Is America's color line changing? Is the black/white divide disappearing? Those are among the questions addressed by Prof. Jennifer Lee in an April 12 program sponsored by the Division of United States Studies. Immigration to the United States has made American society increasingly diverse. Drawing on Census Bureau figures and her own research, Prof. Lee suggested that a combination of immigration and intermarriage has created a large number of self-identified multiracial Americans who feel free to define their own racial categories in a way that is new to this country.

In 2002, the number of foreign-born people living in the United States exceeded 34.2 million, with the size of the U.S.-born second generation about 31.5 million, so that immigrants and their children accounted for almost 66 million people, or about 23% of the U.S. population. Today's immigrants are mainly non-European, and by the year 2050, the country's Latino and Asian populations are expected to triple to about 25% and 8% of the U.S. population, respectively. The United States, once a largely biracial society with a dominant white majority, a relatively small black minority and a relatively impenetrable color line, is now a society composed of multiple racial and ethnic groups.

Lee examined the future of racial divisions in the U.S. on the basis of these numbers and the increasing rate of interracial marriage. Intermarriage has risen steadily since the Supreme Court outlawed anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia in 1967 and now accounts for ten times as many unions as it did in 1960. The increase, however, is not uniform across racial lines, and Lee's findings show that African Americans between 25 and 34 are far less likely to marry whites than are native-born Asians or Latinos in the same age range (12% as opposed to 40% and 75% respectively). This indicates, she suggested, that as they have become assimilated into American society, Asians and Latinos have become more attractive to whites in a way that blacks have not. The barriers to entry to the privileged class remain higher for blacks than for Asians or Latinos; the fact that marriageability remains differentiated by race serves as an indicator of other impediments to incorporation that are more significant for blacks.

Intermarriage results in multiracial children, and the 2000 Census reported that one out of every forty, or 6.8 million Americans, identify as multiracial. If current trends continue, that could become as many as one in five Americans by 2050. Multiracial self-identification is not correlated only with racial background. Children with one white and one Asian or Latino parent, for example, are more likely to identify as Asian, Latino, or multiracial if their father is the Asian or Latino parent and white or multiracial if their father is the white parent. Lee ascribed this difference to the external treatment these children receive based on their surname if it is identifiably Asian or Latino. Multiracial African Americans are likelier to identify solely as black than their Asian or Latino counterparts, and they tell researchers such as Lee that this identification stems from their being seen and treated by others as black.

Prof. Lee went on to consider the future of racial divisions in the United States. As increasing numbers of Americans identify as multiracial, she asked, will new immigrants and multiracial Americans blur long-standing racial boundaries in American society or simply cross the black/white divide that has characterized race relations in this country? In short, do multiracial Americans' status as "not-black" overwhelm their "not-whiteness" and locate them on the "white" side of that division? Is the presence of an increasing variety of ethnic and racial groups in the United States eliminating race-based exclusions or are new immigrants and multiracial Americans simply becoming "insiders" as African American cannot? While conditions for integration and flexible multiracial identification are improving for young native-born Asians and Latinos, the lack of parity in treatment for African Americans suggests that they cannot necessarily expect similar improvements. Lee concluded that the future of race relations in the United States will focus on a black/non-black line rather than today's black/white line, as new immigrants come to blend into the white majority in ways that remain inaccessible to blacks.

Gerald Jaynes applauded Lee's statistical research but offered a different analysis of it. While Lee assumed that growth rates and intermarriage trends for various racial groups will dictate racial attitudes, Prof. Jaynes suggested that the key variable is class and that a behavioral divide rather than the black/white paradigm will become increasingly salient in shaping race relations. As evidence, he cited the example of Southeast Asians, a population seen by many other Americans as behaviorally more similar to blacks than whites and therefore negatively distinct from other Asian groups. To the extent that the word "black" has denoted "other," it no longer makes sense when applied to African-American members of the middle and upper-middle classes. It is membership in the middle class and adherence to its behavioral patterns that will determine societal acceptance in the coming decades.

Glenn Loury stressed the high stakes of this debate and cautioned against societal acceptance of black exceptionalism, by which he meant that the American dream has been and is closed to African Americans. Historically, African Americans have been excluded from the engine of incorporation in this country; the question is why. Why, for example, do so many non-African Americans go to other countries to adopt children, when there are so many possible African-American adoptees at home? (Prof. Loury acknowledged the legal barriers to black/white adoption in this country, but indicated that he thought white couples would be wary of such adoptions even in the absence of legal constraints.) Why is it that in spite of the legal realities created by civil rights legislation, social integration has not occurred? Demographic data, he cautioned, must be put into this larger social context, and the fact remains that the key problem is not an unwillingness of African Americans to acculturate but the inaccessibility of the structures of white society to them. It is factually untrue, he said, that "following the rules" is sufficient to guarantee integration for African Americans, and any forecast of what is likely to happen to the color line in the United States must be based on the recognition that anti-black prejudice is both societal and systemic.

To read Jennifer Lee's paper, please click here.

Drafted by Ann Chernicoff

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129