The Racial Binary Is Inadequate
Americans need a new understanding of race to help them properly see how mainstream society is expanding and diversifying.
Many Americans have come to see their country in terms of a racial binary: white versus non-white. This racial categorization has become fundamental to the way Americans talk about politics, elections, and the broader social landscape. But this way of seeing the world is not inevitable. Instead, it is the product of a particular lens—a lens that brings racial inequities and white domination into sharp focus while failing to recognize the increasing complexities and contradictions of race and racial categorization at a moment of emergent social change.
I am not denying the profound influence that racism has had on American history or the unjust ways it continues to affect our country today. But as the well-worn aphorism goes, to someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Relying exclusively on a lens that focuses solely on a racial binary prevents us from seeing with clarity how the country that we live in is changing, particularly when it comes to the increasing ethnic and racial diversity in the mainstream part of our society, where advantages and power are concentrated.
To understand fully what lies ahead for the U.S., we need a second lens that reveals how the social significance of race is changing for many Americans as the social distance between many whites and nonwhites diminishes sharply, reflected in steadily increasing rates of intermarriage and racially mixed family origins. The new lens, in other words, can help us to see that individuals from different racial backgrounds are melding in everyday interactions in workplaces, neighborhoods, and families. Such a new perspective reveals that racial boundaries can blur and that a mainstream society historically monopolized by whites can take in newcomers and grow more diverse.
Now is a critical moment to expose the limitations of relying exclusively on a lens that yields only a binary picture of race. This lens has produced a distorted forecast of a racially divided American future, where whites are the numerical minority and nonwhites have become the majority. This so-called majority-minority future stirs uneasiness in many whites, who worry about how they or their descendants will fare in several decades, when, the forecast suggests, social power will have passed into the hands of Americans of color. This lens, in other words, stimulates zero-sum thinking about social status, and in its extreme forms, this uneasiness about a diversifying nation turns into panic and fury about the “great replacement.” The anxiety about a majority-minority future has propelled many whites towards Trumpism, a shift that has contributed to political polarization and widespread despair about American democracy.
With only a race-focused lens, Americans cannot understand a novel social reality epitomized by the rising number of young Americans who have grown up in racially mixed families, especially those where one parent is white and the other not. Currently, 15% of American babies are born into families where parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins come from two or more major ethno-racial groups. Three-quarters of these infants have a white parent and a nonwhite one. The number of racially mixed infants increases with each new birth cohort.
The youngsters who are partly white and partly nonwhite are especially challenging for the racial binary. Race-based thinking about them often relies on the “one-drop rule” which historically consigned Americans with both black and white ancestry to the black group. Those who see the social world in terms of a racial binary generally argue that young Americans from mixed racial backgrounds are mostly treated as nonwhites by dominant whites, and consequently choose to define themselves that way as well.
But racially mixed individuals today are generally being brought up in multi-racial family settings that are quite unlike the historical conditions of slavery and segregation that gave rise to the one-drop rule. Fortunately, many who straddle the white/non-white binary do not seem to be facing much exclusion at the hands of many whites on account of their nonwhite ancestry.
These racially mixed youngsters are being raised in families with better socioeconomic resources than children in minority families, and when they grow up their educational attainment is higher on average, as are their chances of making it to the top tiers of the workforce. These generalizations certainly do not mean that they identify only as white, but in terms of their overall social situations, from their socioeconomic positions to their networks of social relations, racially mixed Americans are no longer facing the exclusion historically experienced by minorities.
There are caveats to such optimistic data. Most important, of those children with one white parent, the data are less true for those whose other parent is black than for those with an Asian or Hispanic parent. One reason for this difference lies in America’s self-understanding as an immigration society, and hence the more favorable reception accorded to immigrants and their descendants than to African Americans as the descendants of the once enslaved. And America’s racism in its individual and systemic forms is directed most intensely at those of visible African descent.
The steady growth of Americans who defy clear binary racial categorization is a sign of changes that are obscured by a whites-versus-nonwhites binary lens. The growth of this group and its social proximity to whites indicate that mainstream American society is expanding and diversifying.
The changes, moreover, are not limited to racially mixed individuals. Another sign lies in the major demographic shift at the top of the workforce, in its highest quartile as indexed by the average earnings of occupations. Recent research shows that whites retained a monopoly on these good jobs until late in the 20th century, but that among young labor-market entrants today, white representation has slipped to barely above 60 percent. This striking reduction is fueled in large part by demographic forces: as the largely white members of the post-World War II baby boom enter retirement, the door is being opened for qualified minority groups to replace them. As older whites continue to leave the top workforce tier and today’s new entrants to it advance in their careers, the occupants of positions of prestige and authority will visibly become increasingly diverse.
Recognizing and encouraging this process requires a new lens that allows us to perceive social realities in a less rigid and more nuanced way than a binary race lens allows. This lens, which we can call the assimilation lens, focuses on the potential for boundaries between groups to weaken—either by shifting the definition of groups or by blurring what have been the bright boundaries between them. This is more or less what happened in the mid-20th century with previously marginalized groups such as Irish and Italian Catholics and eastern European Jews.
To be sure, assimilation is not universal. Even as assimilation brings some minority Americans into the still white-dominated mainstream, racial inequalities remain very prominent. To continue the metaphor, we need bifocals: a race-based lens to help us see the disparities that still exist in American society, and an assimilation lens to help us see the ways in which racial boundaries are weakening. The combination can give us ideas about how white and non-white Americans can come together to continue to expand and diversify the mainstream.
Richard Alba is Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.