Life” in which he suggested that everyone on Earth is at least a fiftieth cousin of everyone else and very possibly a thirtieth.

I don’t know if that is exactly true or not but I find the idea completely reasonable and I’m comfortable with it because it’s basically what Mom said and she was seldom very far off base.

Many us are such a composite of bloods and backgrounds that we no longer fit into the old check boxes or comfortable pigeonholes.

I’ve always checked “White” or “Caucasian” even though I knew that it wasn’t necessarily the whole truth. I think the last time I was asked to identify myself ethnically or racially I chose “Other” which made me think of the bar scene in Star Wars.

If checking a box identifying race helps to get equal treatment or assistance to someone who needs it or somehow insures that their rights are protected I’m happy to do it.

I like the simpler approach of just accepting our mutual distant cousin-hood though, someday, maybe we’ll be able to let it go at that.

Bob Higgins

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