Race and Diversity in the Age of Obama

Orlando Patterson

Barack Obama’s historic victory was made possible by two great converging forces that began near the middle of the last century: the civil rights revolution and the changes engendered by the Immigration Act of 1965. The civil rights movement led to the rapid dismantling of Jim Crow and the inclusion of black Americans in politics, the military, the middle class and popular culture. The 1965 immigration act set in motion vast demographic and social changes that have altered the nation’s ethno-racial landscape.

At present, the foreign-born represent 12.6 percent of the total American population (this is still less than the 14.7 percent reached in 1910, during the earlier great wave of migration). A little over half of these immigrants are from Latin America and a quarter are from Asia. Over all, minorities now constitute slightly over a third of the population; in four states, minorities are the majority: Hawaii (75 percent), New Mexico (58 percent), California (57 percent) and Texas (52 percent), as they are in the District of Columbia (68 percent). It has been all too easy to misinterpret and sensationalize these demographic changes.

Thus Hispanics, we are often told, are now the largest ethnic group in the nation, displacing blacks and overturning America’s historic emphasis on black-white relations. But Hispanics are a varied collection of ethnic groups. They are not, and will never become, a single entity. Whatever Judge Sonia Sotomayor may have meant, a wise New York woman of Puerto Rican ancestry has a profoundly different view of the world than a Latina farm laborer in Southern California or an upper-income Chilean-American professional in Florida.

Even more problematic are periodic jeremiads declaring the demographic demise of the so-called non-Hispanic white population. “The massive Hispanic immigration after 1965,” Samuel Huntington wrote in his sadly misinformed book, “Who Are We?,” “could make America increasingly bifurcated in terms of language (English and Spanish) and culture (Anglo and Hispanic).” Huntington raised the “highly probable” prospect of a revival of racial nativism.

The bogus demographic invention “non-Hispanic whites” is partly the source of such groundless alarums. The more meaningful sociological category is that of people defining themselves as exclusively white, currently about 80 percent of the population and growing, thanks to the fact that almost half of all Hispanics now define themselves as “white alone.”

Until recently, the conventional wisdom among social scientists was that the adjustment of recent immigrants to America would be fundamentally different from that of the European immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been claimed that they are from different “races” and are entering a harsher postindustrial America with fewer opportunities for mobility, and also that the ease of communication and travel to their homelands discourages assimilation.

However, these arguments miss the real sociological drama that is now unfolding: the present wave of immigrants and their children are rapidly assimilating into an ever-vibrant American mainstream culture, and at a pace greater than the Europeans who came during the previous large wave. The assumption that the current wave should find adjustment harder because they come from different “races” rests on a hopeless misconception. At the time of their arrival, Jews, Italians and other Eastern and Southern Europeans — and even the Catholic Irish — were viewed by native whites as belonging to very different (and inferior) races. In fact, they did not assimilate because they were white; they became “white” because they assimilated.

As assimilation continues, studies show that whatever the language spoken at home, the children of recent immigrants nearly all come to use English as their first language, and they are as American in their attitudes and behavior as their native counterparts. Indeed, the definitive, 10-year investigation by Philip Kasinitz, John H. Mollenkopf, Mary C. Waters and Jennifer Holdaway, entitled “Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age,” reports a “second-generation advantage.” Immigrants’ children are caught between highly motivated, hard-working parents and the challenges of the American environment, and this actually contributes to their success.

There are, to be sure, varying degrees of success and different patterns of adjustment to America, but underlying them all is one powerful “master trend”: surprisingly rapid Americanization. The authoritative synthesis of the present processes of assimilation is Richard Alba and Victor Nee’s sociological masterpiece, “Remaking the American Mainstream.” It shows that for nonblacks, assimilation is alive and well in America. It is not passive integration into a static, Anglo-Protestant mainstream (which was always a sociological fiction anyway), but an endlessly dynamic two-way cultural process.

The great exception to this process of social incorporation is black Americans. There are two major reasons for this: One is black poverty, which, at almost 25 percent, stands at three times the white rate, just as it did in 1970. Black poverty is the result of a tragic interaction of socioeconomic and cultural forces, succinctly analyzed in William Julius Wilson’s elegant work, “More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City.” In his unremittingly grim account of Ameri­can inequality, “Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System,” the eminent sociologist Douglas S. Massey locates immigrant and native blacks, as well as Mexican-Americans, at the bottom of a social structure rooted in nearly immutable class, racial and gender prejudice, as well as covert discrimination. Massey outdoes Huntington in the depth of his pessimism.

Massey’s analysis makes frightening good sense — until I realize that he is talking partly about me and my many West Indian immigrant friends and relatives who have prospered here, not to mention that other second-generation black politician who almost made it to the White House, Colin Powell. Then some of Massey’s bad news seems unreal although, truth be told, West Indians are notoriously insensitive to the white-eyed hounds of racism nipping at their naïve immigrant psyches. That is, except on those occasions when they flip into revolutionary outrage, producing a disproportionate number of the nation’s first- and second-generation black militants, like Marcus Garvey (Jamaica) and Stokely Carmichael (Trinidad).

Closely related to blacks’ high poverty rate is their chronic hypersegregation, true not only of the great majority of poor blacks but of working-class and middle-class blacks as well. An exhaustively documented study of this subject is “Urban Inequality: Evidence From Four Cities,” edited by Alice O’Connor, Chris Tilly and Lawrence D. Bobo. In private life blacks are almost as isolated from whites today as they were under Jim Crow. Whatever the reason — persisting covert racism, black racial preferences abetted by identity politics, or both — their isolation means that the problem of ethno-racial relations in America remains, at heart, a black-white issue. As the example of Henry Louis Gates Jr. demonstrates, even prominent upper-middle-class blacks risk being racially profiled and subjected to humiliating treatment by white policemen, as well as explicit racist abuse.

The United States has worked harder and gone farther than any other advanced majority-white nation in confronting and righting the wrongs of its racist past. The crucial questions that the country now faces are these: How can white citizens, who publicly embrace black citizens as athletic heroes, matinee idols, pop-music kings, talk-show queens, senators, governors and now president, continue to shun them in their neighborhoods, schools and private lives? In their insistent celebration of racial identity, how complicit are black Americans in their own social isolation? And will Barack Obama, who delicately straddles both worlds of immigrant success and black identity, be able to broaden the inclusion of African-Americans? We watch and wait.

Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of “The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s ‘Racial’ Crisis.”


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