Orlando Patterson: Race and Diversity in the Age of Obama

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of “The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s ‘Racial’ Crisis.”]

Barack Obama’s historic victory was made possible by two great converging forces that began near the middle of the last century: the civil rights revolution and the changes engendered by the Immigration Act of 1965. The civil rights movement led to the rapid dismantling of Jim Crow and the inclusion of black Americans in politics, the military, the middle class and popular culture. The 1965 immigration act set in motion vast demographic and social changes that have altered the nation’s ethno-racial landscape.

At present, the foreign-born represent 12.6 percent of the total American population (this is still less than the 14.7 percent reached in 1910, during the earlier great wave of migration). A little over half of these immigrants are from Latin America and a quarter are from Asia. Over all, minorities now constitute slightly over a third of the population; in four states, minorities are the majority: Hawaii (75 percent), New Mexico (58 percent), California (57 percent) and Texas (52 percent), as they are in the District of Columbia (68 percent). It has been all too easy to misinterpret and sensationalize these demographic changes.

Thus Hispanics, we are often told, are now the largest ethnic group in the nation, displacing blacks and overturning America’s historic emphasis on black-white relations. But Hispanics are a varied collection of ethnic groups. They are not, and will never become, a single entity. Whatever Judge Sonia Sotomayor may have meant, a wise New York woman of Puerto Rican ancestry has a profoundly different view of the world than a Latina farm laborer in Southern California or an upper-income Chilean-American professional in Florida.

Even more problematic are periodic jeremiads declaring the demographic demise of the so-called non-Hispanic white population. “The massive Hispanic immigration after 1965,” Samuel Huntington wrote in his sadly misinformed book, “Who Are We?,” “could make America increasingly bifurcated in terms of language (English and Spanish) and culture (Anglo and Hispanic).” Huntington raised the “highly probable” prospect of a revival of racial nativism.

The bogus demographic invention “non-Hispanic whites” is partly the source of such groundless alarums. The more meaningful sociological category is that of people defining themselves as exclusively white, currently about 80 percent of the population and growing, thanks to the fact that almost half of all Hispanics now define themselves as “white alone.”

Until recently, the conventional wisdom among social scientists was that the adjustment of recent immigrants to America would be fundamentally different from that of the European immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been claimed that they are from different “races” and are entering a harsher postindustrial America with fewer opportunities for mobility, and also that the ease of communication and travel to their homelands discourages assimilation....

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