the racial blinders of assimilation theory

The following is a guest post by José Itzigsohn.

I was recently reminded of the racial blinders of assimilation theory while reading an article by Richard Alba, Morris Levy, and Dowel Myers published in The Atlantic. The article is titled “The Myth of a Majority-Minority America”. The article argues that the “narrative that nonwhite people will soon outnumber white people is not only divisive, but also false.” I find the authors’ argument problematic and revealing of the racial unconscious (or not so unconscious) of assimilation theory.

Why is the article’s argument problematic? Let’s start with the claim that the minority-majority is empirically false. The article points out that there is a rise in interracial marriages and that most of these marriages are with a White partner. The authors further argue that racially mixed people are the fastest growing group in the United States and that many youngsters in this group have fluid identities and consider themselves to be both White and a member of a minority group. They also add that Latinx are already a racially mixed group and that many Latinx people identify as White. Those are accepted empirical facts, no problem there. The problem is with the implications the authors derive from these facts.

The authors argue that “Speculating about whether America will have a white majority by the mid-21st century makes little sense, because the social meanings of white and nonwhite are rapidly shifting. The sharp distinction between these categories will apply to many fewer Americans.” The authors further argue that the children of racially mixed families tend to “start life in more economically favorable situations than most minority groups, are typically raised in largely white communities, have above-average educational outcomes and adulthood incomes, and frequently marry white people.” But the two phenomena that the authors are referring to—the presence of racially mixed people and of colorism (the fact that lighter skin members of racialized groups tend to do better socioeconomically than darker skin members)—are not new in American life. This is something that the authors themselves recognize. They point out that “children with Black and white parents face greater social exclusion and more formidable obstacles to upward mobility. But their social experiences are more integrated than those Black Americans who identify as monoracial.” Why is becoming White, or partially White and mixing with White people, the measure of successful belonging? The authors don’t address this issue, they avoid dealing with the historical pervasiveness and poignancy of the color line.

Indeed, the authors further assert that America has already been here at the turn of the former century. At that point White Americans feared the growing presence of Southern and Eastern Europeans but the children of those immigrants eventually assimilated into the mainstream. This is true, but precisely my point is that at the turn of the century, and today, assimilation works along racial lines. Those that could assimilate were those that could claim Whiteness for themselves. That is the racial unconscious of assimilation theory. The authors of the Atlantic article are right in arguing that the rise a minority-majority society is not a given but an empirical question. But that question is not the main or most important issue when thinking about addressing inequality and exclusion in American society. How to dismantle structural and institutional racism is the central question for those who want to address group boundaries and inequalities in the United States, and the authors have nothing to say about this.

This lead us to address their second claim, the argument that the minority-majority argument is divisive. The authors argue that this narrative “bolstered white anxiety and resentment of supposedly ascendant minority groups and has turned people against democratic institutions that many conservative white Americans and politicians consider complicit in illegitimate minority empowerment.” Instead, they argue, the mixed-race future narrative that they propose generates much less anxiety and generates optimistic answers in all groups (Whites and minority groups alike). The problem with this argument is that it takes the fears and concerns of White-Americans as normative. The White reaction to the minority-majority narrative represents what Herbert Blumer described as the sense of group position. The mixed-race narrative seems to be less threatening to that sense of group position. But the point is that the minority-majority narrative is divisive only from the perspective of the White sense of group position.

The authors further assert that “discussions of demographic change must not fuel complacency about the unequal opportunities that minority groups, especially Black Americans, continue to face.” But this seems a secondary concern in their celebratory analysis of assimilatory trends. Furthermore, it is not clear how they expect to raise those issues in the public sphere without generating the same White backlash that they so much want to avoid. Many decades ago, in the early 1940s, Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole, two early proponents of assimilation theory, pointed out that only a radical political change in the mainstream would lead to racial equality and the possibility of assimilation for Blacks and Puerto Ricans. The Civil Rights Movement was such a (partial) revolution; it indented the color line, but it did not eliminate it. Warner and Srole were assimilation theorists, nevertheless, they understood that undoing the color line required and requires collective action. There is no hint of the need for collective action in the article or in the work of new assimilation theorists. On the contrary, their emphasis is on appeasing White anxiety (and on this issue one can’t avoid thinking about Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail).

The authors’ concern with White attitudes, however, does point to a real political issue. Major institutional and legal changes in the racial order in the United States happened at historical moments in which the White hegemonic block fractured, and important segments of the White population supported reforms for racial equality. This happened during the Civil War and again at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. How to build a multiracial coalition for racial justice that includes parts of the White population remains a difficult task. This issue was raised recently by Ian Haney-Lopez, who argues that racial justice narratives are rejected by Whites and are not really embraced by minorities. Instead, what he describes as race-class narratives—narratives that point out that racism separate us and benefit a small group of rich people and that instead all racial and ethnic groups ought to unite to improve everyone lives—are more widely embraced by Whites and racialized groups alike (incidentally, a radical version of this argument is what Fred Hampton advocated for and paid with his life for it).

But is this multiracial class organizing that calls on working people to fight racism to improve the living conditions of everyone what the authors of the article advocate? Certainly not. They argue that demographic processes—mainly intermarriage—will lead to the emergence of a large mixed-race population that will identify both as White and as minority, blurring boundaries and leading to a convergence in the socioeconomic conditions of different groups. But demographic or socioeconomic trends devoid of collective action and political change didn’t undo racism in the past and will not undo it in the present. Furthermore, it is collective action that weaken the color line and allowed for the rise of intermarriage and not the other way around

Omi and Winant pointed long ago, and W. E. B. Du Bois before them, that the color line is a social and political construction, reflecting different racial projects and different historical power relations. The color line has changed historically in contradictory ways. The Civil War and emancipation were followed by Jim Crow in the south and other forms of segregation in the north; the Civil Rights Movement was followed by the rise of the mass-incarceration state. More recently the Obama presidency was followed by the Trump presidency and the rise of White nationalism. The point is that the color line has shifted historically as a result of collective action, but it has not disappeared and still is a key structure affecting life opportunities, institutional encounters, and lived experiences in the United States.

It is clear that assimilation has historically worked and is presently working for some groups—those that have been able to claim Whiteness or closeness to Whiteness. Furthermore, it is also clear that most Americans, regardless of race, believe in the American dream and want to be part of the “middle class.” The point is that not all Americans can participate equally in American life and in the American economy and that the reason for that is the color line—or, in other words, structural and institutional racism.

This point holds even if we look at Asian Americans, the group that is usually considered by proponents of assimilation theory as a successful case of structural assimilation (and also of intermarriage). For all their socioeconomic and educational advancement, Asian Americans are still perceived as perennial foreigners and subject to racial violence, and they also encounter limits to their entry to the top of the class structure, as Margaret Chin’s book Stuck shows.

The article’s description of the emergence of a mixed-race population that identifies both as White and minority is in fact rather similar to what Eduardo Bonilla Silva’s describes as the emergence of a tri-racial system. But whereas Bonilla-Silva accurately describes this process as a rearrangement of group positions within an established racialized social system, the authors of the article celebrate it as assimilation and boundary blurring. The authors of the Atlantic article want us to believe that intermarriage will lead us to a mixed-race future and the blurring of group boundaries. But the historical presence of racially mixed people and colorism in the United States, the experience of previous waves of immigration, and the history of mestizaje in Latin America, all show that racial mixing does not eliminate racism and the color line. Assimilation into Whiteness or into a mixed-race identity is not the answer to racism and racial inequality.

To undo racial inequalities, it is necessary to dismantle structural and institutional racism (which, among other things, requires the deconstruction of Whiteness as the cultural norm that organizes American society). As Du Bois’ sociology teaches us, that requires collective action and also empirical research about how to build alternative institutions, institutions that would recognize the humanity of every person. How to do that remains the main question for those who are concerned with equality and justice. As sociologists, we can embrace the current Du Boisian moment and choose to contribute to the production of critical knowledge oriented to help dismantling structural and institutional racism, or we can embrace assimilation theory and help legitimize and celebrate the existing racial status quo. Dear sociologist (and social scientist), the choice is yours.

José Itzigsohn is Professor of Sociology at Brown University.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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