Will Race Matter? Projections on America’s Racial Future

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Latoya recently alerted me to a piece in Newsweek on the changing face of race in United States. Author Ellis Cose opines in his brief but compelling piece “Red, Brown, and Blue” that, as a result of the shifting statistics of people of color vs. whites in the U.S., the nation needs to pay closer attention to what the implications of such data could be and push beyond the oversimplified assumption that this means that whites will magically become a numerical and political minority:

So what [do these statistical projections and evidence of more interracial interaction] mean for the future America? At the very least, it means two things: that whites are not in danger of becoming a minority in the foreseeable future because the white category (or its equivalent) will likely expand to encompass many we now consider to be minorities. But more important, race is not going to be quite as big a deal as it is now; in the America of tomorrow—whatever people decide to call themselves—race will not be synonymous with destiny. That’s a future worth embracing.

In recent weeks, I have covered the impact of 19th century assimilation on the present generations of Euroethnics/”white ethnics” (i.e. descendants of Italian, Irish, or Eastern European immigrants, among others) and its subsequent contemporary rejection by some subcultures in my piece “What MTV’s Jersey Shore Means for White America,” and earlier, noted the resurrection of such whitening tactics as utilized by black job seekers in light of the recession in the piece “The Melting Pot 2009: Job Applicants Choose Assimilation as Means of Economic Survival.” So after reading the Cose piece, I jumped at the chance to discuss it. Here, we have an author who, after taking statistical information about race among other data, goes on to theorize that, one day, race will not be “quite as big a deal” and “not synonymous with destiny.” Yet is his projection a bit premature?

Let’s look at some of the same statistics Cose cited to support his thesis:

1. Interracial Relationships

Cose notes the following:

A few generations back, racially mixed couples were an anomaly. But between the 1990 and 2000 census, the percentage of racially intermarried couples nearly doubled. More significantly, when Gallup’s pollsters surveyed Americans’ attitudes toward interracial relationships in 2005, the majority were accepting. Ninety-five percent of Americans under 30 approved, compared to roughly 45 percent of those over 64. Indeed, the majority of younger people claimed to have dated a person of a different race or ethnic background.

There are some things that are missing from the analysis here. First and foremost, the statistics cited are on different issues. The first bit of data is census information about the number of interracial marriages. The next is on Americans’ attitudes toward interracial relationships. The last is based on interracial dating statistics. While these issues are clearly related, they are different. Dating and marriage are not the same thing, particularly when there are continued social pressures within certain families and racial and ethnic groups that require in-group marriage for a variety of reasons, some of them personal and some of them customarily dictated as an absolute for group acceptance. Dating does not involve life commitment, a sharing of space, a convening of families, and child-rearing. It can lead to such elements of a long term relationship, but the two are not the same thing.

The other issue of course is that people often reply to surveys based on socially accepted behavioral norms or, in other words, peer pressure. Few people want to be deemed “racist,” particularly today, and thus may answer surveys accordingly, even when their reply may not reflect their true personal beliefs. Also, it’s important to note that tolerance is different from direct acceptance and  inclusion. For example, one may “accept” interracial relationships for others, but may not engage in them personally, allow their children to engage in them, or look favorably upon them when they involve close peers or family members. Simply put, behavior does not always directly correspond with attitudes expressed in surveys.

Cose also omits the trends that occur within said statistics. For example, when you survey interracial relationship and marriage data, there are specific groups that tend to marry and/or date interracially more than others and a variety of repetitive coupling (i.e. white male, Asian-American/Asian female; black male, white female; white male, Latina/Hispanic female. The last category is problematic in that Latin@s can be classified in multiple racial groups, as it is an ethnicity, i.e. you can be black or white and Latina at the same time; the two are not mutually exclusive). It’s never a good idea to analyze these sorts of statistics as if they are not weighted on their own. We do not live in a vacuum, after all. What do the trends within such data actually mean? Will they, too, lend themselves to the way we think about race in the future? What will that mean for the interracial couples that are comprised of other racial groups or that fall outside of the trend set?

Lastly, I think it’s also incredibly important to note that interracial relationships are not necessary markers that race will one day be of no importance. Race may still matter, just in different ways, one of them being that certain racial groups may still be marred by stereotypes and exclusion, despite interracial unions. As I noted in a previous post on racial privilege in Brazil and as author Edward E. Telles covers extensively in Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil, interracial relationships serve as little indication of a nation’s race-related progress, and in fact, can play a role in surpressing it. Much of the pro-miscegenation theory that was espoused by Gilberto Freyre, famous Brazilian scholar and father of the “racial democracy” ideology, in the 1930s was later used during the dictatorship period to deny that racism existed at all, despite its direct effect on certain populations. It was also used to support interracial unions for the sake of whitening. To this day, some Brazilian interracial couples, in which one or both of the partners have black ancestry, still jokingly note that they pray their child doesn’t come out black. So while the presence of interracial relationships, on the one hand, can be a positive thing, they certainly do not carry the ability to rid a nation or racism or to diminish the role of race, and I find it foolish to put all the expectations of racial salvations on a nation’s interracial couples.

Cose also mentions the presence of increased interracial interaction, particularly among America’s younger population. But as many people may know all too well, having friends who are racially and/or ethnically different from you does not necessarily increase one’s full acceptance or understanding of the other group. Did the peers of my predominately white school learn more about black people from interacting with me and, say, their black domestic workers and their families? Sure. But how much of that was retained, and most importantly, what of these lessons were processed beyond the aspect of tokenism? How many times do people bring up their friends of x-race or x-ethnicity in order to defend their own racism toward or stereotypes of other groups? All too often.

2. Assimilation

I think Cose’s commentary on assimilation and the political whitening of groups that are presently deemed beyond the black/white paradigm of race relations is interesting. Cose reminds readers that the chance that, one day, whites will be a numerical or political minority is slim, particularly as whiteness is an ever-expanding category. Race in itself is mutable, but whiteness, in comparison to say, blackness, in the States, has seen far more shifts in a very short period. Based on legislation and changing social norms, phenotype and country of origin have been abandoned as the sole determinants of race in the United States, and according to Cose, may continue to change with time.

Yet in the same article, Cose notes that one day race may be of less importance. This seems antithetical considering that those who are left outside of the category of whiteness as it continues to grow may be at risk for continued exclusion from resources and social recognition as equals. Cose also ignores the possibility that as other presently non-white ethnic groups enter into whiteness, that the resentment between whites and non-whites may increase.

Author Stanley A. Bailey, in his recent work on race in Brazil, Legacies of Race: Identities, Attitudes, and Politics in Brazil, includes information about the formation of race-related attitudes in the United States before he delves into the situation in South America. He notes the following about the emergence of social attitudes on blacks in America:

Four main attitudinal stances of whites toward blacks stem from symbolic racism: 1) Blacks are no longer especially handicapped by racial discrimination; and 2) they still do not conform to traditional American values; however, 3) they continue to make illegitimate demands for special treatment; and 4) they continue to receive special treatment from government and other elites. Rather than bigoted beliefs expressed openly as in the Jim Crow era, the current manifestation of racism is opposition to implementing equality. This is justified through the view that blacks now want special treatment rather than equal treatment (Bailey, 17).

Some of the comments on Cose’s piece are direct example of this way of thinking. A raceless society is the goal, one commenter says, but clearly people of color, with their demands and problems, are holding America back. The commenter notes:

• Posted By: AmericanMutt_013 @ 01/02/2010 11:47:32 PM
I am sick an tired of people claiming to be Americans trying to put themselves into a special interest group to get something for nothing. I am sick and tired of these spineless politicians catering to these lazy self-serving people in order to stay in office. I could go on and on but I will not at this point but let me say this very clearly. EITHER YOU ARE AN AMERICAN OR NOT – IF NOT, GET THE HELL OUT OF AMERICA AND GO BACK TO WHEREVER YOU CLAIM TO HAVE COME FROM!!! The ONLY people within the USA who have the right to distriguish themsleves from other Americans are the Native Americans, Native Alaskans and Native Islanders as they where truly here first!!! So blacks, get over it, the Civil War ended in 1865 and the blacks then were given freedom and the choice to stay in America or be return to Africa. Live with it, I wasn’t born for another 100+ years and I don’t owe you anything!! Latino, Irish, Chinese, Japanese or whomever else, your ancestors (or you) came here to become Americans. EVERYONE needs to except the fact that you are AMERICANS FIRST and whatever else last!!

We need to get rid of those damn boxes that try to make a person choose an identity becuase it really doesn’t matter. As the article stated, inter-racial dating, marriages, and births are continually on the rise. The only thing that matters is very simple. AMERICAN CITIZEN – YES OR NO. I really don’t care what color you are, where your parents came from, or anything else. What I care about is are you a hard-working self-sufficient product member of my country trying to make it on his/her own just as I have had to do. [author’s note: quotation was left in its original form]

The concept of comparing U.S.-born blacks to other immigrant groups (citing U.S.-born blacks as the failed group) is a regurgitation of this idea. I can only imagine this situation would grow worse as once-oppressed non-white groups climb closer and closer to white in-group acceptance and/or the envelope of whiteness is opened to include other groups, unfortunately sometimes at the expense of blacks.

3. Shifting Census Categories

While I don’t think the opening of census categories necessarily means that one day, race will not matter in America, I do agree with Cose that it’s a step in the right direction, and clearly a change in the way we think about race. It is important for people to be able to acknowledge all parts of their racial and/or ethnic background should they so choose. Having a mono-racial understanding of race is problematic because it denies the parentage and heritage of a great deal of the nation’s citizens, in addition to being far too simple. The “one-drop” approach to race that has been taken in the U.S., albeit often harnessed for political reasons for non-white groups, is outdated and was created on the basis of racist claims about black inferiority in order to legitimize further oppression of blacks and continued literal and figurative separation between blacks and other groups. Of course, should groups seek to retain their monoraciality, if you will, they have that right and may choose to express themselves in such a way on the census.

The task of predicting America’s racial future is tricky. As many other countries have taken different routes when it comes to thinking about, legislating, and even dictating race or lack thereof, America has come to a crossroads. While the survival of certain groups may hinge on retaining the categories at present, there may be more to gain by expanding our thinking to include multiple racial backgrounds as a part of our American selves. Is nationhood the answer to our race problem, as the commenter above, despite eloquence, advocates? Perhaps. Though it has not been of service to many Latin American countries that, despite its citizens being draped in the flag of their respective countries, still suffer from glaring economic and social inequality based on its colonial racial divisions. It has not helped France, a nation that, despite not recording racial data, suffers from significant racial and religion-based tension and resource inequality. But drawing clear racial lines hasn’t helped us either, nor has it aided countries like South Africa. Is there an answer to the way we think about race so that we acknowledge it without erasing it altogether, and somehow avoid using it for the sake of division?