Growing U.S. Ethnoracial Diversity: a Positive or Negative Societal Dynamic? (Frank D. Bean)


1. Solving problems of race relations in the United States requires avoiding binary ethnoracial classifications and understanding the nature, extent, and consequences of today's diversity resulting from immigration. Recent demographic change has involved not only growth in the size of the nonwhite U.S. population but also increases in the number of new ethnoracial groups. Modest socioeconomic improvements have recently occurred among most nonwhite groups, and the rise in the number of different groups has led to some positive changes (i.e., boosting intermarriage and multiracial identification, blurring color lines among ethnoracial groups, and fostering creativity and economic growth) without diminishing social cohesion and solidarity. However, the benefits of multigroup diversity appear not to have reached many Americans who have less felt the social and economic benefits of free trade, globalization, and immigration. This underscores the need for universal policies that transcend identity- and grievance-based politics and provide security and benefits for all Americans.

2. Keywords: ethnoracial; diversity; immigration; integration


3. The Difficulty and Consequences of Defining Race. . . ,\ we could define race as a “consciousness of status and identity based on ancestry and color.” This definition fits the BLACK population in the United States particularly well. But in the cases of the new Latino and Asian immigrant groups, race in this sense does not by itself provide a totally suitable label because it is not clear that color is an attribute that can be consistently applied to immigrants from Latin America or Asia, either by natives or by these newcomers themselves. For example, some Latinos view themselves and are seen by others as white, some as brown, and some as BLACK.

4. AFRICAN AMERICANS, however, fall into a different category. If immigration has symbolized the hopeful and uplifting side of the American experience, the practice of SLAVERY in many of the colonies and subsequent states for the first two to three centuries after European settlers arrived has dramatized the negative and exclusionary part of the historical picture. Whereas the weaving of many strands of immigration into the U.S. economic mainstream represents the success of the American experience, the lack of full integration in the case of the AFRICAN American population represents the country's most conspicuous failure and an indication of the residual power of racial discrimination throughout American society. Although social and economic progress among BLACKs has occurred, the questions of how much, when, how fast, and why are still the subjects of much debate (Hacker 1992/1995; Thernstrom and Thernstrom 1997; Frey 2014). AFRICAN AMERICANS, OF COURSE, WERE INVOLUNTARY IMMIGRANTS TO THE UNITED STATES.

5. During the eighteenth century, they were the single largest immigrant group arriving in the country. Despite this, their experience cannot be understood as analogous to that of other immigrant groups. Most BLACKs came to the United States under chattel slavery that bound not only them but also their children to their owners for life. The modes of entry and the reception in America of immigrants from Africa were thus especially harsh and debilitating compared with the experience of immigrants from other countries. This makes it impossible to address the experience of BLACKs in this country as just another chapter in the story of immigration. Nor is it any less an oversimplification to view the difficulties of recent immigrants as just another chapter in the history of racism in the United States.

6. This reasoning lays bare the potential perils of conflating racial and ethnic status into the single term race, as well as the pitfalls of relying on binary distinctions in general to define and operationalize ethnoracial categories. Whatever set of categories are used, unintended consequences result. This is partly because relying on any particular classification scheme privileges the observation of certain differences over others, a tendency that is less problematic when such distinctions capture large real-world differences. For example, the use of a binary BLACK/nonBlack delineation, because of the pernicious and long-lasting negative legacies of slavery, indicates substantial BLACK disadvantage relatively undiluted by the inclusion of other ethnoracial groups in the “Black” category. A binary white/nonwhite scheme, however, which is increasingly used by many observers, is distorted by the inclusion of BLACKs in the nonwhite category, making nonBlack disadvantaged groups appear to suffer more than is actually the case. The very usage of the category nonwhite in the absence of disaggregating nonwhites betrays an a priori assumption that today's white/nonwhite differences are as large as yesterday's BLACK/nonBlack ones.

7. Such usage also tends to encourage new forms of identity politics pitting whites against nonwhites, thus redirecting efforts away from addressing pressing real-world disadvantages, such as those between BLACKs and whites, and those between the rich and poor members of any ethnoracial group. Taking note of these problems is not to suggest that certain ways of gauging ethnoracial differences be ignored or overlooked. . .

8. Other current practices make it difficult to detect the latter kind of diversity effects. In using classifications of U.S. racial groups, analysts frequently adopt schemes that yield six exhaustive and mutually exclusive categories (and ignore the existence of multiple-race persons, by assuming that any mention of a nonwhite identity justifies classifying such multiracial individuals as nonwhite. This is based on respondents' self-reports to questions asking (1) whether they are Hispanic and (2) whether they are white, BLACK, Asian, Native-American, or some other race.. . .

9. Lumping all ethnoracial groups together also implicitly encourages the idea that all nonwhite groups in America (so-called people of “color”) are just as disadvantaged as AFRICAN AMERICANS, even though social science research shows that this is not the case.

10. Contemporary Ethnoracial Demographics and Social Welfare Arrayed against such statistics, however, are others showing that nonwhite ethnoracial groups are faring notably better today on various socioeconomic integration measures than they did in 1970 . . This suggests notable upward mobility on the part of such groups, even AFRICAN AMERICANS, but especially among recent nonwhite immigrant groups . . .

11. Research showing a link between this kind of ethnoracial diversity and improvements in majority attitudes toward minorities would suggest an improving climate in the country for nonwhites.. . . The degree to which people from such backgrounds see themselves in multiracial terms, of course, is a matter of self-perception and, thus, one that may vary substantially by ethnoracial category. For example, people in the South with one BLACK and one white parent appear considerably less likely to define themselves as multiracial than is the case for people with other paired differences in racial background, suggesting that the social and temporal dynamics of BLACK life in the United States remain more constraining than those for other groups. Despite this, since 1970 evidence for BLACKs implies some improvement in material well-being, supporting the conclusion that notable numbers of BLACKs are also better off now than they were some 40 years ago (Frey 2014), even though the group as a whole continues to lag other groups, and even though a sizable number of AFRICAN AMERICANS are worse off than previously (Bean and Bell-Rose 1999).

12. The other two major minority populations are Latinos and Asians. . . . thus diluting Latino progress and encouraging the conclusion that their experiences and disadvantages are similar to those of BLACKs. But, as just noted, many BLACKs continue to fare much less well socioeconomically than whites, and they are viewed by whites more negatively than are Asians or native Latinos (although an exception consists of Latino unauthorized immigrants who are seen just as negatively. . .

13. The Broader Effects of Immigration and America's Growing Diversity. . .Also, extensive research shows how the diversity arising from immigration affects both social cohesion and the strength of ethnoracial boundaries.. . . . Since then researchers have conducted dozens of additional inquiries on the topic in the United States and Europe, concluding overwhelmingly that immigration-induced ethnoracial diversity does not on balance negatively influence interethnic social cohesion, except sometimes in the United States. . . But this tendency went away when studies took into account the impact of prejudicial attitudes toward BLACKs on social cohesion. Because white Americans perceive a greater threat from and exhibit more prejudice toward BLACKs than toward other ethnoracial groups, whites living in areas with both large and immigrant and large BLACK populations often report less social cohesion, thereby diminishing the boost in social cohesion that accompanies the diversity resulting from immigration.

14. A different way of looking at the issue of cohesion comes from examining the extent to which ethnoracial diversity breaks down boundaries between different ethnoracial groups and, thus, indirectly reflects the potential for improvements in U.S. ethnoracial relations? For instance, has diversity diminished the strength of ethnoracial color lines in the United States, including the BLACK-white color line? Have ethnoracial heterogeneity and intermarriage contributed to boundary change? Several reasons exist for thinking that ethnoracial diversity may help to increase tolerance both for and among the members of new immigrant groups and AFRICAN AMERICANS. .. .

15. Recent research on ethnoracial intermarriage and multiracial identification is consistent with these ideas. . . For instance, 5.3 percent of all children aged 0 to 17 were identified as multiracial in 2010, compared to only 1.1 percent of persons aged 55 or older (Bean, Lee, and Bachmeier 2013). For whites, this figure was 6.4 percent, for BLACKs 14.6 percent, and for Asians 27.9 percent (comparable figures for Latinos are impossible to derive because census data do not recognize mixed Latino/non-Latino origins).

16. Most significant of all, research also shows that intermarriage and multiraciality are highest in those parts of the country that are the most diverse, and that this depends in part on diversity per se, rather than simply the presence of a large minority population. In sum, the huge post-1965 immigration that has brought millions to the country whose ethnoracial status is neither BLACK nor white has thus elevated ethnoracial diversity. More important, diversity appears to be creating multiple color lines, detracting from the stark emphases on BLACK-white and white-nonwhite divides. Recent rises in intermarriage and multiracial identification--which are more pronounced among Asians and Latinos than among BLACKs--suggest a broad loosening of the boundaries between groups, thus setting the stage for possible increases in intergroup tolerance and social cohesion (whose implications for BLACKs, however, are uncertain).

17. Overall, U.S. minority groups are thus faring better now than they did some 40 years ago. . . One of these is the popular inclination among young people to emphasize a binary racial classification of white and nonwhite. This, as in the case of the old BLACK-white binary, risks the negative reification of whiteness in the former instance and BLACKness in the latter.. .

18. Moreover, as native baby boomers continue to age and retire, workforce voids are providing prospects for both immigrant and BLACK upward mobility, even as aggregate earnings stagnation reigns in the bottom two-thirds of the distribution.. . . Paying attention to a binary ethnoracial classification that looks only at whites and nonwhites reinforces the tendency to view all nonwhites as similar to BLACKs, failing to give justice to the larger difficulties of AFRICAN AMERICANS and to the income stagnation of non-college-educated whites.

19. That the income and wealth situations of many BLACKs in the United States continue to lag those of third-generation ethnoracial immigrant groups suggests that the country needs a new narrative to guide the formulation of its policies regarding race. We also need policies that recognize and are directed at the disadvantages of non-Black Americans that often result at least as much from their low socioeconomic status as from their ethnoracial status. In short, new ameliorative programs, like revised affirmative action programs, could target both BLACKs and non-college-educated persons of all ethnoracial statuses for assistance..

20. Issues of race and ethnicity, along with those of social class, remain important in the United States. Although slavery caused the Civil War, a conflict that narrowly averted the breakup of the Union, its cessation ushered in Jim Crow laws almost as destructive as slavery itself. Today, the legacies of slavery and the Jim Crow era endure in the form of institutional and cultural practices that allow the disproportionate incarceration of BLACK males and a tacit white condoning of BLACK-targeted police violence (Alexander 2012). The recent killings by police of BLACKs in several U.S. cities highlight the continuation of virulent racism toward BLACKs. While we do not want to repeat earlier underestimations of BLACK racism (Faust 2015), neither should we today exaggerate the extent to which harsh treatment and prejudice characterize the contemporary experiences of nonwhite U.S. immigrant groups, most of whose members show considerable integration into the country's larger socioeconomic fabric (National Academies of Sciences 2015).

21. Overstating the extent of permanent harm to and disadvantage among today's immigrants may seem to follow from clear-cut instances of the earlier mistreatment of certain groups such as the Chinese and Japanese. However, evidence suggests that the effects of injuries from such historical injustices have now considerably waned, especially when viewed in comparison to the continuing contemporary difficulties of BLACKs. Imposing a new dichotomy, namely, a white/nonwhite one, on the country undermines recognition of the reality that growing diversity in the form of more heterogeneity is making for a better America.

22. Relying on rigid ethnoracial dichotomies fosters identity politics by stigmatizing one class of Americans at the expense of another, in effect implying that the members of that class alone are responsible for disadvantage. The old BLACK-white color line helped to foster the idea that all BLACKs were inferior and undeserving of societal membership. The new white-nonwhite designation tends to affirm the idea that all whites are privileged and responsible for any difficulties faced by nonwhites.