CHAPTER 2

The Racial Order

Few subjects loom as large in America’s history as race. And few things have changed America’s racial picture more conspicuously than the last fifty years of immigration.

What was once a simpler racial hierarchy has grown much more complex. Indeed, for much of the twentieth century, race was largely a matter of Black and White. Turn the clock back to 1960 and Whites were the overwhelming majority. Fully 85 percent of Americans were White. When most people thought of minorities, they had Blacks in mind. That was not surprising since Blacks were three-quarters of the nation’s minority population (nearly all of them descendants of enslaved Africans brought to this country in chains). In 1960, Hispanics were a mere 3.5 percent of US residents and Asian Americans were barely visible at less than 1 percent.1

Today when people view the racial order, they still see Whites on top—but Asian Americans and Hispanics have joined Blacks among those regarded as minorities. Whites, by 2018, had shrunk to only 60 percent of the nation’s population; Hispanics, at 18 percent, had grown to become the largest minority group, Asians were at 6 percent, and the composition of the Black minority had changed. Although Blacks as a group had increased to 13 percent (from 11 percent in 1960), almost a tenth were newcomers, with the overwhelming majority from Africa and the Caribbean.

When talking of race, there is one distinction that is critical. Our subject is not race as physiognomy, it is race as a perception. What you look like and where your people came from, to be sure, are basic facts, but what people make of these distinctions is a social construct. Appearances and ancestry are real and concrete; how people interpret them is fluid and evolving.

Further complicating the story are the terms we use to tell it. Race and ethnicity sound like clear and differentiated concepts, but in the literature, they are very much intertwined.2 “Asian” and “Hispanic” sound like ethnic terms, while “Black” sounds purely racial, but here again it is not that simple. For the purposes of this discussion, Asians or Asian Americans will be people of Asian origin, Hispanics generally people with Latin American roots, and Blacks those of sub-Saharan African ancestry, whether they have been in this country for generations, or arrived by way of the Caribbean or direct from Africa. Whites are what the Census calls non-Hispanic Whites.

Immigration, in this chapter, is the driving force. The central theme is the way it has transformed American perceptions of race: how definitions of groups and categories are changing, how boundaries are shifting, and how identities are new.

To set the stage, it is useful to look back to the last great wave of immigration. Americans now take it for granted that Jews and Italians are part of a broad White community, but a hundred years ago they were commonly seen in racial terms and thought of as racially inferior.

In our current era, other groups have been similarly transformed. Asians, for example, were once considered the yellow peril; now in the common popular view, they have become the model minority. Hispanics are another group whose position in the United States is new, and it is worth remembering that the very term “Hispanic” is a recent coinage. Fifty years ago, the term was rarely used. What is more, as we will see, the way that Blacks and Whites are viewed by others and themselves has also undergone change as a result of immigration’s impact.

Lastly, there are questions about the future. Racial perceptions are still very much in flux, and the future is uncertain. Yet it is worthwhile to consider whether understanding the changes that have taken place so far, in the past as well as the present, provide any guides as to what may lie ahead.3

Looking Backward: Who Is a Racial Insider?

Most Americans today think of Jews and Italians as part of an all-inclusive White community of European heritage, but they didn’t look that way to commentators at the turn of the twentieth century when millions were arriving from southern and eastern Europe. How Jews and Italians went from being racial outsiders to racial insiders is a tale of changes in the meaning of race as well as growing acceptance of their religions and ethnic origins. The story of their transformation raises questions about whether something similar is happening or will happen to some groups today or in the future.

Race today is basically a color word in the United States, but it was not that way a hundred years ago when race and color were not perfect synonyms, and a person could be “considered both white (color) and racially inferior to other whites (race).”4 Jews and Italians were recognized as Whites in terms of legal and political rights. They were allowed to naturalize as US citizens at a time when American naturalization laws only gave “free white persons” or “persons of African nativity or African descent” the right to naturalize, and when the courts repeatedly denied Asian immigrants access to American citizenship because they were not, in legal scholar Ian Haney López’s phrase, “white by law.”5 Jews and Italians were allowed to vote in states that restricted the suffrage to Whites; they were placed in the White category by federal agencies, including the Census; and they were not subject to miscegenation laws to prevent their marriages to other Europeans.

Yet at the same time, the Whiteness of Jews and Italians was sometimes questioned. And while to our contemporary ear Jews and Italians sound like different nationalities or ethnicities, many Americans in the first third of the twentieth century thought of them as different races, and viewed them as racially inferior to those of northern and western European origin on the basis of notions of stock, heredity, blood, and selectively chosen physical characteristics.6 As historian Matthew Frye Jacobson aptly puts it, eastern and southern Europeans were both White and racially distinct from other Whites. Or in historian Erika Lee’s phrase, they were White, but not White enough. They were also religiously distinct; religion was a strong basis for the stigma attached to Jews and Italian Catholics, who prior to the mid-twentieth century were outside the core Protestant identity of mainstream America.7

In the early twentieth century, Jewish and Italian immigrants, who then comprised more than half of the southern, central, and eastern European immigrants in the United States, were widely seen as belonging to inferior “mongrel” races that would alter the essential character of the United States, and pollute the nation’s Anglo-Saxon or Nordic stock.8 They were commonly thought to have distinct biological features, mental abilities, and innate character traits, and many Americans believed that they were physically identifiable; facial features (including the “Jewish” nose) were often noted in the case of Jews, and “swarthy” skin in the case of Italians, who were also sometimes maligned as “guineas,” an old slur for African Americans that referred to their origins on the West African slaving coast. “One sees no reason,” social scientist Edward A. Ross wrote in the early twentieth century, “why the Italian dusk should not in time quench what of the Celto-Teutonic flush lingers in the cheek of the native American.” Madison Grant’s influential The Passing of the Great Race, which had become a seminal text of American life by the 1920s, argued that southern and eastern Europeans were diminishing the quality of the nation’s Nordic stock and sweeping the United States toward a “racial abyss.”9

Far from being on the fringe, full-blown theories about the assumed racial inferiority of eastern Europeans and southern Italians were well within the mainstream of the scientific community. Openly propounded by respected scholars, such views were also propagated and given the stamp of approval by public intellectuals and opinion leaders in the press. Articles with titles like “Will the Jews Ever Lose Their Racial Identity?” (1911) and “Are the Jews an Inferior Race?” (1912) appeared in the most frequently read periodicals.10 The New York Sun (1893) argued that Jewish racial features, “recognizable by sight,” made them unassimilable.11 As late as the 1930s, an American history textbook asked whether it would be possible to absorb the “millions of olive-skinned Italians and swarthy black-haired Slavs and dark-eyed Hebrews into the body of the American people.”12 Not only was it acceptable a century ago to speak about the inferiority of Jews and Italians in newspapers, magazines, and public forums, but discrimination against them—in housing, employment, higher education, and other institutions—was overt and, by and large, legal.

What factors eventually led Jews and Italians to become racial insiders and part of a broad White community—no longer set apart in the popular mind as inferior, in racial terms, from those with northern and western European ancestry?13 Of critical importance were the economic and occupational successes of Jews and Italians, made possible by the remarkable economic prosperity in the post–World War II years, and growth of jobs in the middle and upper reaches of the occupational structure. The expansion of higher education also facilitated upward mobility for the children of turn-of-the-twentieth-century arrivals; the higher education system increased its capacities fivefold in just three decades, between 1940 and 1970, almost entirely due to public investment in state and municipal colleges and universities.14 Government policies, such as the GI Bill of 1944 that provided low-cost mortgages and college tuition payments to veterans of the war, opened up opportunities for educational, job, and residential progress for the Jewish and Italian second generation. As they climbed the social and economic ladder, they simultaneously intermixed with those whose roots were in different parts of Europe in new suburban communities, at work, and eventually for many, in marriage.

Also relevant is that those with origins in eastern and southern Europe shared a safe haven of legal Whiteness with northern and western European groups from the beginning, and were not subject to the same kind of systematic legal and official discrimination facing Black, Asian, and Mexican immigrants. And because many Jews and Italians physically resembled members of the older European groups in skin color and other attributes, it was often possible for them to blend into the majority population (“to pass”) if they shed cultural features such as distinctive dialects or dress.

Nor can we dismiss the ending of the massive eastern and southern European immigrant influx following restrictive US legislation in the 1920s that reduced the fears of old-stock Americans about the deluge of “racial inferiors,” and contributed to cultural assimilation by preventing replenishment of Jewish and Italian communities with large numbers of new immigrants. Moreover, the massive migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities from World War I on likely facilitated the acceptance of Jews and Italians by changing the racial order in these cities from one marked by the multiplicity of White races to one focused on race as color.15 As Blacks became a significant proportion of the population in cities like New York and Chicago (where they were less than 2 percent in 1900), Jews and Italians often sought to distinguish themselves from (and claim superiority to) African Americans by emphasizing their Whiteness.

Other developments played a role too. During the Second World War, the Nazi genocide made anti-Semitism less acceptable. What is more, the war occurred when the mass inflow of immigration had receded and the army was filled with US-born soldiers whose families had origins in all parts of Europe. Fighting in segregated White platoons “brought about a self-conscious wartime unity that transcended ethnic lines among whites”; the image of the multiethnic platoon became part of popular and official culture, with Protestant, Irish, Polish, Italian, and Jewish soldiers fighting side by side, or as one journalist puts it, “Kowalskis and Mancinis sharing foxholes with Mayflower descendants.”16 And there were struggles of the groups themselves to remove institutionalized impediments to their advancement. Especially after the war, organized efforts, most notably by Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, to eliminate exclusionary barriers in housing, elite universities, resorts, and social clubs were key in the passage of laws prohibiting racial and religious bias in employment as well as higher education.

Changes in Our Current Era

By now, the immigration of Italians and Jews along with the history of their successful assimilation are distant memories. It’s a measure of how dramatic the transformation has been that most Americans have forgotten that Italians and Jews were once seen as separate and inferior European races. What is striking is how the processes of reinvention and change have been occurring in the current era; perceptions of racial and ethnic groups have undergone significant shifts, and taken on new meanings in the context of the changed character of immigration.

Of course, immigration has not been the only transformative force in America’s racial order in the post–World War II period. The civil rights movement coupled with legislation of the 1960s ushered in a new racial era, and a host of other social, political, and economic developments have contributed to changes in the meaning and impact of racial boundaries as well. Yet there is no denying the powerful role of immigration, and resulting new demographic features, in altering how Americans think about—and indeed the very words they use to describe—racial and ethnic differences.

Asian Americans and the Elasticity of Race

Views of Asian Americans have undergone a contemporary metamorphosis. Once looked down on as the yellow peril, East Asians are now often touted as a model minority. Indeed, when Whites stereotype Asian Americans today it is frequently for being economically successful.17

It is hard to imagine that the Chinese and Japanese in the United States used to be cast, as sociologist Yen Le Espiritu has put it, as “almost blacks but not blacks” since now they are frequently seen as “almost whites but not whites,” and associated with academic success, hard work, and achievement.18 In the past, racial prejudice against Asians was enshrined in restrictive immigration and naturalization laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 singled out the Chinese as the first group to be excluded from the United States on the basis of race, ethnicity, or nationality, and by 1917 Congress had also banned the immigration of most other Asians. For much of the nation’s history, Asian immigrants were denied the right to become citizens. Although the Fourteenth Amendment and a subsequent US Supreme Court decision in the late nineteenth century granted birthright citizenship to US-born Asians, it was not until 1943 that Chinese immigrants gained the right to become naturalized citizens and that the discriminatory immigration laws affecting Asians began to be relaxed. Only in 1952 was naturalization eligibility extended to all Asians.

Anti-Asian sentiments were particularly virulent on the West Coast, where California and Oregon adopted laws prohibiting Asian-White intermarriage. A 1913 California law, targeting Japanese farmers, barred Asian immigrants from owning land. When a California court held in 1885 that the public schools had to admit Chinese children, the state legislature passed a bill allowing school districts to set up separate schools for “Mongolians.”19 Most devastating of all, during World War II more than a hundred thousand Japanese Americans who lived on the Pacific coast, many of them US citizens, were forcibly evacuated and moved to remote internment camps. Although officially justified as necessary for national security after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, racism and xenophobia, as historian Erika Lee notes, were central in leading “the US government to commit this grave injustice.”20

Changes in US immigration policy, foreign relations, and legal restrictions, including the abolition of the exclusion regime in the mid-twentieth century and revocation of Asian immigrants’ ineligibility for citizenship, set the stage for altered perceptions of Asian Americans. Also, views of Asian immigrants’ home countries have changed over time. Americans once saw Asia as a backward region; now China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and India are modern advanced nations and world economic powers, held up for their business prowess and enormously successful companies, from Samsung to Alibaba, producing top-end global products. Of greater importance, however, in the changed racial status of Asian Americans is that a large proportion of post-1965 Asian immigrants are highly educated and highly skilled. Chinese and Korean as well as Asian Indian immigrants, who together are nearly half of all Asian immigrants, are what sociologists have called hyper-selected. They are more highly educated than nonmigrants in their countries of origin and more highly educated than the general US population.21 In 2016, a remarkable 78 percent of immigrants aged twenty-five and older from India, 54 percent from Korea, and 52 percent from China had a bachelor’s degree or higher—compared to 32 percent of the general US population.22

The extraordinary educational success of the second generation also helps explain Asian Americans’ altered racial status—achievements that sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou argue can be traced back to the hyper-selectivity of Asian immigration. They emphasize that well-educated East Asian immigrants define success as earning a degree from a prestigious university and working in a high-status field while at the same time importing middle-class institutions from their home countries to provide supplementary education in the United States. Whatever the reasons, Asian Americans are significantly overrepresented in the nation’s most competitive magnet schools and elite private universities, and at latest count made up around a fifth of the student body at Ivy League institutions. “Despite decades of institutional discrimination and racial prejudice,” Lee and Zhou observe, “the status of Asian Americans has risen dramatically in less than a century. Today, Asian Americans are the most highly-educated [racial] group in the country, have the highest median household incomes, the highest rates of intermarriage, and the lowest rates of residential segregation.”23

The substantial rates of Asian American–White intermarriage in the current period not only reflect more positive views of Asian Americans; they have the potential to strengthen them, and loosen racial boundaries, as Asian Americans and Whites become more comfortable with as well as accepting of each other as spouses and close relatives. About one out of three US-born Asian Americans is married to a non-Hispanic White, with women more likely to intermarry, and Indians and Vietnamese having somewhat lower rates than other Asian nationalities.24

The frequent experience of marriage to Whites among the second generation does not mean that negative views of Asian Americans have disappeared; they have not. Asian Americans are still seen as racially distinct, differentiated from Whites by physical features—skin tone, hair texture, and the shape of their eyes—and still subject to incidents of racial prejudice and discrimination.25 This was brought home to Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic when President Trump insisted on referring to it as the “Chinese virus,” seeking to shift blame for his catastrophic failures in handling the outbreak by fanning fears of a foreign threat while also bolstering support from his base through xenophobia. In reigniting old racist tropes, Trump fueled and legitimated anti-Chinese sentiments; hate crimes were reported to spike against Asian Americans in the midst of the pandemic, following a long period between 2003 and 2017 when they had been in decline nationally.26

In addition, widely held contemporary stereotypes about Asian Americans have exclusionary elements. Regardless of how many generations their families have been in the United States, Asian Americans are commonly thought of as “forever foreign,” a perception no doubt reinforced by the high proportion who are foreign born—roughly 70 percent of Asian American adults in 2019. Being assumed to be a foreigner is especially painful to those born here; they see it as a sign, as one Chinese American woman said, that “no matter how American you think you are or try to be,” you are not fully accepted. Another prevalent modern-day stereotype is the model minority image, which as historian Ellen Wu states, labels Asian Americans as a racial group distinct from the White majority at the same time as they are lauded as culturally programmed for success, “well assimilated, upwardly mobile … and definitively not-black.”27 Hailing Asian Americans as a model minority, it has been argued, overlooks the heterogeneity among Asian immigrant groups, including the low educational levels among groups like the Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians; diverts attention away from the existence of continued racism against Asian Americans, and the social and economic disadvantages that many experience; and pits them against Blacks and Latinos. Many Asian American intellectuals chafe at being used as a cudgel with which to criticize African Americans and other minorities, and seek to discredit what they often refer to as the myth of the model minority.28 Still, the fact that Asian Americans are often now widely touted as a model minority reflects a positive change from the virulently negative caricatures of the past that depicted them as illiterate, undesirable, and unassimilable immigrants.29

How Asian Americans describe themselves has also changed in that the very term Asian has become more common in their own communities as well as widely used in popular discourse and the media. In the pre-1960s era, when the Asian population in this country was overwhelmingly of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino origin, those with roots in Asia identified with their specific national origins, not in terms of a shared Asian label. National identities have not faded away. They remain strong among Asian Americans, especially the foreign born, and continue to supersede “Asian” much, perhaps most, of the time, if only because Asian immigrants come from countries with distinctive languages, cultures (including religion), and even in a few cases long-standing nationally rooted enmities, such as between Korea and Japan. Those from the Indian subcontinent sometimes describe themselves and their compatriots as South Asian, while to many Americans the term “Asian” is often understood as East Asian—that is, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese.

Yet at the same time, many with Asian ancestry identify as Asian or Asian American at least in some situations. An inclusive, panethnic Asian identity, sociologist Dina Okamoto argues, has become established as a principle for building a community among groups of different ethnic origins, replete with many pan-Asian organizations, institutions, and political mobilizations.30 Moreover, the adoption of the Asian / Pacific Islander racial category by the US Census Bureau in 1980—mainly in response to civil rights legislation, and the need to enforce equal opportunity and affirmative action policies—has led to its use by businesses, public agencies, educational institutions, researchers, foundations, hospitals, and industry to collect data, award grants, and allocate resources.31 By now, in short, Asian and Asian American have become officially established and widely used racial labels in American society, and to a growing extent, markers of self-identity among those of Asian ancestry as well.

The Invention of Hispanics

The case of Hispanics also represents a contemporary sea change, in large part because the very category Hispanic is a modern-day invention. It is now normal to hear about the Hispanic vote and Hispanic organizations, but in the mid-twentieth century the press and pundits wrote about Mexicans or Puerto Ricans, not Hispanics.32 A key development occurred in 1980 when the Bureau of the Census adopted Hispanic as an enumeration category. (Hispanics were not counted as a single group on the decennial Census before 1970, and in that year a Spanish origin question was only asked of a small sample.) The decision to adopt Hispanic as a category on the 1980 Census form sent to all households reflected changes in American society, including civil rights legislation requiring statistical documentation of minority groups’ disadvantages; at the same time, the Census entrenched Hispanic as a legitimate official category, contributing to its importance as an identity label for Hispanics as well as its use by non-Hispanics. The normalization of the labels “Hispanic” as well as “Latino” to refer broadly to people of Latin American ancestry in the United States, and the increasing use in some circles of the gender-neutral “Latinx,” have occurred in a context in which the Hispanic population has exploded, going from about 9.6 million in 1970 to a whopping 59.9 million in 2018—a growth, as demographers show, that is mainly due to immigration before 2000 and since then mostly to US births among Latino immigrants as well as US-born Latinos.33

But it isn’t just a matter of numbers. The emergence of Hispanic (and Latino) as established categories of identity in this country is to a large degree the result of the politics of ethnic and racial classification.34 As Cristina Mora tells it in Making Hispanics, the creation of this new identity label in the 1970s and 1980s involved a combination of factors: activists seeking political clout, government funds, and philanthropic support by uniting under the Hispanic banner; Spanish-language television broadcasters seeking a larger national market; and activists and politicians successfully campaigning to have the Census adopt the Hispanic category. To this day, Mora argues, the web of media, state, and activist networks has upheld the notion of Hispanic panethnicity.35

A key question is the extent to which those with origins in Latin America actually identify as Hispanic or Latino. It is not an either-or situation. Although many, or perhaps most, Latin American immigrants prefer to be known by and primarily identify in terms of their national origins, they also often identify as Hispanic or Latino. The two identities, in other words, are not mutually exclusive but instead complementary. Individuals may invoke or put aside a Hispanic or Latino identity at different moments and for different purposes, with its use fostered by such factors as regular daily interaction among Latin American nationality groups, shared linguistic and cultural roots, reports in the media, and political appeals and campaigns.36 What seems clear is that what started out as a statistical term of convenience or tool to bring those of Latin American origin together has been transformed into a real social entity. Legitimized by the state, and diffused in daily and institutional practice, the Hispanic label, as sociologist Rubén Rumbaut notes, has become “internalized … as a prominent part of the American mosaic.”37

Are Hispanics now a racial or ethnic group? On the ethnic group side, the Census classifies Hispanics in terms of ethnicity, not race, and as a group, they have varying skin tones, with many phenotypically White and more than half checking their race as White on the 2010 Census. Hispanics who are of light skin color and with European features, educated, or occupationally successful may gain acceptance as Whites in some contexts and places; by the same token, dark-skinned Hispanics may suffer many of the same disadvantages as African Americans.38

Yet a scheme that treats Latinos as a race between Whites and Blacks, as sociologist Wendy Roth puts it, is winning out in the United States today.39 In the media, public discourse, political arena, some government reporting standards, and everyday language used by Latinos and non-Latinos alike, the view of Latinos as a separate racial group has increasingly come to dominate. Indeed, by treating Hispanics as a group equivalent to Blacks in anti-discrimination and affirmative action policies, the federal government also contributed to raising Hispanic to the status of a racial category.40 Ideas about skin color are involved too. The terms Hispanic or Latino tend to conjure up images of people who are brown or tan skinned as well as foreign in speech and manner. As sociologist Nazli Kibria and her colleagues observe, notions of intrinsic difference from and inferiority to Whites are long-standing features of the stigmatization of Latino populations in the United States.41

The case of Mexican Americans is especially pertinent, if only because those of Mexican origin are by far the largest portion, almost two-thirds, of the Hispanic population in the United States. Mexican Americans stand out as “the descendants of the largest and longest lasting immigration stream in U.S. history”; their origins can be traced to the 1848 treaty ending the Mexican-American War when approximately eighty thousand Mexicans living in the conquered Mexican territories, including present-day California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, became “Americans” after the region was ceded to the United States.42

Looking back to the first half of the twentieth century, Mexican Americans straddled the White–non-White boundary. With the exception of a onetime Mexican race category in 1930, the Census classified Mexican Americans as White until the Hispanic question was introduced.43 During World War II, official instructions called on local draft boards to classify Mexican Americans as White; no state miscegenation laws specifically barred unions between Whites and Mexican Americans, as they continued to do in many southern states for Blacks until the 1960s; and at a time when Asian immigrants could not become citizens, the federal government accepted Mexicans as White for the purposes of naturalization. Yet in the early decades of the century, the boundary between Whites and Mexicans, as sociologist Cybelle Fox and historian Thomas Guglielmo point out, appeared bright “in the sense that a wide range of individuals and nonstate institutions recognized Mexicans as nonwhite. Many race scientists categorized the vast majority of Mexicans as nonwhite. Numerous Anglos did as well, a point that became most obvious when Mexicans [in parts of the Midwest and especially the Southwest] found themselves excluded from white-only public accommodations, when realtors refused to sell them homes in white neighborhoods, or when school officials excluded them from white schools.”44 For the “masses of working class mexicanos, many of them first generation,” historian Neil Foley writes, “the idea that they were members of the white race would have struck them as somewhat absurd. Anglos were white; mexicanos, well, were mexicanos.”45

Fast-forward to the present, and most Mexican Americans are viewed as occupying an intermediate status between Black and White, although the details are subject to debate in the scholarly world. Some scholars maintain that Mexicans, like other Latinos, should be labeled a racialized ethnic group since they are often stigmatized as inferior, illegal, and foreign, and regarded as non-White.46 Another view, focusing on Mexican Americans, stresses that they are targets of prejudice and discrimination because of nativism, or intense opposition based on their foreign connections, rather than because of, or simply because of, beliefs about their racial inferiority. According to one argument, Mexican Americans experience a racialized form of nativism in which their presumed foreignness is central and their right to be in the country is questioned; third- and later-generation Mexican Americans, in this perspective, may encounter discrimination because they are associated with and frequently mistaken for new Mexican immigrants, and often assumed to be undocumented.47

Pigmentation and other physical features add further complications to the picture. Skin color among Mexican Americans and other Latinos has been shown to matter for socioeconomic standing and residential integration. At the same time, as an in-depth interview study shows, Mexican Americans, including those who have attained middle-class status, may experience discrimination in their daily lives because of their skin color as well as surnames.48 Indigenous ancestry, manifested in physical features such as facial appearance and height as well as skin color, can also pose challenges. As sociologists David López and Ricardo Stanton-Salazar have put it, speaking of Mexicans, “Those who fit the mestizo/Indian phenotype, who ‘look Mexican,’ cannot escape racial stereotyping any more than African Americans, though the stigma is usually not so severe.”49

Blackness: Change and Persistence

This brings us to those who are labeled Black. As the title of a recent book proclaims, immigration has been remaking Black America as millions of foreign-born Blacks have come to live in this country.50 A central question is whether this inflow has altered the meanings associated with Blackness and the way Black people fit into the nation’s racial order. The changes are perhaps best conceived as “tweaking” or modifying notions of Blackness, since color-coded race remains an impermeable social barrier for those labeled Black and anti-Black racism remains a powerful force.51 It is a case of change, but also to a significant degree of persistence.

Certainly, the huge Black immigration of the last five decades has led to growing ethnic diversity in the nation’s Black population. In 1960, before the United States opened the door to large-scale immigration from the West Indies and sub-Saharan Africa, less than 1 percent of the country’s Blacks were foreign born. By 2016, it was roughly 10 percent, or a little over four million people. Half of these people were from the Caribbean and nearly 40 percent from sub-Saharan Africa; most of the Africans arrived after 2000, many as refugees or beneficiaries of the diversity visa program created in 1990 for those from countries underrepresented in the immigrant population.52

This increasing diversity of national origins, along with an expansion of the Black middle class, has contributed to some diminution of the monolithic conceptions of Blackness held by many Whites and other non-Blacks.53 The greater awareness of ethnic differences within the Black population is especially evident in cities where Black immigrants have become a significant presence, most notably New York City and the Miami–Fort Lauderdale–West Palm Beach metropolitan area where about one in three Blacks are foreign born, or in places such as the Twin Cities of Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Lewiston, Maine, where Black African newcomers are highly visible drivers of increases in the overall Black population. The Twin Cities are now home to the largest Somali immigrant population in the nation, with an estimated twenty-two thousand foreign-born Somalis and other East Africans living there; Lewiston, a small, overwhelmingly White city of thirty-six thousand in south-central Maine, has been transformed in the last two decades by the influx of several thousand African, mostly Somali, refugees.54

The Caribbeanization and Africanization of New York City’s Black population is striking, and particularly evident to Blacks themselves. The large African and West Indian populations in New York City now provide the scope for ethnic identities to thrive within their own communities in private interactions and public spaces as well as in neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces where Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and African Americans come into close contact. This is the case in some heavily Black middle-class suburbs in the New York City area that have drawn in a mix of Black Americans and Haitian and English-speaking Caribbean immigrants. Sociologist Orly Clerge describes how within these suburbs, national origin distinctions are central to “Black identity making”—remaking the category of Black imposed on them is the way she puts it—as the residents have constructed nationality narratives about how each group stacks up against the others. Interestingly, in the communities she studied, Black Americans’ identity in terms of roots in the American South—as southern people—has been strengthened through direct contact with Black immigrants; they defined themselves as “authentic” Black people while Jamaicans saw Black Americans as lagging behind them culturally and Haitians as “beneath” them.55 Black ethnicity also figures more in New York City’s political world than it used to. In the early twentieth century, at a time of the first and much smaller West Indian immigration, Afro-Caribbean politicians in New York played down their ethnic identity in the quest for office, putting themselves forward as representatives of the broader Black community.56 Today—when the number of West Indian immigrants in the city is more than ten times larger than it was in 1920—several neighborhoods with large concentrations of West Indians have provided the base for Afro-Caribbean politicians to use ethnic appeals to gain support in campaigns for local office.57 Something similar has happened in South Florida, where efforts to woo the ethnic vote have played a role in the political campaigns of a growing number of Haitian and Jamaican Americans running for local and state positions.

Whites in cities like New York and Miami with large Afro-Caribbean populations have also become more attuned to national origin differences among Blacks. In the Miami area, with the largest Haitian community in the country and well-known Little Haiti neighborhood, Haitians have established “a solid and visible presence as full members of the ethnic mosaic.” They are increasingly in evidence in the Miami-Dade political arena, with one of their own, for example, winning a seat in 2010 on the county commission and a few years later rising to become its chair.58 In New York, research reports that White employers prefer West Indian immigrants over native Blacks for lower-level service jobs.59 Beyond particular cities, the fact that around a quarter of Black students at the nation’s colleges and universities are now immigrants or children of immigrants has no doubt sensitized a considerable number in the larger student body to ethnic distinctions in the Black population.60

In the context of increased Black ethnic diversity, new cultural mixtures have been developing. Some second- and later-generation West Indian New Yorkers have been actively forging ties with younger African Americans, trying to create a hybrid identity, based in part on melding aspects of Caribbean and African American popular culture. African immigrants have introduced their own cultural elements into New York’s minority youth culture, including African-inspired clothing and hairstyles.61 Looking ahead in New York as well as beyond, and at the potential for continued Black immigration from Africa and the Caribbean, it has even been suggested that the very meaning of African American could eventually change to reflect the growing ethnic complexity within the Black population so that the children and grandchildren of Black immigrants “will … become part of an African American population with fewer roots in centuries on American soil and that has been made more hybrid through intermixing with black immigrants.”62

This is just a possibility, of course, and in the future. At present, immigration’s ethnic diversification of the Black population has taken place in an era that has witnessed more dramatic change owing to civil rights–era laws and policies that, even in the face of enduring racism, made the United States a less overtly discriminatory country. To the extent that the position and views of Blacks have changed for the better in recent years—and there is no question that they have in many ways—this has much more to do with the effects of the civil rights movement and legislation than immigration. Post–civil rights America has seen an expansion of opportunities for Black Americans; the growing presence and visibility of Blacks in elite positions, from the heads of large companies and well-known media personalities to the 2008 election of the first Black president; a rise in the number and proportion of mixed-race (Black-White) individuals; and changing racial attitudes to Blacks, including evidence of a greater recognition among Whites of class differences among African Americans as well as more acceptance of middle- and upper-middle-class African Americans.63

And yet despite civil rights gains and large-scale Black immigration, anti-Black racism has had a tenacious hold in American society and stark social cleavages involving people of African ancestry remain. Continuity, in other words, is a critical part of the story. The history of Blacks in the United States—slavery, Jim Crow, ghettoization, and most recently massive incarceration—has led to the persistence of a strong color line and hard boundaries associated with Blackness. Whether native or foreign born, Blacks are still highly residentially segregated from Whites in the United States, more so than is the case for Asians and Hispanics.64 The New York City metropolitan area, home to the largest Black immigrant population in the country, is one of the most segregated; most non-Black New Yorkers, as Clerge notes, never even visit Black urban areas, let alone heavily Black middle-class suburbs.65 Rates of Black intermarriage with Whites in this country may have risen appreciably in recent decades, but they are lower than for Asians and Hispanics. This difference is not surprising. Anti-miscegenation laws forbidding Black-White marriage were still on the books in sixteen states in 1967 when the Supreme Court declared them illegal, and informal social barriers to the formation of intimate relationships between Blacks and Whites remain particularly strong. In line with these patterns, second-generation Afro-Caribbeans are much less likely than US-born Hispanics and Asians to have White partners.66 According to a recent study, Black Caribbean and African immigrants who were unmarried when they arrived were more likely to marry native-born Blacks than White Americans, once again indicating the continuing power of race.67 Regardless of where they or their parents were born, Blacks are especially vulnerable to discrimination in anonymous encounters in public places on the streets, in stores, and as the Black Lives Matter movement has powerfully brought out, with the police; Black men find it especially hard to be seen as independent from the stereotype of Black criminality.68

Notions of a monolithic Blackness, along with its many negative connotations, have been hard to change. For most non-Black Americans, as sociologist Mary Waters notes, “the image of blacks as poor, unworthy, and dangerous is still very potent”—unless those labeled Black prove otherwise.69 Even when Black immigrants’ ethnicity is recognized in certain places and contexts, they are still seen as part of the larger Black population in the United States; their racial status as Blacks, in other words, is always salient. Indeed, some Whites single them out as “better Blacks.” In the public arena, their ethnicity may not be recognized at all; in the “hustle and bustle of daily life,” strangers resort to racial stereotyping, seeing Black immigrants simply as Black or “as ‘Black’ as African Americans.”70 As sociologist Milton Vickerman puts it, American society still has a powerful tendency to homogenize Blacks or what he calls the reflexive habit of identifying “Black” with “African American.”71 Although Black immigrants often seek to distinguish themselves from and escape the stigma associated with Black Americans, they also identify with African Americans on the basis of the shared experience of being Black in American society and a linked racial fate outlook.72 Racism, in other words, is a unifying experience among those labeled Black in America.

For the US-born second generation, identity issues take on special significance. They have difficulty “marshaling their West Indianness [or Africanness] in a society that racializes black people with little regard to ethnicity.”73 Second-generation Afro-Caribbeans and Africans who continue to strongly identify with their ethnic backgrounds are aware that unless they are active in conveying their ethnic status to others, they are seen as African Americans and the status of their Black race is what matters in encounters with Whites. If they lack an accent or other cues to immediately signal their ethnicity to others, it is difficult to make their national origins known. As one second-generation Nigerian said, “A lot of white people see us as one. At the end of the day, we are just black. They don’t see the green-white-green colors of the Nigerian flag on your forehead or the Jamaican flag.”74 In being seen as Black American, they are subject to the same kind of racial prejudice and exclusion as Black Americans, finding themselves at the bottom of the racial hierarchy and without the leeway to fully define their own identities in America.75

Whiteness in Flux?

Has immigration changed the meaning of Whiteness? To some extent it has. In part owing to the continued decline in the proportion of non-Hispanic Whites, sizable numbers of White Americans, around a fifth according to some evidence, have not just become more conscious of their Whiteness but also feel that Whites’ dominant position is under threat.76

These are perceptions, of course, not actual realities. Whiteness has long been associated with privilege in the United States, and if you look at a broad range of measures, including the proportion of millionaires and the number who hold powerful political positions, Whites’ dominant position persists. For many, probably most, Whites, their White identity is still something they take for granted; the social and economic advantages that come with Whiteness generally remain invisible to them. Some do not even think of themselves as having a race at all.77 From the perspective of non-Whites, moreover, Whites—usually meaning those with European origins—are seen as maintaining their privileged place at the top of the racial hierarchy today, just as in the past. No doubt most Whites themselves see it this way too.

Still, it is not the same world, racially speaking, for Whites now as it was fifty years ago as many have become “increasingly aware of themselves as one racial group in an increasingly diverse America.”78 The political campaigns and presidency of Trump brought this shift into prominent focus given his appeals to portions of the White population, especially Whites with low levels of education, who feel that their “natural” privileges as Whites are in jeopardy, indeed under siege, in the context of demographic change fueled by immigration and the economic, occupational, and political gains of non-White groups in the post–civil rights era. Not surprisingly, the elections of the nation’s first Black president and more recently a vice president of Afro-Caribbean (as well as South Asian) ancestry dramatically symbolize the threat many Whites feel to their racial status.

In the midst of growing ethnic and racial diversity that has reached into large swaths of the country—not only in long-term gateway regions such as California, New York, and Texas, but also states in the Mountain West and Southeast like Colorado, Georgia, and the Carolinas—Whiteness is becoming more salient to many White Americans who believe that Whites are being left behind as non-Whites are undeservedly receiving advantages from government and elites.79 More generally, historian Nell Irvin Painter argues that in the current period, what it means to be White has “fundamentally changed, from unmarked default to racially marked … from of course being beauty queen and of course being the cute young people selling things in ads to having to make space for other, nonwhite people to fill those roles.” Or as political scientist Ashley Jardina observes, “In the minds of a lot of white people … it’s about the erosion of the ability to define mainstream America as white.”80

In this context, social psychologists report empirical evidence of what they call group-status threat—that is, the perceived threat, or fear, by many Whites that they will lose their privileged and dominant position in America’s racial hierarchy. Many White Americans believe that anti-White discrimination is on the rise—a concern that according to recent research, increases with exposure to information about the growth of the racial minority share of the national population.81 Indeed, according to a study of the political meaning of Whiteness, the media narrative about changing demographics threatening Whites’ majority status is one of the factors contributing to a growing consciousness of White identity among conservative Americans.82 In another study of White identity politics, Jardina argues that the expanding non-White population, feared loss of Whites’ majority status, and increasing political and economic power of people of color in the United States have combined to bring “to the fore, for many whites, a sense of commonality, attachment, and solidarity with their racial group” as well as a “desire to protect their group’s interests.”83

Another change, though unusual, is worth noting, involving cracks in Whites’ privileged position in an affluent northern California city transformed by a huge high-skilled Asian immigrant inflow. Cupertino, a high-tech hub known for being the headquarters of Apple, saw Asian Americans go from 23 to 64 percent of the population between 1990 and 2013, and the White share from 74 to 29 percent. High academic achievement is no longer associated with Whiteness; Whiteness has come to stand for lower achievement, laziness, and academic mediocrity, while Asianness is linked with academic success, hard work, and high achievement. “If you’re really studious and you’re white, you’re called ‘Asian at heart,’ ” said one White high school student with some Asian ancestry (her paternal grandmother was Japanese). “Just like there’s the white people who act Asian, there’s the Asians who act white. They’re the Asians who party.”84 Whether this kind of downgrading of Whiteness is happening in other affluent communities where those of Asian origin are also numerically dominant, highly educated, and well-off (and where, as in Cupertino, Blacks and Latinos are virtually absent) is an open question.

In the context of today’s politics of race, an additional and quite different development has emerged: the attempt by some groups to leave the official Census category of White. After decades of being classified as White by the Bureau of the Census, Middle Eastern and Arab American advocacy groups have been pressuring, so far unsuccessfully, for the adoption of a separate Middle Eastern and North African category. Partly this is an effort to increase opportunities for government funding and gain more political clout as a minority group. Identity issues are also at play. Many Middle Eastern and Arab Americans do not see themselves as White, nor do they feel comfortable checking White on Census forms because of their skin color, identification with their home country, region of origin, or religion, and experiences with public suspicion and discrimination, especially among the many who are Muslim. “I’ve always identified as not white,” said a young woman of Iranian origin who grew up in Seattle, “and so the expectation to check off ‘white’ on forms has never felt accurate to me.”85 The White designation on the Census is seen by many people of Middle Eastern or North African descent as an inaccurate description of their groups’ position in American society. As the president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee put it a few years ago, “We’re counted as ‘white,’ but we’re not treated as ‘white.’ … We’re subjected to heightened security wherever we go. Yet we’re considered ‘white.’ That’s our problem. We are considered ‘white’ without the privileges of being ‘white.’ ”86 The desire to break away from official Whiteness thus reflects a belief by many North African and Middle Eastern Americans that unlike Whites, who continue to occupy a place at the top of the racial hierarchy, they are not really accepted as belonging there.

Looking Ahead

And so we come to the future. If the mass immigration of the past fifty years has been fundamental in transforming America’s racial order, what about changes in the decades ahead? An understanding of the changes that have occurred in the recent as well as more distant past can provide some clues about what lies ahead—and sharpen our ability to identify forces that may generate changes in racial boundaries and meanings in tomorrow’s America as well as the part that the descendants of post-1965 arrivals are likely to play. Those with recent immigrant roots are not, of course, the only ones whose experiences and trajectories will help to stimulate racial change in the future, but they almost certainly will have an outsize role, if only because they represent such a large share of the country’s minority populations.

If there is one thing we can learn from the past, it is that the way Americans think about racial differences is highly changeable. To put it somewhat differently, we cannot assume that the views about race we take for granted today will persist, or that current racial and ethnic categories will have the same meaning in the future. In looking ahead, what seems plausible is an evolution toward a more fluid racial system in which the boundaries distinguishing non-Whites and Hispanics from Whites of European descent will depend less on phenotype than they do now. Racial distinctions will not disappear, nor will prejudice and discrimination. We are not about to become a postracial society, at least in the foreseeable future. But social class will become more important than observable physical features, including skin color, in how many people are seen and treated in a range of social settings and situations. For Asian Americans and Hispanics “who possess favorable [social] characteristics, such as high-status occupations,” Alba has written, “and who interact with whites of equal status at work and in more informal settings, ethno-racial distinctions could fade into the background much of the time. This doesn’t mean that they will be entirely forgotten or that such individuals will be immune from the insults of racism.”87 But they may be accepted in many contexts in the mainstream—a term Alba uses to refer to institutions, social milieus, and cultural spheres where the dominant group, Whites in the present time, feel “at home.” For some parts of the minority population, race and ethnicity could be less about limitations and handicaps mainly imposed by the powerful majority on minority-group members, and more about identities over which they have greater control in their daily lives.88

At the same time, the growing rates of intermarriage between Whites and Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics, and the rising number of mixed-race Americans, seem destined to reduce the salience of current racial and ethnic boundaries, giving many mixed-race individuals the ability to move between racial categories, and indeed in some cases to be viewed by others as White. Perhaps we will even see the creation of altogether new racial categories along the lines of mestizos in Latin America.

A deeply troubling prospect is that Blacks will face greater exclusion than people in other racial groups—a legacy of this country’s history of African slavery, and generations of legal segregation and systematic racial oppression. The barrier dividing those with visible African ancestry from other Americans seems especially intractable, and will make it harder for their racial identity to fade into the background. Moreover, for Asian Americans and Hispanics with lower social class status (in combination with phenotypic features such as darker skin color), ethnic and racial distinctions seem bound to remain an obstacle to inclusion.

Whatever the exact course, timing, and extent of change, what mechanisms will drive it? There is no question that a lot will be different from the past. Some factors that operated in an earlier era for the descendants of southern and eastern Europeans are unlikely to recur in the near future. Even if federal policies severely reduce immigrant inflows, it is doubtful that large-scale immigration will sink to the low levels of the 1930s and 1940s, when the ending of the massive inflows from eastern and southern Europe reduced fears of old-stock Americans about the deluge of “racial inferiors,” and played a part in cultural assimilation. Nor is a huge expansion of higher education in the cards like the one facilitating upward mobility for the second generation after World War II. Jews and Italians were classified as White by the federal state in various contexts from the start—something that is not true for Black, Asian, and many Hispanic immigrants today. And in a pre–World War I era of virtual open immigration from Europe, Jewish and Italian immigrants who arrived then did not suffer from the disadvantages of undocumented status that currently affect about a quarter of the immigrant population, and have negative effects for the socioeconomic mobility of their American-born children.89

Still, there are some functional parallels with the past that may well play a role in the future. The remarkable economic prosperity of the post–World War II years may not be on the horizon today—indeed in the twenty-first-century US economy, low employment growth and rising or persistent economic inequality are worrisome prospects—but impending demographic changes will have positive effects for many in the second and third generations. The large, overwhelmingly White cohort of baby boomers born in the two decades after World War II is rapidly aging; as of 2020, they were between the ages of fifty-six and seventy-four. At the same time, a growing number of children and grandchildren of post-1965 immigrants will have college and university degrees.90 As the baby boomers exit from the labor force and leadership positions, the shrinking number of native Whites in the working-age population is bound to create opportunities for a substantial number of the descendants of the post-1965 immigrants to move up the occupational ladder at least for several decades to come, including into positions at the top tiers of the workforce. Admittedly, this mobility is likely to be less sweeping and inclusive than it was in the mid-twentieth century, if only because of much higher levels of economic inequality today; nonetheless, there is every indication that it will be significant.91 In fact already by 2015, more than 30 percent of those under the age of fifty in this country in the best-paying occupations were minorities, and a high proportion of them were Latinos or Asians of immigrant origin.92

In the past, as the children and grandchildren of southern and eastern European immigrants climbed the social and economic ladder, they increasingly mixed with those whose roots were in northern and western Europe in neighborhoods, at work, in colleges and universities, and eventually in marriage. In the process, as Alba and Nee note, “their perceived distinctiveness from the majority faded.… Intermarriage both marked the shift and accelerated it.”93 Looking ahead today, the increased interaction of non-Whites of immigrant origin with Whites on an equal basis in the very same settings may loosen racial boundaries in a similar way. So will the inevitability of their greater representation over time in prominent positions, from high-ranking political officials to media celebrities and corporate leaders.94

Intermarriage is likely to be an even more significant generator of racial change than it was in the mid-twentieth century. Whereas in the mid-twentieth century, Jews and Italians were transformed from inferior European races into White ethnics without undergoing alterations in phenotype, today when the language of color is so prominent in racial discourse, intermarriage and the blurring of pigmentation and physical differences among mixed-race offspring are often predicted to be key agents of change. “In a society characterized by increasing rates of movement, mixing, and intermarriage and by growing numbers of persons who assert their multiplicity,” sociologists Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann write, “[racial and ethnic] boundaries become difficult to maintain.” A great many of the multi- or biracials are, and will be, the product of unions involving at least one child or grandchild of immigrants.95

Already, mixed-race unions have risen sharply. About one in six marriages contracted in 2015 involved partners of a different race or ethnicity—more than twice the rate in 1980—and most involved a White person with a minority partner. Equally revealing is another statistic: a little over 10 percent of infants born in the United States in 2017 had one White and one minority parent—a figure that has been rising steadily in recent decades and, like mixed unions, is expected to continue to increase.96 We do not know how many of the children of mixed unions will identify themselves and be viewed by others as Whites, although research suggests that many will, at least some of the time, especially when it comes to those who are a combination of non-Hispanic White and Hispanic or non-Hispanic White and Asian. Much depends on physical appearance and whether a person is seen as looking like a member of the White group. A darker-skinned Pakistani American pediatrician in a mixed marriage, to give one example, writes of her three-year-old mixed-race daughter’s “privilege of choice,” being able to identify as Asian American or “easily pass for White,” given her fair skin, auburn hair, and light brown eyes that “do not even hint at her Pakistani background.”97 The opportunity to choose is key. Mixed-race individuals who “look White” may, at least in some circumstances, opt to be recognized as White, if only to reap the advantages that Whites gain from being at the top of the racial hierarchy and avoid the disadvantages associated with being seen as a minority.

For many multiracials, the shift to Whiteness, to the extent that it happens, is a multigenerational process—often a product of two generations of mixed unions given that those with White and minority backgrounds frequently marry someone who is White.98 Biracial cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams writes about his own and his daughter’s racial position in American society—his as a Black man, and his young daughter as someone who looks and is treated as White. Williams, the son of a White mother and Black father, grew up thinking of himself as Black and is generally seen this way by others; he even once argued that Blacks of mixed-race heritage have an ethical obligation to identify as Black. Meanwhile, he produced a blond-haired, blue-eyed, and extremely fair-skinned daughter with his White French wife; most people who meet his daughter, he said in a recent interview, will—and will want to—call her White. Sociologist Herbert Gans predicts that two generations from now, many of the children resulting from mixed unions will be perceived by others and counted as Whites.99

It is too early to tell how Williams’s daughter will identify—and be identified by others—when she becomes a teenager and then adult. The same goes for the three-year-old child of the Pakistani American pediatrician. Nor can we say, more generally, how extensive a trend toward Whitening will be among later generation mixes where neither partner is exclusively White but one or both have White ancestors. We need to keep in mind that the identities of mixed-race individuals, particularly those with single-race parents, are fluid and vary over time, no doubt more so than among those who are “unmixed” ethnically and racially. Many biracials identify themselves, and can appear to others, as mixed, minority, or White depending on the context and situation. At the same time, research indicates that the children of Black-White unions, with single-race Black and single-race White parents, face greater constraints in how they identify than other mixed-race Americans.100 In an interview study with interracial couples and their children, Asians and Hispanics married to Whites felt that their US-born children had the option to identify along ethnic lines or as Whites without their decisions questioned by outsiders or institutions. Not so for the children of Black-White couples. Blacks married to Whites said that their children were often seen as Black only; they emphasized that nobody would take them seriously if they tried to identify their children as White, and their children chose to identify as Black rather than as multiracial or non-Black.101

Although a recent Pew Research Center survey on multiracial Americans found that nearly the same proportion of adults with a White-Asian (70 percent) and White-Black (61 percent) background identified as mixed race or multiracial, it was a different story when it came to how they thought others saw them. Six in ten with a Black-White background said a person passing them on the street would see them as Black (only 7 percent said a stranger would see them as White), while around two-fifths of those with an Asian-White background said they would be seen as White and a quarter as Asian. Multiracial adults with a Black background were much more likely than those without one to say they had been treated unfairly by an employer or unfairly stopped by the police. Having Black ancestry also meant less involvement with White relatives and friends. Black-White biracial adults had more Black than White close friends, much more contact with Black than White family members, and felt a much greater sense of acceptance from Black people than from Whites. By comparison, biracial Asian-White adults had more close friends who were White than Asian and more contact with White than Asian family members; most said they felt very well accepted by Whites.102 One young Black-White biracial man summed up the feelings of many others like him in the survey: “No matter how I see myself, at the end of the day I’m still black.”103

The experiences of mixed-race adults, in short, underscore the continued stigma attached to African descent, and suggest that those with visible Black ancestry will continue to confront more everyday prejudice and discrimination than other multiracials, lending support to concerns about the difficulties for Blacks well into the future. Meanwhile, many more, perhaps most, of the children of White-Asian and Anglo-Hispanic unions will find it easier to assert a mixed and even at times White identity.

In good part because of these identity patterns, some scholars have challenged Census projections of the end of a White majority by the mid-twenty-first century; they argue that the Census practice of classifying people with one White parent and one from an ethnoracial minority group as not White in its public presentations of data has exaggerated the decline of the White population.104 Because many with a mixed background, especially Asian-Whites, Anglo-Hispanics, and those with one mixed-race and one White parent, are likely to present themselves as Whites at least some of the time—and because the number of mixed-race children is likely to increase in the near future—Alba predicts that the White majority in the United States will not end anytime soon. While some children with mixed origins could turn up in future Census and survey data as minority or non-White, others, he concludes, could turn up as White.105

Exactly how the future will unfold is of course hard to say. The processes of change are likely to be gradual, and involve struggles and divisions, as some groups attempt to alter existing racial boundaries and categories while others resist. Yet we can say with some certainty that the racial order will look different in forty or fifty years from the way it does now. Just as the incorporation of eastern and southern European immigrants and their descendants into mainstream American society stimulated changes in the meaning of race in the mid-twentieth century, so too the incorporation of the children and grandchildren of post-1965 immigrants will play a role in reshaping America’s racial future. A hundred years ago, Americans would never have imagined that Jews and Italians would be thought of, in racial terms, in much the same way as old-stock White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. As many in the second and third generation achieve economic and occupational success, as the number of mixed unions inevitably grows, and as unforeseen economic and political changes occur, there will no doubt be equally astonishing surprises in the years ahead.

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