David A. Hollinger: The Obama candidacy challenges our notions of identity politics

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David A. Hollinger is a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. He is author of Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, published in a third, expanded edition in 2006 by Basic Books.]

.... Obama's mixed ancestry ... is not what most generates the new uncertainty about blackness. Much more important is the fact that his black ancestry is immigrant rather than American-born.....

The differences in history and circumstances among various descent groups were largely ignored during the era when our conceptual and administrative apparatus for dealing with inequality was put in place. As John D. Skrentny, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego, has shown — in his important 2002 book, The Minority Rights Revolution — conflating Asian-Americans, Latinos, and American Indians with African-Americans was a largely unconscious step driven by the unexamined assumption that those groups were "like blacks"; that is, they were functionally indistinguishable from the Americans who experienced slavery and Jim Crow. Such conflation was officially perpetuated as late as 1998, when President Clinton's Initiative on Race, One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future, systematically and willfully obscured those differences. That was done by burying statistics that disproved the all-minorities-are-alike myth, and by fashioning more than 50 recommendations to combat racism, not a single one of which spoke to the unique claims of black people.

If we are now going to recognize that even some black people — people like Obama — are not "like blacks," how can Mexican-Americans and Cambodian-Americans be "like blacks"? Can the latter be eligible for entitlements that were assigned largely on the basis of a "black model" that suddenly seems not to apply even to all black people? If black people with immigrant backgrounds are less appropriate targets of affirmative-action and "diversity" programs than other black people, a huge issue can no longer be avoided: What claims for special treatment can be made for nonblack populations with an immigrant base? Can the genie of the immigrant/nonimmigrant distinction be put back in the bottle, or are we to generate new, group-specific theoretical justifications for each group? That prospect is an intimidating one, trapping us by our habit of defining disadvantaged groups ethnoracially.

Employers and educators are asked to treat the Latino population as an ethnoracial group, yet the strongest claim that many of its members have for special protections and benefits is specific to economic conditions. The history of mistreatment of Latinos by Anglos is well documented, but the instances most comparable to antiblack racism predate the migration of the bulk of today's Latino population. One need not deny the reality of prejudicial treatment of Latinos to recognize another reality as more salient: Immigration policies and practices that actively encourage the formation of a low-skilled, poorly educated population of immigrant labor from Mexico and other Latin American nations. As the recent debates over immigration confirm, the United States positively demands an underclass of workers and finds it convenient to obtain most of them from nearby Mexico....

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