Racism Reality Check

Race Remixed?

Update July 2013: In the wake of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman verdict, revisited this Race Remixed post from March 2011, one of my very first blog posts. Strangely, many people seem unaware that since at least the 1980 US Census there is a mandatory yes/no question on Hispanic origin as well as a separate and mandatory question about race. But if you want to get really depressed about how dumb and confused people are about racial assignments–and apparently have not read their own Census forms for 30 years or so–just do a little Twitter search on “White Hispanic…” My thanks to Chris Escalante for the tweet update and his Twitter campaign–over 26 million people identify on the US Census as White Hispanic.

Take a look at the 2010 US Census form (the Hispanic yes/no and separate race check-boxes are unchanged from 2000). And yes, while President Obama could have checked both white and black–this has been allowed since 2000–he chose to remain within the traditional US framework of hypodescent. While such categories affirm that both race and ethnicity are social constructions, mocking and misunderstanding the social construction of race is still a huge boon for conservative politics.

The original post questioned the New York Times Race Remixed series, challenging the popular notions that race is becoming more fluid. I specifically looked at the Hispanic-White and Hispanic-Black census categories and a possibly bifurcating white/black identity within those labeled Hispanic. Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s notion of “probationary whites” (2003:151) anticipates recent commentary like Is George Zimmerman white or Hispanic? That depends–“The genius of white supremacy is in its elasticity: It can expand to include the not-quite-right, the off-whites, when necessary, and then otherize and eject us when convenient.”

See White-Race Problems: White Hispanic, White Black, Geraldo Rivera for a current update and below for the full 2011 analysis.

The 2000 US Census was the first in modern times allowing respondents to check off more than one box for the mandatory race question. In 2010, the number of people checking more than one box grew enormously. At the New York Times, Susan Saulny launched a series called Race Remixed to investigate “the growing number of mixed-race Americans.”

This post uses the census numbers from Race Remixed to do a reality check. There may be some interesting things going on with regard to personal attitudes about racial identification, but in terms of how race really matters–economic and political inequalities, or structural racism–the trends look more like retrenchment.

Race and racism in the U.S. today is best seen through economic and political inequalities. The average white household holds over twenty times the wealth of the average black household. This gap has been growing, as reported in The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap (February 2013), and see Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine.

Moreover, despite Barack Obama, black political power is extremely limited:

Today, as throughout American history, few blacks occupy the highest echelons of our elective politics. The many hundreds of state governors in our history include only four African-Americans. . . .

Around 2,000 men and women have served in the Senate since the ratification of the Constitution 222 years ago, but only six have been African-American . . .

The all-but-total absence of other blacks in the highest offices today underscores both Obama’s singular achievement and how far we remain from a postracial politics. (Foner 2011, Today’s Color Line)

This economic-political inequality is expressed in geography, which leads to schools nearly as segregated as they were before Brown v. Board-of-Education in 1954 (see Bob Herbert’s Separate and Unequal). Health disparities also glaringly express inequality, detailed in a fabulous 2009 article by Clarence Gravlee How Race Becomes Biology (see section on Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied).

Given these present inequalities–which by some measures are increasing, not decreasing–I don’t find it very interesting that “many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity,” the subject of Saulny’s launch article Race Remixed: Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above.

Personal feelings about race and identity could influence economic-political inequality, but it will not be automatic. There are already a lot of white people who say “race doesn’t matter anymore.” They are often the same people who ask “why do all the black people sit together?” or complain about affirmative action and “reverse racism.” Statements of “race doesn’t matter anymore” or rejecting color lines often are claims to a more enlightened-progressive state, better than benighted previous generations, or people of color, who are tagged as “more racist.” Saulny does briefly mention the “pessimists” who think the emphasis on mixing might “lead to more stratification.” She also writes “it is telling that the rates of intermarriage are lowest between blacks and whites, indicative of the enduring economic and social distance between them.” Still, the vast bulk of the article is about new multiracial college students celebrating mixture.

The second article in Race Remixed, Black and White and Married in the Deep South is more interesting. It is certainly worth investigating the rise of black-white marriages in places like Mississippi, where such unions were illegal 50 years ago, and where “a black man could face mortal danger just being seen with a woman of another race.” This is not to say southern states are “more racist” than northern states, which still boast the most segregated cities in the United States. Northern states have usually been able to get by on economic-geographic segregation instead of explicit legal sanction or lethal violence, although there has been plenty of legal sanction and lethal violence in northern states (see A Dream Still Deferred on Detroit). In any case, it is difficult to tell what is going on in Mississippi–is there really an increase, or are people just checking off different boxes in 2010 than they did in 2000?

The question remains as to whether inter-racial marriages can alter the structure of economic and political inequality. On this question, the graphic of Race Remixed: Who is Marrying Whom is very enlightening. The numbers hint at three points I elaborate below: first, white people and the white-black household wealth gap are not going away; second, the “Hispanic” category shows signs of bifurcating into white and black; third, Asian-Americans have more securely become “probationary whites”:

What matters here is how the changing construction of whiteness intersects with the maintenance of a white/black divide that structures all race relations in the United States. Whether significant numbers of the people now called Latinos or Asian Americans–or the significant numbers of their known “mixed” offspring with whites–will become probationary whites and thus reinforce the structure is an important indicator of the future of race relations in the United States. (Trouillot 2003:151, Global Transformations)

White People are Not Going Away–No Race Remixed Here!

In 2009, approximately 95% of white people married each other, a figure that rises to 97% if “Hispanic (white)” is included. About five whites out of every thousand married a black person, or about 0.5%. That’s not going to change the wealth gap. Indeed, I suspect the numbers of white-black intermarriages decrease as one moves up the class ladder, but the overall number is so miniscule that further tracking is unnecessary.

There is certainly more white-black intermixture than registered by official marriage numbers. As Census Data Presents Rise in Multiracial Population of Youths reveals, the most common multi-racial combination chosen is white-and-black. This may simply be recognizing a long history of intermixture: “America already has almost 400 years of race mixing behind it, beginning with that first slave ship that sailed into Jamestown harbor carrying slaves who were already pregnant by members of the crew” (Brent Staples, 1999, The Real American Love Story). However, mixing has not altered overall white-black disparities. White people, white privilege, white-black wealth gap: no reason from the 2010 numbers to believe there will be much change.

“Hispanic” Bifurcates into White and Black, or Hispanics do not automatically result in Race Remixed

One of the most curious parts of the US Census is how since at least 1980, everyone in the United States is asked both the “Hispanic” yes-or-no question AND the race question, regardless of the Hispanic answer. Delving into the intricacies of the Hispanic category and race in the Americas could be a whole blog-post or book, but suffice it to say for many people in the U.S., the Hispanic label–or Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban–was seen as basically a race category. Is this changing?

Interestingly, people who identify as “Hispanic (white)” seem to be mostly marrying other Hispanic-white, at about an 80% rate, but also marrying whites, at about 16-19%, with Hispanic-white women at the high end of those numbers. Interestingly, Hispanic-whites do not seem to be marrying “Hispanic (black)”: at around 0.3%, it’s less than the percentage of whites marrying blacks, and half the percentage of Hispanic-whites marrying Asians. For “Hispanic (black)” we see about 48% marrying other Hispanic-black, with about 25% marrying blacks.

It seems at least some Hispanic-whites are becoming probationary whites, while at least some Hispanic-blacks are becoming black. However, it is difficult to tell. Far more people identify as Hispanic-white than identify as Hispanic-black. The “Hispanic” category will probably continue to be ambiguous, although there is evidence of a bifurcation that will reinforce the white-black divide.

Asian-Americans Become Probationary Whites: Not Race Remixed

Another oddity of the US Census is how certain Asian nationalities get specific race-box categories, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The Race-Remixed charts reconfigure these boxes as “Asian,” and it is the one category with decreasing inter-racial marriages. It is hazardous to generalize, but probably increased immigration, along with perhaps less-felt pressure for marrying into the white population, is leading to the decrease in inter-racial marriages for Asian-Americans. They are decidedly not marrying blacks or Hispanics–with the exception of a tiny percentage of Asian women, the numbers of Asians marrying blacks or Hispanics is even less than white marriages to blacks or Hispanics.

This suggests Asian-Americans have become more secure as probationary whites: provisionally accepted as model citizens, but perhaps not considered really-or-fully American. Having a visibly-different yet successful “minority” turns out to be enormously convenient for racist narratives: Asian-Americans either prove it is all about the right “values” (culturalized racism) or superior IQ (biological racism now updated to include Asians in the superior category). To see this racist narrative in action, look at the comment stream for Herbert’s Separate and Unequal or the Japan-Haiti comparison in Anthropologists and stereotypes about Libya and Japan, or the backlash I received from writing Race IQ – Game Over.

Moral Optimism–But without Liberal Naiveté of Race Remixed

In terms of shifting power dynamics, a more interesting piece is Many U.S. Blacks Moving to South, Reversing Trend, an article that does not appear in the Race Remixed series. This trend seems to have potential for change–will it deconcentrate poverty and revitalize southern black communities? Will it lead to different political configurations? Or is this about deindustrialization, the disappearance of Detroit, and secondhand suburbs?

The moral optimism of anthropology tells us things can be different, that a more just and equitable future is possible. However, it is going to take a lot of political will, as well as the recognition that race mixing will not solve problems all by itself. The numbers and trends indicate there is realistically more possibility of race retrenchment than of seriously addressing issues of economic-political inequality. It also seems the mood has shifted from ignoring or denying these inequalities to outright attacks on people who try to address them.

Things can be different, but we have a long way to go. “Race Remixed” won’t do it for us.

Updates: After commenting on the original articles in the series, others appeared. From January 2012, Race Remixed: For Many Latinos, Racial Identity Is More Culture Than Color. However, beyond the article headline is additional evidence for a Latino white/black bifurcation, as discussed above.

From October 2011, Race Remixed: In Strangers’ Glances at Family, Tensions Linger. But it’s the same stuff–the claim that mixed-race is a rapidly growing category; the idea that this will by itself transform society; the almost complete focus on personal comments and narratives rather than economic and political inequalities. One sociology professor manages to get in a few words about inequality: “Jenifer L. Bratter, an associate sociology professor at Rice University who has studied multiracialism, said that as long as race continued to affect where people live, how much money they make and how they are treated, then multiracial families would be met with double-takes. ‘Unless we solve those issues of inequality in other areas, interracial families are going to be questioned about why they’d cross that line,’ she said.”

All of the analysis above still applies to this series. Saulny’s own census numbers suggest race remixed is a fiction.

For an August 2012 update on how this has developed, see Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine.


To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Race Remixed? Probationary Whites and a Racism Reality Check.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/race-remixed/. First posted 28 March 2011. Revised 5 September 2017.

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