What Does America’s New Color Line Look Like?

Via Lisa at Sociological Images, UC Irvine professor Jennifer Lee mulls over the increasingly complex conversations on race in the U.S. being spurred by the immigration of Asians and Latin@s, away from the black/white binary. She says the new continuum is black/nonblack, as opposed to white/nonwhite.

Jamelle has made a similar point in the past.

There’s no doubt that the United States will become a more ethnically diverse country, but that’s a far cry from saying that the United States will become a “browner” country. If the past is any indication, white America is here for the long haul; new immigrants and their children will claim the identity, and in all likelihood, we’ll add “Martinez” and “Park” to the long list of traditionally “white” names.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • HelloWorld

    I don’t know. Is she saying that the Latinos and Asians will have same income variance as whites? But with the change in the economy is that even possible ? Will the United States economy expand to incorporate all immigrants into well paying middle class job? Why do Puerto Ricans and Domincans fit into black caterogy? Is this simply because of thier phenotype? Will darker Latinos fall into black catergory?

  • krs

    So for black people, the stigmatization continues, aided and abetted by immigrants anxious to distinguish themselves from an underclass that they stereotype as Black. As a result, even Blacks who achieve will continue to have to ‘defend’ themselves and their community from immigrants who may set up shop in Black communities, but who will continue the historical discrimination against African-Americans. Even Afro-Caribbean and African continental immigrants buy into this.

    • er, what?

      • HelloWorld

        When I first found your site. I did not do any work for a week reading blog post. I tell my friends about your site everyday. I stan for postbourgie.

        • Thanks for the kind words.

  • HelloWorld

    I agree to a certain extent. Its complicated. Afro-Caribbean’s relationship to blackness is complicated. True they distunguish themselves from poor blacks, but they still believe they belong to a larger blackness and the majority of thier malaise is directed at lower class blacks. In many ways this is more of a class distinction than a racial distinction. Afro-Caribbean and African continental immigrants cannot extricate themselves from blackness. Whatever advacements they make will benefit blacks as a whole. Also, I wonder how does racial discrimnation play out in the real world in quantifable ways? I’m not saying it does not exist but how does racial discrimanation from immigrants play out in dollahs (yeah I did it).

  • Naima

    Yea the race thing is tricky…on one hand we will be in effect be a browner country but will those who I consider brown call themselves brown? I doubt it…If I may be so harsh, why root for the Mets if you can throw on some pinstriped and blend? Also the dichotimization of race seems to be an American thing. For example, whiteness in Latino countries like PR, can be purchased to an extent because there is a graduation scale of sorts because the idea of being white is nearly always conflated with white.

    I don’t know why she would say that PR’s and Dominicans are considered black and Cubans, Brazilians in America are seen as white–well maybe I do, Cuba ousted the rich who tended to be lighter complexioned and I supposed the Brazilians who come to the States are the ones who can afford it. because both of those countries have a huge African diaspora.

    White has never been an inclusive category–its success relies heavily on exclusion. So the tan of the land doesn’t really matter because it does not guarantee progress — in fact, as history dictates the preferred method to holding down power requires but a few able hands.

    oh and as far as traditional white names someone lemme know what they are? Smith? Black? Johnson? Chapman? Because if so aren’t they also traditional black American names too? If any parts of my name raise eyebrows it’s usually my first, and that real Spanish one, RRRRRRamos–yea doubt one will be added to the white roster anytime soon.

    • arieswym

      I’d argue that White has been an inclusive category, it initially resists and excludes new immigrants but over time and with an increase in economic situations, formerly excluded groups are marked as whites. I’m thinking about Italians/Irish/Jews for example.

      Sidenote – why is latin@s written to include the @ sign?

      • HelloWorld

        Are those groups truly white? There is still an WASP ideal. Additionally, the are still a great deal of racial sterotype associated with those groups.

        • Scipio Africanus

          The Irish are completely White, at this point. I’d say Jews, too, and probably most Italians, as well. So yes.

      • to incorporate the feminine and masculine.

  • bittersweet

    Latin@s is written this way to include Latinos and Latinas.

  • DK

    Is nobody else disgusted by this? Black exceptionalism? Black/non-black divide? Those who will struggle socio-economically vs. those who will have minimal issues with adaptation? I would like to thank Dr. Lee for doing research and conducting studies that do not matter (who pays for this stuff??), when apparently, over 6.7 million Americans do not have enough to eat. We should stop using race as a means for classification, particularly because the harsh reality is that people tend to polarize what it means to identify with one as opposed to another, particularly as a social construct. And why are Asians and Latinos capitalized, but not blacks or whites? How are some races deemed proper nouns and others common? Aren’t a lot of Russians Asian? Is Saudi Arabia a part of Asia? What race are Brazilians? You can visit a family in Brazil and see various skin shades, hair textures, and eye colors within a single branch of the family tree.

    With all the variances allowed within a single set of racial parameters, it proves itself to be useless, stupid, archaic, and unreliable. Dr. Lee has made a career… and apparently a book… based on being a racist. I can’t believe that a bankrupt state like California has her on a public payroll.

  • Ugh, I have been very comment-y lately.

    But okay, I’ll say it. So what? Why the pearl-clutch? And beyond that: *finally* somebody admitted out loud that Whiteness is not fixed. (And PS: It never was.)

    The invention of Whiteness as a construction obviously depends on the invention of the parallel, stigmatizing category Blackness, that is not in question. But gatekeeping is the other essential element in making Whiteness. The idea that immigrants might move into Whiteness is as much of an illusion as anything else about it… but dangling the carrot of potential inclusion in the club keeps immigrants in line so they don’t won’t challenge Whiteness as a power structure and unifying idea.

    Listen, I say this with affection, not malice: but the only people who think that fair skin is the Key to the Kingdom are Black people. That is the illusion that the White/Black binary is based on. But it is a fiction. Of the ethnic groups listed in the comments here the only one that is completely, safely “white” were the first wave of US immigrants, the Irish. Even Italian-Americans are portrayed more as a cautionary tale for other White people than a full member of the club. (I can’t be the only one who reads the “Guido” phenomenon as racialized performance? It is a coon show, with the putative “Whiteness” of the “Guidos” used to make it acceptable to publicly mock dark, oversexed, stupid, potentially criminal people.) There’s a reason why the White heroes and heroines on serial dramas are always named “Jack” or “Kate” and/or have Irish surnames but not any other “White” ethnic group: The Irish are the only ones who can fully embody the neutrality of whiteness. My point is that there are hierarchies within Whiteness that may not be readily apparent to African Americans. And fetishizing skin color as the only element to Whiteness excludes an entire range of the signifiers of “foreign-ness” that are invisible like gestures and comportment, accents and/or a “strange” body odor that is the result of a non-western diet.

    It’s frustrating that Dr. Lee wants to destabilize the Black/White binary only by considering Asians and Latin@s who are not alone outside of it… but both groups have lived in America for a loooong time so it makes sense that she’d focus on them. Especially since Whiteness was constructed partly through a specific rejection of Mexican and Chinese immigrants, even though both groups made essential contributions to building the country.

    But in the context of this conversation, I have to add that if you honestly think that Semitic people (i.e. Arabs & Jews) are un-problematically “White” then you should get yourself to a High School European History class right quick… or crack open a newspaper. They don’t round you up and throw you into camps (or, “detain” you in “detention centers”) if you are in the club. Jews lived in Eastern Europe for hundreds of years, side by side with their European neighbors and, using this metric of Whiteness were indistinguishable from them. But their fair skin and culturally assimilated ways did not save them. A more contemporary example would be the former and current Arab prisoners at Gitmo, many of whom are as fair skinned as their Euro-American captors. Yes, fair skinned Semites (like Ashkenazi Jews and Levantine Arabs like me) are sometimes considered “White”… usually when the White power structure needs our numbers to maintain a majority. And yes, there are benefits to that. But there is also the ever-present threat of violent expulsion, which in our case is not theoretical based on historical truth. If Black people can never be White then they can also never be threatened with the revocation of Whiteness.

    I am not saying any of this to kick off a rousing game of Oppression Olympics, it’s not about who is suffering/has suffered more–but rather an acknowledgement that that there are a range of experiences that cannot be accounted for in a Black/White binary. In personal terms, when you try to put those labels on me you make important elements of my identity disappear, and that is not okay.

    The immigrant experience is a particular American narrative and the “historical wound” of slavery is another, different one. Simple attention to the differences between African and Caribbean- American immigrants and African-Americans who are descended from slaves makes this apparent. I think we can attend to these differences without adopting “post-racial” cliches designed to relegate racism against African Americans to a murky past. But I don’t hear that argument in Dr. Lee’s work and it sure isn’t what I am saying here. So I guess I am confused by the fuss. What’s the big deal here?

    • who’s clutching pearls?

    • distance88

      With all due respect Joseph, you say you want to avoid false binaries and pay “attention to the differences between African and Caribbean-American immigrants”. But at the beginning of your comment, you’re willing to gloss over those differences and say “the only people who think that fair skin is the Key to the Kingdom are Black people”.

      And I’m not sure why you singled out the Irish, considering the post-colonial legacy of that country (which distinguishes them from a lot of other Europeans) and the rocky road that many Irish immigrants faced in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th Century–see the “dark, oversexed, stupid, potentially criminal” Irish Frankenstein (of course they are now beneficiaries of full-blown white privilege, no argument here, but you seemed to have left a lot out).

  • Uh, not me. Just trying to be clear. I guess I was surprised by @DK’s “disgust” and @krs’s idea that immigrants are “aiding and abetting” racism etc.

    I’m still curious about these reactions because they are so far from what is real for me. That’s why I asked.

  • @distance88
    Yeah, you are right. I wrote about some stuff in too much detail and others not deeply enough. I shouldn’t have been so flip about the intensity of feeling around skin shade, which is life and death for some. I’m sorry if I seemed dismissive or sarcastic, that wasn’t my intent. I was just trying to… speak the opposite perspective, which I never hear. For me the bottom line is that I have been called a Sand-N*gger to my face, which is as pale as the inside of Nicole Kidman’s arm. So in my life fair skin is not the end-all. And historically for people like me, that is often the case.

    I do think that Irish Americans–by virtue of being first–are the only immigrants who ever crossed all the way from “dark crimniality” over to inarguable Whiteness, which is why I focused on them. But of course you are right, their post-colonial history is complex and reading about the “Irish race” in the 19th century is fascinating for what it reveals about the ways Whiteness has changed.

    But from my (2nd generation Arab-American) perspective, Whiteness is like a pyramid scheme: immigrants are sold the promise they can rise within the ranks, but they can’t really because the system isn’t set up for it. And the result is that the folks on the top stay there. What I got from the post above was that, according to Lee, Latin@s and Asians are changing the game entirely and that feels like good news to me. That is what I should have said.

    • distance88

      No worries, Joseph. I see what you’re saying, thanks for your clarification.

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