By David Morse – New America Dimensions
2016 may very well be remembered as the year that America’s racial divide became undone. The ubiquity of shootings of unarmed black men. The ascent of Black Lives Matter, not to mention Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. The candidacy of Donald J. Trump and its nativist, prejudiced rhetoric. Pick any random evening, turn on the nightly news, and you are sure to see evidence that, especially in racial terms, the country seems to be coming apart at the seams.
Then there is the evidence that we Americans are on a completely different page when it comes to our perceptions of racial progress. According to research by Pew Research, in 2015, while 88 percent of Blacks say the country needs to continue making changes in order for Blacks to have equal rights, only 53 percent of Whites concurred. Additionally, Pew found that that 43 percent of Blacks are skeptical that change will occur, compared to only 11 percent of Whites. When asked if Blacks are having a harder time due to racial discrimination, 70 percent of Blacks agreed, compared to only 36 percent of Whites. The divide between Blacks and Whites is enough to make one wonder if, indeed, we live on the same planet.
Toward where are we headed? Will the wrongs of past injustices ever be righted? Will the wounds inflicted by centuries of oppression ever heal? Will the rise of a seemingly more tolerant generation, the Millennials, save us from ourselves, or have the seeds of prejudice and bigotry been planted too deeply in the American psyche? As the United States moves to a “majority-minority” nation, will things get better, or will the grip of a frightened White America only hold on to the status quo with increasing tenacity? While none of these questions can be answered with any certainty, fortunately there is a substantial body of work, particularly in the field of sociology, which has grappled with these issues.
Many scholars, perhaps most prominently, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, have proposed that as a result of the “darkening” of the United States, there will be a “reshuffling” of the historic bi-racial, black and white order, resulting in a tri-racial system, a process Bonilla-Silva calls “Latinization” since it’s similar to the racial order of many Latin American and Caribbean nations. In this tri-racial system, Bonilla-Silva sees “whites” at the top, an intermediary group of “honorary whites” in the middle, and a non-white group or the “collective blacks” at the bottom.
However, discrimination against blacks remains a powerful, unique force, one that is rooted in history and awash in anachronistic stereotypes, fears, and, as all too often appears to be the case, aversion. Sociologist George Yancey predicts the change from a white/nonwhite dichotomy to that of a black/nonblack divide in the United States. He argues that African Americans suffer from a unique form of alienation, and found in his research that not only were whites more accepting of Latinos and Asian Americans than blacks, Latino and Asian Americans were more accepting of each other and whites than they were of African Americans.
Still, it’s hard to deny that skin color remains a powerful predictor of success for other non-white groups. Sociologist Jessica M. Vasquez studied third generation Mexican Americans, and found that dark skin becomes a frequently invoked indicator of “foreignness,” and native-born Americans often assume that those of Mexican descent, particularly those with darker skin or a phenotype that marks them as “looking Mexican,” are unauthorized. Others are labeled as gangsters, domestics, or unskilled workers. Numerous other studies support the idea that while “becoming white” is an option for some Latinos, it is an option limited to those with light skin.
One factor that will inevitably change racial attitudes in the United States is intermarriage, and Americans have come a long way in their views of what used to be call miscegenation, or race mixing. In 2008, the percent of intermarriages increased to 7.6 percent, meaning that one in every thirteen marriages was interracial. However, there were big differences by ethnicity. When looking at just native-born Americans, the intermarriage rates for white, black, Latino, and Asian were 7.1 percent, 17.4 percent, 52.5 percent, and 72.5 percent, respectively. In the case of Asians and Latinos, these high intermarriage rates occurred despite enormous growth in their populations, meaning a corresponding increase in the number of potential marriage partners among co-ethnics.
Not only is intermarriage more common among Asians and Latinos than among blacks, the rate at which they marry whites is also higher. Among intermarried Asians and Latinos, about 90 percent marry whites; only 69 percent of intermarried blacks marry whites. Note sociologists Jennifer Lee and Frank D. Bean, “The relatively higher intermarriage rates of Asians and Latinos indicate that not only do these groups become more receptive to intermarriage as they acculturate, but that whites increasingly perceive them as suitable marriage partners, something that may not be occurring with blacks.
In the America of post-September 11, 2001, the stereotyping of Asian Americans as “other” can be especially pernicious for those of South Asian descent, especially those who may “look Middle Eastern” or have names that “sound” Middle Eastern. In the aftermath of the attacks, Sikh males, whose religion requires them to wear turbans, are especially vulnerable, and after the 9/11 attacks, became targets of several hate crimes. However, Asian Americans, as immigrants, are generally well received by whites. Fewer Asian Americans are in the United States without legal status, and they tend to fall much closer to whites than to Latinos on the socioeconomic scale, surpassing whites on many measures. As political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal note, whereas Asian Americans are often viewed as intelligent, hardworking, law-abiding, and successful, Latinos are more regularly thought of as less intelligent, welfare prone, poor, and in the United States without legal status.
In terms of socioeconomics, historically, Hispanics have occupied a middle position between blacks and whites in the United States. Despite some evidence that the relative standing of Hispanics has declined, the economic situation for African Americans remains worse than that of Hispanics. In 2015, African American households had an income nearly $8,000 less than Hispanics. More than half of black families with children are headed by a single mother, and nearly 47 percent of families headed by a black single mother are in poverty. One-in-ten black homeowners who took out mortgages at the height of the housing boom eventually lost their home to foreclosure.
Then there is the issue of the mass incarceration of African Americans, what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.” According to the NAACP, blacks now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population and are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001, and African Americans represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of youth who are detained, 46 percent of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58 percent of the youth admitted to state prisons. African Americans represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users, but 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59 percent of those in state prison for a drug offense. Amazingly, African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).
Few today would deny that we are far from the days of Jim Crow segregation, with its signs “no colored’s welcomed here.” Yet many sociologists have argued that in its place has emerged a more subtle type of racism, what Bonilla-Silva calls “color-blind racism.” In his research, he found that while most whites outwardly proclaim that they don’t see color, their statements were often prefaced with “Well, I’m not racist, but…” They insist that minorities are responsible for the so-called race problem we have in America, and they denounce blacks for “playing the race card” by demanding race-based programs and for crying “racism” whenever they are criticized by whites. He writes, “Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could ‘all get alone.’
A ray of hope is that there are indications that the younger generation is more racially tolerant than its elders. According to a study by Pew, in 2010, roughly nine in ten Millennials say they would be fine with a family member’s marriage to a person of another race, which is significantly higher than older groups, particularly Americans aged 50 or older. Also, 93 percent agree with the statement “I think it is all right for blacks and whites to date each other.” Despite this optimistic picture, even Millennials appear to have issues with race. For example, Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, found that 61 percent of whites under age thirty rated whites as more intelligent and harder-working than African Americans, just three percentage points below their older cohort. “White Millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population,” said Piston.
Beyond the attitudes of Millennials, the actual demographic makeup of that generation, and the generations to follow it, point to fundamental restructuring of American society. As demographer William H. Frey observes, there is a “sharp racial distinction” between Baby Boomers, who are mostly over the age of 50 and nearly three-quarters white, and those under the age of 35, namely, Millennials, the younger members of Generation X, and their children, who are more than 40 percent non-white. The aging of whites and the explosive growth of minorities, particularly Latinos at the younger end of the age spectrum, has created what Frey calls a “cultural generation gap,” or in the words of author Ronald Brownstein, an “intensifying confrontation between the gray and the brown.” When Baby Boomers retire, they will generate a heavy fiscal burden – the senior population is expected to grow by 81 percent between 2010 and 2030 – and Social Security, Medicare, and other programs will consume increasingly larger shares of federal and state budgets. The burden of supporting this aging population will largely fall on the shoulders of non-whites.
I return to the question: where are we going? The United States will continue to become browner. Of that there is no doubt. But regarding the direction of racial inclusion, I am more dubious. America seems to be as politically and racially polarized country than it has been at other points in our history, as when there has been immigration on a large scale or assertions of black and other minority rights.
I have some hopes for the long term. I hope white Americans will finally confront the nation’s past – its slavery, its genocide, its Jim Crow, its trail of tears – without defensiveness, without clenched fists. I think we can. I hope that the perception of black men in this country changes, and that something is done to stop police killings of unarmed black men (and boys). I hope that a (still-dominant, though shrinking) white America will make peace with its diminished size and influence, and not take the “browning” of America, with its “press two for Spanish” and its taco trucks, as a threat to what makes America great. Instead, I hope that white America will see these things as an integral part of what has made us into the people that we are.
Racism, prejudice, exclusion, and fear have all been fundamental elements of our collective story. They have always had, and continue to have enormous staying power. They left ugly scars on our national psyche. Yet when considered from the perspective of where we have been, over the long trajectory over time, we have made tremendous progress, albeit at times taking some giant steps backward. I have faith that we will continue to move in the direction of fulfilling the vision of equality of the Founding Fathers, however flawed this vision may have been. If indeed we are a great nation, then we have no other choice.