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|'Plight' blog post, paper cause stir, SFGate, 2008|
'Plight' blog post, paper cause stir
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Multiracial activists - and some Barack Obama supporters - are seething over best-selling economist Steven Levitt's assertions that mixed-race people are inherently more likely to engage in "bad behavior."
There are those who saw in it the acrid tang of conspiracy: A casual, yet explosive August 12 blog post by celebrity economist Steven Levitt, coauthor of the bestselling "Freakonomics." Titled "The Plight of Mixed-Race Children," it outlined the conclusion of a paper Levitt had coauthored: Multiracial kids are more likely to engage in bad behavior than single-race kids. In short, rather than being the "best of both worlds," mixed kids were far more likely to be the worst. (Though, says Levitt, they do have one thing in their favor: Multiracial kids are significantly "more attractive" than their single-race peers.)/p>
The post enraged multiracial activists, who saw it as mirroring pernicious stereotypes. It also prompted some to see a hidden attempt to sandbag Obama, the man whose rise has propelled mixed identity into the forefront of American culture.
"You have this paper with 'provocative' conclusions on multiracial identity that was first written in July 2005, being published in this final version in August 2008," Jason Sperber, biracial Japanese American cofounder of the parenting blog RiceDaddies, said by phone. "Hmm, why is this issue suddenly on the national horizon? Oh right, the presidential campaign! It's hard not to wonder whether there's a larger agenda."
Given that "Freakonomics" is all about hidden incentives, it would be surprising if there weren't an ulterior motive - though it's less likely a drive by Levitt to torpedo a fellow Chicagoan and Harvard alum's presidential ambitions than a simple desire to recapture public attention.
Levitt and his collaborator, Stephen Dubner, are close to completing their new book "Superfreakonomics"; a "Freakonomics" documentary is scheduled for early next year. With these franchise extensions imminent, it only makes business sense to revive the brand's awareness through "shocking" positions on topics in the media spotlight.
It's that cultivation of controversy that has drawn fire from the likes of prominent economist John DiNardo, who has blasted the book's methodology and conclusions as "scholarship in the service of storytelling."
The study, co-authored with Harvard's Roland Fryer and two other economists, seems particularly suspect, even to social scientists whose work the study cites. "I don't know what their objective was, but this is a paper with a surprising number of problems," said Yoonsun Choi, associate professor of social service at the University of Chicago, Levitt's home base. "There's so much more going on here than what they're saying that the decisions they make look capricious, at a minimum."
The central issue voiced by critics isn't the study's raw findings; it's the researchers' interpretation of those results, particularly their decision to use them to support a 1920s-era sociological concept called "marginal man" theory, which holds that people with multiple contrasting identities are, essentially, broken at birth.
But marginal man is almost universally considered to have little credibility today. "Among scholars who study multiracial identity, I don't think any of us believe in that hypothesis," said University of Pennsylvania sociology Professor Grace Kao, whose work is also cited in "Plight." "It's the most controversial take; it's basically the reason used to keep interracial marriages illegal until the 1960s. At best, we might use it as a straw man."
It's also interesting to note that the marginal man concept wasn't originally associated with multiracial identity, but rather, the assimilation issues of immigrants. And where that topic is concerned, it's still regularly invoked: Suggestions of divided allegiance, of being trapped between two cultures and belonging to neither - those are at the core of how Asians continue to be positioned in the great American racial dialogue.
Lost in the mix
This makes it only more confounding that Asian Americans are excluded from the "Plight" study, which defines "multiracial" solely as those of black-white heritage - despite the fact that Asians are far more likely than any other group to be part of an interracial couple, and, thus, to produce multiracial offspring.
Part of the problem is the dataset the study uses, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health; though it's the richest pool of youth data available, it dates back to 1994, when the Asian American population was just 8.8 million and mixed-race Americans numbered about 1.3 million. Since then, the Asian American population has nearly doubled, and America's mixed-race population has more than tripled, with much of that growth due to multiracial Asian Americans. It's hard to believe that conclusions about identity from a 14-year-old dataset have much to say about the "plight" of mixed-race individuals today - especially when restricted to a rigid black-white definition.
And that gets to the heart of the concerns critics have with the study's sensationalistic claims. "You have this assumption that blacks are one monolithic population, whites are another monolithic population, and multiracials are the monolithic blending between them," Jenn Fang, who blogs on race and identity at Reappropriate.com, said by phone. "But that's just not representative of racial reality."
In fact, most studies suggest that the advantage of being competent in multiple cultural contexts creates more benefits than problems. "Take, for example, growing up in a multilingual environment," Choi said. "You may be a little slow to acquire language, but once you do, you find it easier to understand syntax and pronunciation for other languages as well. Straddling cultures may add risks, but if we can address those risks, it flips over into a strength."
And a big part of the flipping of that switch has been the arrival of multiracial role models. "We're talking about mixed identities in the public arena like never before," Sperber said. "Over the last 10 years, you've had a new prominence of people who identify in fluid and dynamic ways - Barack Obama being just one example."
In short, those who owned a multiplicity of identities may once have been "marginal" - but today? Today, they're at the center of everything.
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