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Most of us agree that the notion of “race” is a human creation, with no basis in genetics or biology. Still, what people take to be race continues to determine attitudes and prejudices. This isn’t simply a residue of the past that is too ingrained to be willed away. Maintaining the idea of race serves many political purposes. So even if racial classifications don’t have a genetic basis—Glenn Loury calls them “taken-for-granted social meanings”—references to the black and white races are part of the American language and have obvious effects on people’s lives.

I find it useful for purposes of analysis to start from the premise that America has only two races, consisting of persons of European and of African origins. As can be seen in Table B, people of the two races now make up 81.1 percent of the population, down from 94.2 percent a generation ago. Among those who call themselves white, most still feel able to point to a single ancestral country, like Italy or Poland or Greece. However, 26,508,073 now say their background is too mixed to be represented by any single country. And while 33,707,230 persons said they were simply black, it is revealing that only 784,765 others told the Census that they were also partly white—which in fact virtually all black Americans can truthfully say.

After inquiring whether respondents are black or white, the Census stops asking about colors, although the remaining 18.9 percent of Americans make up the fastest-growing group in the US. It asks people whether they are Latino or Hispanic, terms that are used interchangeably, and, in 2000, a total of 35,238,481 said they were. When asked to identify themselves as a member of a race, 47.8 percent wanted to be called white, and 42.5 percent indicated no racial affiliation. Indeed, to be Hispanic is to be a member not of a race but simply of a dem-ographic category including black Dominicans, white Argentineans, and persons of mixed racial backgrounds.

Those who are called Asian are also much too varied to be called a single race. Among those who identify themselves solely as Asian, according to the Census, are 2,432,585 persons of Chinese origin and 1,076,872 Koreans, as well as 153,533 Pakistanis and 20,145 Sri Lankans. Like Hispanics, this is also a category created by the Census for demographic convenience.

The 2,423,531 persons who call themselves American Indians prefer to be known by their tribes. The Census offers a long list from which to choose, so we are told that there are 281,069 Cherokees, 105,907 Chippewas, and 10,120 Comanches. The Census also found 1,022,092 Arab-Americans, as well as 151,006 Guyanese, and 71,816 Cape Verdeans. Virtually none of these individuals wanted to be designated a member of a race, any more than do the Indians, Hispanics, and Asians. Apparently they find it prudent to remain on the racial sidelines.

2.

Among books that consider race in America, it’s almost as if that status applies only to blacks; whites are often characterized by their religion and by their various countries of origin. Richard Alba and Victor Nee do much to dispel this emphasis in their Remaking the American Mainstream, a humane and imaginative book which combines social analysis with historical understanding. They examine how different groups have increasingly come to share a common culture, a melding that now happens at a faster pace than it ever has in the past. Not the least reason is that even immigrants from the other side of the globe arrive here already familiar with American ways. (Note how quickly taxi drivers from Nigeria and Bangladesh grasp the folkways of Dallas and Kansas City.) The authors call this mainstream “Anglo-American,” which is itself instructive, since it is the phrase Alexis de Tocqueville used 170 years ago. And they feel it remains appropriate, even if only one in eight Americans admits to forebears who were English, Scottish, or Welsh.

This common culture has absorbed Chinese cuisine, Jewish humor, music derived from Africa, and a steady flow of other consumer goods and items of popular entertainment. But even more striking is the number of nationalities the common American culture has erased. For example, the largest immigrant group in the US came from Germany. Yet today it is hard to identify its impact on the larger society, or to what extent its culture endures in its descendants. Alba and Nee show how intermarriage, mobility, and new middle-class careers have created third or later generations in which ethnic distinctions are largely erased. If you walk through the suburbs of Minneapolis or Denver, you will largely see post-ethnic Americans who have a variety of surnames but are best described simply as white (and American).6

In the same vein, many non-Europeans are now designated as white. Indeed, in 2001, the Census quietly decided to classify people from North Africa and the Middle East as such, giving Egyptians and Lebanese the option of calling themselves white if they wanted to. And today, few object when Hispanics also say they are white, as almost half of them do. My own observations suggest that such people increasingly qualify as white if they speak fluent English and show a readiness to adapt to Anglo-American ways, which most non-Europeans are willing to do. That does not mean, for example, that English-speaking Hispanics are accepted as social equals in many parts of the US. But the proportion who marry whites of European origin—about one third—is growing. White America may see itself as needing new recruits, if only because the fertility of white Americans is at an all-time low. Last year, they provided only 57.3 percent of the nation’s births. So it is worth asking which other ethnic groups will soon be characterized as white.

A good clue, Alba and Nee say, is the “ready acceptance of intermarriage between whites and Asian Americans.” They note that 61 percent of men of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese ancestry marry non-Asians, almost entirely whites, while for women the figure is 66 percent. Moreover, Asians can move almost anywhere they like. In Los Angeles, the typical Chinese-American family lives in a Census tract where only 14 percent of their neighbors are also Chinese. This absorption leads the authors to see “a break with the conventional equation of the mainstream with white America.” I would interpret the evidence differently. The term “yellow” has been allowed to disappear. As a result, those who used to be described as such will in time be perceived as white. No longer labeled “Oriental,” many take Anglo-American first names, and most speak flawless English. When they run into prejudice, it may be because they do so well, whether in school or in business.

Still, Alba and Nee write, while many “immigrant minorities approach residential parity with whites,…that is not true for socioeconomically successful African Americans.” Even middle-class black professionals “are more likely to reside in areas where their own group is in the majority and white neighbors are rare.”7 In all, Remaking the American Mainstream confirms that America’s basic division remains sharply drawn, between black and white. In the eyes of the larger society, children born of a white and a black parent are seen as, and called, black. Regardless of proposals for a “mixed race” category, there are few attempts to use it, since even a fractional black origin is considered enough to be the overriding component of a person’s identity.8

3.

If Peter Schuck wants us all to be “judged as individuals,” it remains to ask how that judgment should be made. If the influence of parentage is to be ignored, as it in fact is not, the standard usually invoked is “merit,” which in educational admissions usually means a superior record in school and on tests. (Ivy League schools claim that they expect athletes to meet the same standards as their more sedentary classmates.) Thus the majority in the University of Michigan’s undergraduate college case and the dissenters in the Michigan Law School case objected that whites with higher scores were turned down, while blacks who ranked lower were admitted. The measures they cite are the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Each yields a three-digit number, denoting where one stands among all those who took the tests.

Test results have become the chief criterion of merit for obvious reasons. Owing to grade inflation, transcripts are untrustworthy. A single test also sorts out students from more and less demanding schools. Letters of recommendation are generally effusive, and essays have often been polished with help from parents. Hence the conclusion that the most objective measures of merit are provided by multiple-choice, machine-graded, standardized tests. From this follows the view that those who can’t succeed at such tests should not be admitted on the basis of other criteria.

The problem is that, thus far, relatively few black students have excelled in these tests. Sandra Day O’Connor concluded the Court’s Grutter decision with the hope that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” Clarence Thomas apparently agreed, since he opened his dissent by affirming that “blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life.” Yet, later in his opinion, after reviewing LSAT scores over a span of years, he had to admit that he saw no “evidence that the gap in credentials between black and white students is shrinking.” Each year, he pointed out, about 11 percent of whites have scores in the test’s highest category, while only 1 percent of blacks do. Nor was he optimistic that this gulf would narrow in the decades ahead.

A perennial question concerns the respective roles of class and race in achieving success in education and in employment. When it comes to economic advantage, SAT figures show a close connection between students’ scores and their family’s income. Nor is this surprising, since having money opens the way to better schools with superior preparatory programs. But the racial imbalance is even more pronounced than white economic advantages would suggest. As Table C shows, within identical income brackets, black students have discernibly lower scores than their white counterparts. Indeed, those whose parents make $80,000 to $100,000 have lower average scores than whites in the $20,000 to $30,000 bracket. It seems fair to assume that black families in the higher range send their children to reasonably good schools.9 So apparently even economic progress may not lead to parity in academic performance, at least as measured by standardized tests.

There are several reasons for this result, but at the center is the racial isolation described by Richard Alba and Victor Nee. Black Americans at all economic levels spend more of their lives among themselves than members of most other minority groups do. Even those with middle-class jobs tend to live in neighborhoods where they are surrounded by members of their own race. The few who are in integrated schools still tend to see more of their black friends and their families, both of whom may reinforce cultural and intellectual styles that put them at a disadvantage in competition with whites.

It is true that professional parents may succeed by adapting to white ways at their places of work. Yet even their children may absorb modes of perception and expression that are barriers to mastering the multiple-choice format and the approach to knowledge on which it is based. So long as sharp racial separations persist, and examinations like the ones now used continue to be crucial for admissions, some kinds of preferential programs will be required if our nation’s most visible race is to have more than a token presence on the nation’s campuses.

  1. 6

    See David Hollinger: “Many middle-class Americans of European descent can now be said to be postethnic”; in Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (BasicBooks, 1995), p. 129.

  2. 7

    John Skrentny cites studies finding that “even greater percentages of Latinos and Asians than Euro-Americans wished to live in neighborhoods with no blacks at all.” See The Minority Rights Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 345.

  3. 8

    Through 1910, the Census had a “mulatto” subcategory; persons placed in it, however, were still classified as “Negro.” See Renee C. Romano, Race Mixing: Black–White Marriage in Postwar America (Harvard University Press, 2003).

  4. 9

    See John Ogbu, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003). In California, 84.7 percent of black children attend schools with predominantly minority enrollments. Michigan’s figure is 82.3 percent, and it is 86.2 percent in New York. See Gary Orfield, Schools More Separate (Civil Rights Project, Harvard University, 2001).

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