The Concept of Post-Racial: How Its Easy Dismissal Obscures Important Questions

The Concept of Post-Racial: How Its Easy Dismissal Obscures Important Questions

Volume 140, Issue 1 (Winter 2011 – Race in the Age of Obama, volume 1)
pages 174–182
DOI: 10.1162/DAED_a_00069

David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History
University of California, Berkeley

Nearly all of today’s confident dismissals of the notion of a “post-racial” America address the simple question, “Are we beyond racism or not?” But most of the writers who have used the terms post-racial or post-ethnic sympathetically have explored other questions: What is the significance of the blurring of ethnoracial lines through cross-group marriage and reproduction? How should we interpret the relatively greater ability of immigrant blacks as compared to standard “African Americans” to overcome racist barriers? What do we make of increasing evidence that economic and educational conditions prior to immigration are more powerful determinants than “race” in affecting the destiny of population groups that have immigrated to the United States in recent decades? Rather than calling constant attention to the undoubted reality of racism, this essay asks scholars and anti-racist intellectuals more generally to think beyond “the problem of the color line” in order to focus on “the problem of solidarity.” The essay argues that the most easily answered questions are not those that most demand our attention.

…In this essay, I focus on two highly diversifying demographic trends that continue to inspire post-ethnic/post-racial writers, and that get short shrift in the competition to show just how bad racism still is. One is the extent and character of cross-group marriage, cohabitation, and reproduction. The second is the extent and character of recent immigration, especially of dark-skinned peoples…

Yet marriage statistics do not measure the full extent of the blurring of color lines. Sociologists Joel Perlmann and Mary C. Waters argue convincingly that these statistics underestimate the rates of ethnoracially mixed families, especially when black people are involved. “Low levels of black marriage and higher levels of black-white cohabitation than of black-white marriage,” they explain, “radically complicate the interpretation of intermarriage rates.”

One of the most distinctive and revealing yet rarely cited of the relevant studies calculates the percentage of families who had a mixed race marriage within their extended kinship network. Demographer Joshua Goldstein found that among U.S. Census-identified whites, by the year 2000 about 22 percent of white Americans had within their kinship network of ten marriages over three generations at least one white–non-white marriage; in that same year, nearly 50 percent of Census-identified black Americans had a black–non-black marriage in their kinship system. The percentage for Asian Americans with Asian–non-Asian families was 84 percent. These figures rose dramatically from earlier Censuses. In 1960, only about 2 percent of Census-identified whites and 9 percent of Census-identified blacks had in their kinship network a single marriage across the color line. As late as 1990, these figures were only 9 percent for Census-identified whites and 28 percent for Census identified blacks.14 Goldstein’s statistics suggest that acceptance of crossboundary marriage and reproduction, already registered in popular culture and opinion polls, will continue to increase. Our social psychologists tell us that hostility to mixed race couplings, like opposition to same-sex relationships, diminishes with intimate familiarity: when someone in your own family is in one of these traditionally stigmatized relationships, the stigma loses some of its power…

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