Will the Color Line Fade?

Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance for a More Integrated America Lby Richard Alba, Harvard University Press, 306 pages, $29.95

"You mean there are no white males qualified?" the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan exclaimed in disbelief in one of his many cable TV appearances at the time the president nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. 

Sotomayor's nomination and the response it drew from conservatives exemplified what the sociologist Richard Alba describes in his new book as the problem of "zero-sum mobility," namely a situation where the number of elite positions is fixed and the majority sees minorities as moving up at their expense. According to Alba, although zero-sum mobility provokes resistance by the privileged majority, non-zero-sum mobility creates a more favorable environment for minorities to gain acceptance, even to the point where ethnic and racial lines fade in significance. Non-zero-sum mobility occurs in situations where minorities can move up without displacing members of the majority group because of economic expansion or the disproportionate aging and retirement of members of the majority. 

And, if Alba is right, America is about to see a new era of non-zero-sum mobility because of inescapable demographic changes. The retirement of the baby boomers will open up room at the top for minorities, just as the post-World War II boom created opportunities for upward mobility for white ethnics. The postwar boom allowed white ethnics to advance without triggering all-out resistance from the dominant WASPS -- and the result, Alba argues, was to blur ethnic distinctions among whites. By analogy he argues that a new era of non-zero-sum mobility could blur the hard lines of race long dividing American society. 

For ethnic and racial "blurring" to take place, according to Alba, two other conditions besides non-zero-sum mobility must be met. Both residential segregation of the minorities and cultural prejudice against them have to decline. After World War II, all three conditions were satisfied for white ethnics. Not only did the economy expand, providing the jobs that allowed white ethnics to move into neighborhoods they previously couldn't afford, government programs such as the GI bill and the Federal Housing Administration loans helped them buy homes in those areas. And discrimination against white ethnics became culturally unacceptable, in part because their contributions in World War II inspired books and movies that portrayed them as the equal of other whites.

Blacks were excluded from most of the benefits of the postwar boom, and despite the civil-rights movement, racial distinctions have remained the single sharpest line of division in American society. But Alba argues that the conditions for racial blurring may now be met for blacks as well as Hispanics. Generational turnover is leading to greater diversity in the labor force. In 2000, for example, non-Hispanic whites made up 78 percent of the age group on the edge of retirement but just 62 percent of those first entering the labor market. As baby boomers vacate positions, minorities will have to fill many of them, giving them the resources to move into neighborhoods that have been predominantly white. And discrimination against blacks and Hispanics, though it continues, has already become publicly unacceptable.

What about the obvious counterargument that because white ethnics were, well, white, the kind of cultural shift that occurred after World War II might not be possible for nonwhites today? Alba's response is that the old-stock white Americans long regarded the Irish, Italians, Jews, and other immigrant groups as racially inferior, even subhuman. Nineteenth-century political cartoons depicted the Irish as apes. One purpose of early IQ tests was to establish the inferiority of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Quotas kept Jews out of prestigious universities, and sociological studies blamed the apparent failure of Italian American Catholics to advance on a culture that "values obedience over intellectual autonomy." The subsequent success of these groups, Alba argues, has made it difficult for us to conceive of the cultural barriers they once faced. 

This argument isn't entirely convincing. For one thing, it is still the case for racial minorities that the whiter you look, the better off you tend to be. Light-skinned African Americans have higher average incomes, as well as lower risks of poverty and incarceration, than other blacks. The same color differences show up among Hispanics. The Hispanics who most resemble whites may well be able to "blur the boundaries" as white ethnics once did, even if darker Hispanics and African Americans cannot. The United States might transition, as Alba acknowledges, into a cultural model similar to that of Brazil, where racial categories are more "fluid" despite their continuing salience. 

As Alba also recognizes, other potential obstacles may prevent minorities from being able to take advantage of demographic change. Many baby boomers are postponing retirement because of the recession and the inadequacy of their pensions. Wages in the middle tiers of the labor force -- the middle rungs on the ladder of mobility -- have been declining in real terms. Qualified minority applicants for upper-tier positions may be in short supply because of a crumbling public school system and high incarceration rates.

There are other problems, too. Discrimination against blacks and Hispanics is seen today as wrong, but outright discrimination has given way to ostensibly race-neutral policies and attitudes that result in similar outcomes. The policy solutions that Alba recommends to enable nonwhites to take advantage of demographic changes -- such as large-scale investment in public education -- are the exact kinds of policies that conservatives have often blocked through coded racial appeals. Conservative rhetoric on taxes can and does turn any public-policy issue into one of zero-sum mobility. 

Furthermore, when white ethnics were advancing after World War II, blacks and Hispanics took the jobs at the bottom of the income ladder. For nonwhites to move up, someone will have to take their place. But since the most likely candidates are new immigrants who are also dark-skinned, it's not clear why America's racial categories should change as much as the conception of "white" did earlier in American history.

Alba cautions that a racial system that has existed as long as America's will not collapse all at once, but rather will "weaken gradually." He's certainly right that the demographic picture ensures that each successive generation is going to be more diverse. The question that remains is how quickly minorities will penetrate the upper reaches of society and whether whites will adapt by abandoning the prejudices that have divided America for centuries -- where something like the rise of a Puerto Rican woman from the South Bronx to the Supreme Court is an event they can celebrate as their own victory as Americans and not someone else's victory over them.

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