Mapping the US: affirmative action revisited

by David A. Hollinger

The United States inherits an elaborate, deeply entrenched, but increasingly anachronistic intellectual and institutional apparatus for dealing with diversity that conflates the circumstances of the various minority groups while homogenizing each of them. One might compare this apparatus to a Mercator Projection map of the world, in which Greenland and Patagonia and Spitzbergen are huge, while Nigeria and Indonesia and Ecuador are tiny.

Just as a Mercator projection of the globe served the specific and valuable purpose of enabling a flat wall-hanging, so, too, did the multiculturalist programs organized around the color-coded ethnoracial pentagon - everybody is either white, black, yellow, brown, or red - serve the specific and valuable purpose of supporting affirmative action as put into effect in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But for some purposes, we want maps of the world other than the Mercator Projection, and which give us the actual geographical proportions of various parts of the globe, and for some purposes, we want an understanding of cultural diversity that is not written onto the top of affirmative action as understood at the time of its first institutionalization, but rather is based on the deepest and most comprehensive analysis we can develop of actual diversity and its dynamics today. 

Homogenization: “What makes you think all black people are alike?”
The efforts now being made to get beyond the cultural equivalent of the Mercator Projection were dramatized for me by a conversation I had last week with a young African American woman whose job at a leading university is to organize and operate a “multicultural office, African American section.” A dilemma she faces in carrying out her work, she explained to me at a conference in San Diego of people who staff multicultural programs in American colleges and universities, is as follows.

The administrators to whom she reports all expect her to design and implement a program that will enable black students to feel more at home on campus, and that would enable non-black students and faculty to come to greater appreciation of the special circumstances of black students. But the black students she works with are strikingly different from one another in cultural orientation, social experience, and campus-related needs, especially along two ancestral lines. The immigrants and children of immigrants from Caribbean countries and from African countries, she observed, have very little in common with the students whose families experienced Jim Crow segregation and other forms of institutionalized debasement within the United States over many generations.

The immigrant-based black populations of students this woman works with are also different from one another, those from Kenya and Nigeria having relatively little in common with those from Jamaica and Barbados, although the traditions of the British education system do strikingly distinguish all of them from the students with a multi-generation ancestry in the United States. Yet this woman finds that when she takes this dilemma to her administrative superiors for counsel - what makes you think all black people are alike? - they are reluctant to listen, because they have so much invested in multicultural approaches generated many years ago, emphasizing the sharpness of color lines and the close connection between color and culture.

I begin with this woman’s story because I find it an emblem for an escalating tension between, on the one hand, a greater sensitivity to the particularity of the historical circumstances, economic condition, and cultural orientation of the various minority groups, and on the other hand, a conceptual and institutional apparatus inherited from the late 1960s and 1970s that assumed the ethnoracial minority groups relevant to anti-racist initiatives to be clearly bounded, enduring, color-coded, analogically structured entities, each with its own culture and its own myth of Diaspora.

Clashes of generations: affirmative action revised
This tension is not new in 2009: throughout the 1990s and in this first decade of the 21st century a number of anti-racist voices have criticized the conceptual and institutional apparatus inherited from the Civil Rights Era, but as late as 1998 President Clinton’s “Initiative on Race,” ONE AMERICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY, the only Presidential commission to deal with race since the Kerner Commission of thirty years before, resoundingly reinforced the inherited apparatus, systematically denied that there were salient differences between African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, and offered 53 specific recommendations for multicultural programs and anti-discrimination remedies not a single one of which dealt with the historically unique situation of the black

Americans whose lives had been affected by centuries of legally sanctioned slavery and violently enforced discrimination and cataclysmically inadequate educational opportunities. Since 1998 the tension has increased between those who still think in terms of the Old Religion of the late 1960s and 1970s, and those who are trying to find approaches to structural inequality that take account of the shifting conditions under which the struggle against inequality is now carried out.

Before I address these shifting conditions and comment on their potential significance, I hasten to explain that my comments are directed at situation of the US not because I consider it to be a model for the world, but simply because it is one of the most conspicuous of world-historical arenas for the interaction of different communities of descent in relation to a single, overarching state with democratic aspirations formally commited to equality of opportunity regardless of ethnoracial classification.

What happens in the US is thus important not only to those like me who are invested in the American project and eager to see it critically revised, but to the larger community of people who, with their eyes on Germany or India or Brazil or the Netherlands or wherever, are eager to identity the promises and pitfalls of various egalitarian policies and practices and strategies.

The popular press emphasizes the ideological and political conflicts in the US today between a conservative call for a color-blind society based on the claim that racism is not a problem, and a left-liberal call for a continuation of the affirmative action and multicultural programs that have been in existence for some time. But that is not where the most interesting action is. The action, I am saying, is in the tension to which I have alluded, as felt by people like the woman I met at the conference in San Diego last week.

So, what are the changes that have taken place since the 1970s that challenge the Old Religion of the civil rights era? Central to most of these changes is the character and extent of immigration, which was almost never discussed when the Old Religion was young.

Affirmative action eligibility by geo-historical background
One such immigration-related change I’ve already mentioned. This is the appearance in the United States of black-skinned people who came voluntarily from Africa and the Caribbean. By the 1990s, but especially during the last several years, our social scientists and investigative journalists produced study after study showing that these immigrants and their children managed to overcome the barriers created by anti-black racism to a greater extent than the descendants of American slavery and Jim Crow. These studies imply that blackness itself is not enough to explain the enduringly weak class position of the bulk of American black people.

Perhaps the educational and economic and cultural circumstances of the immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean make a difference? President Obama himself is relevant here, because his blackness derives from a Kenyan immigrant and because he has candidly suggested that his own daughters might not be appropriate targets for affirmative action. But if we are going to go down the road of distinguishing between various kinds of black people, a system that is based on treating all blacks who get jobs or get admitted to college as of the same statistical meaning will have to be revised in some way. If immigrants and the children of immigrants are overrepresented by hundreds of percentage points among the blacks who get into Ivy League colleges, where does that leave us? If it does not mean that blackness is less relevant than historically different circumstances, what does it mean? 

And what are the implications for Hispanic Americans of suddenly deciding that not all black people are equally eligible for diversity programs? This is a crucial question. It is crucial because the overwhelming majority of the Hispanic population in the United States is an immigrant-derived population. Are we going to say that brown immigrants are more eligible for special attention than black immigrants are? If so, on the basis of what theory? The Old Religion, we need to remember, was based on the idea that Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and American Indians were all “like blacks” in their relation to American society, and were thus covered by the same theory.

But if we are now going to say that even some blacks are not “like blacks,” how can Hispanics be? Or Cambodians? Or Filipinos? The Old Religion and its various interpreters have almost never discussed the issue of immigrant eligibility for the programs developed in the late 1960s and 1970s, and even today, mere mention of it makes many people nervous. I raised it recently at a meeting of diversity officers on own campus, and I got the impression everyone wanted to run from the room as fast as they could.

But the presence of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean in the new immigration since the 1970s is not the only pertinent aspect of this new immigration. Another is the presence of a great variety of ethnoracial groups from Asia. Since so many Americans of Asian descent, especially from China, Japan, Korea, and India, have done so well in the United States by conventional economic and educational indicators, the historic experience of Asian Americans is too often put aside rather than analyzed in relation to the dynamics of racism, inequality, and incorporation into a society of predominantly European origins.

But such an analysis, according to most of the social scientists who have working in this area, casts important light on under just what circumstances the power of white racism is diminished, and populations traditionally victimized by it can manage reasonably well. Here, the economic and educational status of the migrant population itself helps explain the success of the groups with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Japanese origin. The great majority of the adult immigrants from Korea are college graduates, and a substantial segment of the immigrants from several Asian countries are highly skilled and literate in English when they arrive, which is not the case with most immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and the other Latin American countries that provide so much of the low-skilled labor force in the United States.

Affirmative action for economically less advantaged
The juxtaposition of the pre-immigration social circumstances of migrants from Latin America with the pre-immigration social circumstances of migrants from several East and South Asian countries can remind us that attention to particular histories, especially to the educational and economic background of immigrants, presents us with a radically different picture of diversity than the picture inherited from the Civil Rights era. Do Hispanic Americans have a claim on special treatment? Perhaps they do, but the most plausible theory that would justify such special treatment would surely be an economic one, pivoting on the fact that the United States persistently encourages and indeed demands an underclass of workers who will do low-skilled work for relatively low wages and are not likely to join labor unions. Our system, however, deals with the Hispanic population in its capacity as an ethnoracial group. We use ethnorace as a proxy for economic inequality.

Discrimination against Hispanic Americans does have a real history, including school segregation and exclusion from juries in several states until about 60 years ago, but unlike the immigrants from Mexico, those from East Asia and South Asia were not even able to achieved naturalized citizenship in 1952, and we cannot remind ourselves often enough that Asian Americans were thrown into concentration camps in my own lifetime. The different trajectories of Mexican Americans, on the one hand, and the several varieties of Asian Americans, on the other hand, should turn us away from the idea that the operative force is racism in the eye of the empowered white beholder. We do not have to claim that empowered whites have fully renounced racism in order to confront the fact that the power of this racism to damage its victims now varies enormously according to the economic and educational circumstances of the victims. And as I pointed out a few minutes ago, this differential is now visible even within the black population.

A growing hybrid society among young Americans
Another big change, beyond those centering around immigration, is the increase of mixture, that is, the greater frequency of marriage and cohabitation and reproduction across the lines of the standardized groups. Obama is again an emblem for this change, and it is vital to note that Obama’s component of white ancestry derives from some male slaveowner sexually exploiting black females, with the society then denying the fact of mixture through the notorious one-drop rule, but rather Obama’s white ancestry takes the form of a white mother and its flagged by the very recent death of his white grandmother.

Black-white marriages are still rare in comparison with the statistics for out-marriage among Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and the various groups of Asian Americans, but the black-white case demands all the more attention because of the long and deep opposition to black-white marriages, lasting well beyond 1967, when the laws prohibiting such marriages still in effect in a dozen states were finally eliminated by the US Supreme Court. Our demographers use a number of different statistical methods to determine the rate of black-white mixing, with slightly different results, but all agree on the reality of a steady increase over the last forty years.

One of the most interesting studies known to me was carried out here in Germany by a demographer at the Max Plank Institute in Rostock, Joshua Goldstein. The Goldstein study calculates the percentage of families who had a mixed race marriage within their extended kinship network. He found that among census-identified whites, by the year 2000 about 30% of white Americans had within their kinship network of ten marriages over three generations at least one white-non-white marriage, and in that same year, nearly 2/3 of census-identified black Americans did. The percentage for Asian Americans was 92%. These figures were up dramatically from 1990, and of course from earlier censuses. In 1960, only about 2% of census-identified whites had in their kinship network a white-non-white marriage.

Now, the significance of the increase in cross-group marriage has been exaggerated, I believe, by some people who predict the end of standardized communities of descent within the next two or three generations. But what is significant is not only the increases as measured statistically, but the shift in cultural attitudes as measured not only by opinion polls, but in popular culture. That’s one reason why I cite the Goldstein study: our social psychologists tell us that acceptance for mixed race marriage, like acceptance of same-sex relationships, increases with intimate familiarity, that is, opposition to gay relationships, like opposition to mixed race marriage, cohabitation, and reproduction, diminishes when someone in your own family is in one of these traditionally stigmatized relationships. And the way this plays into the tension I have been discussing between the Old Religion and the struggles for a new dispensation is that group boundaries are simply less sharp than they were when our categories and their prescribed meaning were consolidated in the 1960s and 1970s.

Affirmative action more than anti-discrimination
By way of postscript, as I finish up these remarks, I want to observe that another instance of the tension between the Old Religion and the new attention to the particularity and distinctness of the various groups is the increasing pressure to bring Jews into multicultural programs. Jews, which had long been prominent in discussions of American pluralism, as in Will Herberg’s famous book of 1955, PROTESTANT-CATHOLIC-JEW, were almost always not counted as relevant to standard multiculturalism. Summarizing how and why this was the case gives us further perspective on today’s struggles to find new ways of addressing cultural diversity.

Jews who had been eager to be part of the multicultural conversation were surrounded by a transdisciplinary academic discourse of group identity that systematically deemphasized religion, yet the religious component in Jewish history was vitally important. This pervasive discourse of identity privileged color, yet color did not distinguish most Jews from white people in general. This discourse of identity downplayed the linguistic and historical particularity of the different descent communities within each of the color-coded segments of the pentagon, yet for Jews, linguistic and historical particularity was basic to group identity.

This discourse nested issues of identity and culture in a matrix of unequally distributed power, and often aspired to allocate social benefits on the basis of demographically proportional representation, yet Jews were the richest and most empowered of any of the society’s prominently recognized ethnoracial groups. This discourse placed great emphasis on the barriers that minorities faced in the United States, yet the Jewish case constituted the most dramatic instance in all American history of a stigmatized descent group that had been discriminated against under the protection of law suddenly becoming over-represented many times over in social spaces where its members’ progress had previously been seriously inhibited.

The Jewish case, then, was just plain inconvenient, so long, that is, as the cultural map you were drawing of the United States was the Mercator Projection. I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m pretty sure it is going to be different from what we have had. 

Vortrag im Rahmen des vom Haus der Kulturen der Welt  organisierten Internationalen Kongresses "Beyond Multiculturalism - Fragen an die Einwanderungsgesellschaft" im Juni 2009.

David A. Hollinger is Preston Hotchkis Professor for American History at the University of Berkeley and President Elect of the Organization of American Historians.


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