Somewhere between Jim Crow & Post-Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divide in America Today

Somewhere between Jim Crow & Post-Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divide in America Today

Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Volume 140, Number 2, Spring 2011, Race, Inequality & Culture, Volume 2
pages 11-36

Lawrence D. Bobo, W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences
Harvard University

In assessing the results of the Negro revolution so far, it can be concluded that Negroes have established a foothsold, no more. We have written a Declaration of Independence, itself an accomplishment, but the effort to transform the words into a life experience still lies ahead.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? (1968)

By the middle of the twentieth century, the color line was as well defined and as firmly entrenched as any institution in the land. After all, it was older than most institutions, including the federal government itself. More important, it informed the content and shaped the lives of those institutions and the people who lived under them.
John Hope Franklin, The Color Line (1993)

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy–particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
Barack H. Obama, “A More Perfect Union” (May 18, 2008)

The year 1965 marked an important inflection point in the struggle for racial justice in the United States, underscoring two fundamental points about race in America. First, that racial inequality and division were not only Southern problems attached to Jim Crow segregation. Second, that the nature of those inequalities and divisions was a matter not merely of formal civil status and law, but also of deeply etched economic arrangements, social and political conditions, and cultural outlooks and practices. Viewed in full, the racial divide was a challenge of truly national reach, multilayered in its complexity and depth. Therefore, the achievement of basic citizenship rights in the South was a pivotal but far from exhaustive stage of the struggle…

…A second and no less controversial view of post-racialism takes the position that the level and pace of change in the demographic makeup and the identity choices and politics of Americans are rendering the traditional black-white divide irrelevant. Accordingly, Americans increasingly revere mixture and hybridity and are rushing to embrace a decidedly “beige” view of themselves and what is good for the body politic. Old-fashioned racial dichotomies pale against the surge toward flexible, deracialized, and mixed ethnoracial identities and outlooks.

A third, and perhaps the most controversial, view of post-racialism has the most in common with the well-rehearsed rhetoric of color blindness. To wit, American society, or at least a large and steadily growing fraction of it, has genuinely moved beyond race–so much so that we as a nation are now ready to transcend the disabling racial divisions of the past. From this perspective, nothing symbolizes better the moment of transcendence than Obama’s election as president. This transcendence is said to be especially true of a younger generation, what New Yorker editor David Remnick has referred to as “the Joshua Generation.” More than any other, this generation is ready to cross the great river of racial identity, division, and acrimony that has for so long defined American culture and politics…

…Consider first the matter of group boundaries. The 2000 Census broke new ground by allowing individuals to mark more than one box in designating racial background. Indeed, great political pressure and tumult led to the decision to move the Census in a direction that more formally and institutionally acknowledged the presence of increasing mixture and heterogeneity in the American population with regard to racial background. Nearly seven million people exercised that option in 2000. The successful rise of Obama to the office of president, the first African American to do so, as a child of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, has only accelerated the sense of the newfound latitude and recognition granted to those who claim more than one racial heritage.

Despite Obama’s electoral success and the press attention given to the phenomenon, some will no doubt find it surprising that the overwhelming majority of Americans identify with only one race. As Figure 1 shows, less than 2 percent of the population marked more than one box on the 2000 Census in designating their racial background. Fully 98 percent marked just one. I claim no deep-rootedness or profound personal salience for these identities. Rather, my point is that we should be mindful that the level of “discussion” and contention around mixture is far out of proportion to the extent to which most Americans actually designate and see themselves in these terms. Moreover, even if we restrict attention to just those who marked more than one box, two-thirds of these respondents designated two groups other than blacks (namely, Hispanic-white, Asian-white, or Hispanic and Asian mixtures), as Figure 2 shows. Some degree of mixture with black constituted just under a third of mixed race identifiers in 2000. Given the historic size of the black population and the extended length of contact with white Americans, this remarkable result says something powerful about the potency and durability of the historic black-white divide.

It is worth recalling that sexual relations and childbearing across the racial divide are not recent phenomena. The 1890 U.S. Census contained categories for not only “Negro” but also “Mulatto,” “Quadroon,” and even “Octoroon”; these were clear signs of the extent of “mixing” that had taken place in the United States. Indeed, well over one million individuals fell into one of the mixed race categories at that time. In order to protect the institution of slavery and to prevent the offspring of white slave masters and exploited black slave women from having a claim on freedom as well as on the property of the master, slave status, as defined by law, followed the mother’s status, not the father’s. For most of its history, the United States legally barred or discouraged racial mixing and intermarriage. At the time of the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967, seventeen states still banned racial intermarriage…

…Does that pressure for change foretell the ultimate undoing of the black-white divide? At least three lines of research raise doubts about such a forecast. First, studies of the perceptions of and identities among those of mixed racial backgrounds point to strong evidence of the cultural persistence of the one-drop rule. Systematic experiments by sociologists and social psychologists are intriguing in this regard. For example, sociologist Melissa Herman’s recent research concluded that “others’ perceptions shape a person’s identity and social understandings of race. My study found that partblack multiracial youth are more likely to be seen as black by observers and to define themselves as black when forced to choose one race.”…

…Third, some key synthetic works argue for an evolving racial scheme in the United States, but a scheme that nonetheless preserves a heavily stigmatized black category. A decade ago, sociologist Herbert Gans offered the provocative but wellgrounded speculation that the United States would witness a transition from a society defined by a great white–nonwhite divide to one increasingly defined by a black–non-black fissure, with an in-between or residual category for those granted provisional or “honorary white” status. As Gans explained: “If current trends persist, today’s multiracial hierarchy could be replaced by what I think of as a dual or bimodal one consisting of ‘nonblack’ and ‘black’ population categories, with a third ‘residual’ category for the groups that do not, or do not yet, fit into the basic dualism.” Most troubling, this new dualism would, in Gans’s expectations, continue to bring a profound sense of undeservingness and stigma for those assigned its bottom rung.

Gans’s remarks have recently received substantial support from demographer Frank Bean and his colleagues. Based on their extensive analyses of population trends across a variety of indicators, Bean and colleagues write: “A black-nonblack divide appears to be taking shape in the United States, in which Asians and Latinos are closer to whites. Hence, America’s color lines are moving toward a new demarcation that places many blacks in a position of disadvantage similar to that resulting from the traditional black-white divide.”…

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