“I have a dream that my children … will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
The key words above are skin color and character. Skin color, complexion and race are interchangeable concepts that have no impact on character and limited scientific meaning. Scientists consider race a myth while anthropologists find “racial” groups biologically indistinguishable.
The “one drop of blood test” originating under segregation was used by white supremacists to differentiate whites from blacks and promote so-called “racial purity.” Individuals with one-quarter, one-eighth and even one-sixteenth African ancestry were considered “black” and therefore inferior. Even today President Obama and Duchess Meghan Markle are commonly described as “black” rather than “white” or more accurately biracial due to having a parent of African descent.
Skin color obfuscates by promoting a binary us-them worldview. Consider race in my family. My daughter married a Ghanaian American. My nephews married a Mexican American, Jewish American and Asian American. What is the race of each differently complected cousin from the four marriages? Classifying them as black denies one parents’ heritage and genetic contribution. It is more accurate to consider them Ghanaian-African American; “Blaxican;” Jewish (through matrilineal descent); and “Blasian.”
Dr. King considered skin color ambiguous, subjective and ultimately meaningless. He recognized that while physical characteristics such as hair and skin color have social significance, they should never influence government policy.
Unfortunately, skin color influences immigration policy. Harper’s magazine reports that U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses a “complexion code chart” for enforcement decisions. Complexions on the chart range from “white to sallow to olive to black.” Needless to say, some complexions generate greater scrutiny.
This Orwellian code raises difficult questions. What is sallow skin? It is defined as skin that appears a “sickly, yellowish or lightish brown color.” Should dark olive people receive greater scrutiny than light olive people? These questions are difficult because colors are subjective and imprecise phenomena on a continuum. Color is the epitome of a distinction without a difference.
CBP uses apprehension rates to measure the effectiveness of agents. CBP agents receive cash bonuses and extra vacation time when apprehensions increase. Together the complexion code and material incentives foster “a dragnet approach to enforcement that targets people of color,” according the Harper’s Magazine’s Melissa del Bosque.
This violates the Constitutional rights of both citizens and noncitizens.
The ACLU reports that Greyhound allows CBP to board buses and conduct searches. Agents use skin color to identify “suspicious” passengers. This abrogates the Fourth Amendment which establishes “the right of the people to be secure in their person against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Buses become private spaces after a passenger purchases a ticket. The space on a bus is similar to the space in your house. The Fourth Amendment requires a warrant when houses are “to be searched and persons seized.” This same protection should extend to Greyhound passengers. Fourth Amendment protections are not absolute but arrests based on skin color are indefensible.
Dr. King would consider CBP’s use of skin color for enforcement immoral because we are not responsible for our race. Race is something we are, not something we choose. Dr. King devoted his life to fighting the original American sin of racism. Using skin color for enforcement perpetuates that sin.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech asserts that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are promissory notes for all Americans. He opines “America has defaulted on this note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” This observation applied in 1963 and it applies today.