Racial Divides in a Multicultural America.

In The New York Times, Susan Saulny writes about the apparent malleability of race in an increasingly multicultural America. To that end, she profiles a group of students in the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association at the University of Maryland:

Many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”

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It's interesting to see a group of kids who want to live in a colorblind -- or at least, racially fluid -- world. But I'm not sure how meaningful this is for future demographic trends. I've said this before, but it remains true that "black/non-black" is the main racial divide in American life. For proof, it's useful to look at rates of interracial marriage:

Even with that sharp increase, however, black-white couplings represented only about one-in-nine of the approximately 280,000 new interracial or interethnic marriages in 2008. White-Hispanic couples accounted for about four-in-ten (41%) of such new marriages; white-Asian couples made up 15%; and white-black couples made up 11%.

The remaining third consisted of marriages in which each spouse was a member of a different minority group or in which at least one spouse self-identified as being American Indian or of mixed or multiple races.

The great majority of intermarriages take place between Hispanics, Asians, and whites. If there is a great population of multiracial people, it's almost certain that they will be some combination of Hispanic and white, or Asian and white. Undoubtedly, some of these people will "become" white in our racial discourse. To paraphrase myself, by 2050 or so, we'll have a large population of white people with Latino or Asian last names, and a cultural understanding similar to the descendants of ethnic European immigrants.

Of course, the American racial landscape goes beyond white/black/Latino/Asian. Which is why it's important to understand the significance of a black/non-black divide. On nearly every measure -- from income and education to housing and health -- the distance between blacks and everyone else is large and enduring. Upwardly mobile immigrant groups have always counterpoised themselves against the descendants of slaves in an effort to attain the privileges of whiteness. This is a simplified analysis, but my guess is that the dynamic will remain, with a few alternations. Some ethnic immigrants may never "become" white, but since blackness retains this social stigma, it's very likely we'll understand them as non-black, which in practice, is the same.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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