With his father an African-American soldier in post-World War II Germany and his mother a white German national, Rainier Spencer grew up in New York City thinking of himself as black.
That changed for him when, as an adult, he studied philosophy during pursuit of his master’s degree at Columbia University, where he began examining the nature of race and reconsidering his perceptions of his own family.
His brother, he recalls, had the same mother but a different father, also a black U.S. soldier.
“I had always considered my brother white, and that’s because of his socialization, his interests, and the way he existed as a person in my childhood,” Spencer says.
However, his studies at Columbia shook that assumption.
“When I came to the notion of critical consciousness, it didn’t make sense. How can my brother be white, and I am black?” he says. This realization led him to question perceptions of race and to conclude that race is a myth, a false consciousness.
He later developed this realization into a dissertation at Emory University, and three books on the subject have followed, helping to establish Spencer as a founder of critical mixed-race theory. His most recent book, Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix, was released in 2011.
Spencer describes himself as a “race skeptic.” He is described in a study being conducted by doctoral student Carlos Hoyt of Simmons College in Boston as a “race transcender,” a term Spencer easily adopts.
“I live it,” says Spencer, founder of UNLV’s Afro-American Studies Program and associate vice provost for academic affairs at UNLV. “Biological race doesn’t exist. You can’t divide people into three, five, seven, or 17 or even 50 categories of biology that make sense because people won’t fit.”
In Reproducing Race, Spencer proposes a thought experiment involving three cousins. One appears black but has a white ancestor. One appears white but has a black ancestor. The third appears biracial and has ancestors of both races. None of them has “pure” lineage, so how does one determine which race to classify each cousin?
It’s not logically possible, Spencer says.
“These categories only make sense if they have been endogenous through infinity,” he says. “It’s impossible to take any one African-American and go backwards through time and find only unmixed African ancestry.”
Even if it could be done, Spencer says, the notion that West African slaves were unmixed is another serious problem.
Race does not exist, he says. However, belief in race? That’s the real issue, he maintains.
He likens race to witchcraft and flat-earth theory. All are false, but they also carry real consequences.
When populations believed in witchcraft, women accused of it were often killed. When explorers believed the earth was flat, they were careful not to go too far. When people believe in race, discrimination – and much worse – happens. The solution, Spencer says, is “that everyone realizes at some point, ‘This is wrong; this is silly.’”
The answer is not, he argues, getting rid of the check boxes on various government forms asking for racial identity. Nor is the answer creating a new category, “multiracial.”
These are solutions that were offered in the 1990s, during debates before the 2000 census on how the Office of Management and Budget should gather racial data. These are solutions still advocated by some mixed-race scholars who trumpet the potential of “Generation Mix,” the current generation of biracial children, to end race as an issue.
“The push-back from the civil rights movement and black people was, ‘No, those of you who are part black are just black, so get over it,’” Spencer says.
Spencer disagrees with both arguments. If the government wanted racial categories that made sense, it would need 316 million, one for each resident of the nation. Creating a new category, “multiracial,” just reaffirms the existing categories.
But he agrees the government should continue to ask the question.
“It’s important to put people into the categories that racists think they are discriminating against,” he says. “That’s important because we need to knock out that discrimination.”
In the end the OMB decided to allow people to mark as many boxes as they wanted. On the back end, the statisticians classify people into their non-white groups.
It’s a compromise that satisfied no one, but it seems to be working, Spencer says.
In his current book, Spencer opposes the argument that race is socially or culturally based. This reasoning makes no more sense than biological race does, he says.
“There are far more differences amongst blacks than there are between blacks and whites,” he says. For instance, he has more in common with white professors than he does with a black man his age from the inner city.
Spencer also takes on those who argue that mixed race people have a special role in society.
Because we are all mixed race to some degree, the notion is silly, he says. Those making the argument contradict themselves; they say they want their own category and that their movement will bring a post-racial society. How can they end racial categories when they are asking for one, he asks.
“They say they are challenging the paradigm but what they really want is to fit into it,” he says.
At this point, the debate over his perspective seems to be at a lull, he says, as no substantive counterargument in the scholarly world has emerged.
“I think my arguments are right, and people don’t want to deal with them,” he says, noting the exception of Hoyt, the previously mentioned scholar from Simmons College and a few others. For now, Spencer is willing to allow that lull to continue, as he has other responsibilities to address in his current administrative post.
Though it may have to wait a few years, Spencer maintains he has more to say – and write – on the subject of race as a false consciousness.
“I think there needs to be either a national ‘Ah-ha’ moment, or there needs to be millions of ‘Ah-ha’ moments over time,” he says. “I don’t know what it will take. Clearly, it will not happen in my lifetime, but I hope this contributes to the eroding of that false consciousness…. I think we want to live in a world where exterior physical differences have no impact on how we see or treat each other.”