American Racial and Ethnic Politics in the 21st Century: A cautious look ahead

Jennifer L. Hochschild
Jennifer L. Hochschild Professor - Government, Harvard University

March 1, 1998

The course of American racial and ethnic politics over the next few decades will depend not only on dynamics within the African-American community, but also on relations between African Americans and other racial or ethnic groups. Both are hard to predict. The key question within the black community involves the unfolding relationship between material success and attachment to the American polity. The imponderable in ethnic relations is how the increasing complexity of ethnic and racial coalitions and of ethnicity-related policy issues will affect African-American political behavior. What makes prediction so difficult is not that there are no clear patterns in both areas. There are. But the current patterns are highly politically charged and therefore highly volatile and contingent on a lot of people s choices.

Material Success and Political Attachment

Today the United States has a thriving, if somewhat tenuous, black middle class. By conventional measures of income, education, or occupation at least a third of African Americans can be described as middle class, as compared with about half of whites. That is an astonishing–probably historically unprecedented–change from the early 1960s, when blacks enjoyed the “perverse equality” of almost uniform poverty in which even the best-off blacks could seldom pass on their status to their children. Conversely, the depth of poverty among the poorest blacks is matched only by the length of its duration. Thus, today there is greater disparity between the top fifth and the bottom fifth of African Americans, with regard to income, education, victimization by violence, occupational status, and participation in electoral politics, than between the top and bottom fifths of white Americans.

An observer from Mars might suppose that the black middle class would be highly gratified by its recent and dramatic rise in status and that persistently poor blacks would be frustrated and embittered by their unchanging or even worsening fate. But today’s middle-class African Americans express a “rage,” to quote one popular writer, that has, paradoxically, grown along with their material holdings. In the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans who were well-off frequently saw less racial discrimination, both generally and in their own lives, than did those who were poor. Poor and poorly educated blacks were more likely than affluent or well-educated blacks to agree that “whites want to keep blacks down” rather than to help them or simply to leave them alone. But by the 1980s blacks with low status were perceiving less white hostility than were their higher-status counterparts.

Recent evidence confirms affluent African Americans’ greater mistrust of white society. More college-educated blacks than black high school dropouts believe that it is true or might be true that “the government deliberately investigates black elected officials in order to discredit them,” that “the government deliberately makes sure that drugs are easily available in poor black neighborhoods in order to harm black people,” and that “the virus which causes AIDS was deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people.” In a 1995 Washington Post survey, when asked whether “discrimination is the major reason for the economic and social ills blacks face,” 84 percent of middle-class blacks, as against 66 percent of working-class and poor blacks, agreed.

Ironically, today most poor and working-class African Americans remain committed to what Gunnar Myrdal called “the great national suggestion” of the American Creed. That is a change; in the 1960s, more well-off than poor blacks agreed that “things are getting better…for Negroes in this country.” But, defying logic and history, since the 1980s poor African Americans have been much more optimistic about the eventual success of the next generation of their race than have wealthy African Americans. They are more likely to agree that motivation and hard work produce success, and they are often touchingly gratified by their own or their children s progress.

Assume for the moment that these two patterns, of “succeeding more and enjoying it less” for affluent African Americans, and “remaining under the spell of the great national suggestion” for poor African Americans, persist and grow even stronger. That suggests several questions for political actors.

It is virtually unprecedented for a newly successful group of Americans to grow more and more alienated from the mainstream polity as it attains more and more material success. One exception, David Mayhew notes, is South Carolina’s plantation owners in the 1840s and 1850s. That frustrated group led a secessionist movement; what might embittered and resource-rich African Americans do? At this point the analogy breaks down: the secessionists’ actions had no justification, whereas middle-class blacks have excellent reason to be intensely frustrated with the persistent, if subtle, racial barriers they constantly meet. If more and more successful African Americans become more and more convinced of what Orlando Patterson calls “the homeostatic…principle of the…system of racial domination”–racism is squelched in one place, only to arise with renewed force in another–racial interactions in the political arena will be fraught with tension and antagonism over the next few decades.

In that case, ironically, it may be working-class blacks’ continued faith in the great national suggestion that lends stability to Americans’ racial encounters. If most poor and working-class African Americans continue to care more about education, jobs, safe communities, and decent homes than about racial discrimination and antagonism per se, they may provide a counterbalance in the social arena to the political and cultural rage of the black middle class.

But if these patterns should be reversed–thus returning us to the patterns of the 1960s–quite different political implications and questions would follow. For example, it is possible that the United States is approaching a benign “tipping point,” when enough blacks occupy prominent positions that whites no longer resist their success and blacks feel that American society sometimes accommodates them instead of always the reverse. That point is closer than it ever has been in our history, simply because never before have there been enough successful blacks for whites to have to accommodate them. In that case, the wealth disparities between the races will decline as black executives accumulate capital. The need for affirmative action will decline as black students SAT scores come to resemble those of whites with similar incomes. The need for majority-minority electoral districts will decline as whites discover that a black representative could represent them.

But what of the other half of a reversion to the pattern of 1960s beliefs, when poor blacks mistrusted whites and well-off blacks, and saw little reason to believe that conventional political institutions were on their side? If that view were to return in full force, among people now characterized by widespread ownership of fiirearms and isolation in communities with terrible schools and few job opportunities, there could indeed be a fire next time.

One can envision, of course, two other patterns–both wealthy and poor African Americans lose all faith, or both wealthy and poor African Americans regain their faith that the American creed can be put into practice. The corresponding political implications are not hard to discern. My point is that the current circumstances of African Americans are unusual and probably not stable. Political engagement and policy choices over the next few decades will determine whether affluent African Americans come to feel that their nation will allow them to enjoy the full social and psychological benefits of their material success, as well as whether poor African Americans give up on a nation that has turned its back on them. Racial politics today are too complicated to allow any trend, whether toward or away from equality and comity, to predominate. Political leaders’ choices, and citizens’ responses, are up for grabs.

Ethnic Coalitions and Antagonisms

America is once again a nation of immigrants, as a long series of recent newspaper stories and policy analyses remind us. Since 1990 the Los Angeles metropolitan region has gained almost a million residents, the New York region almost 400,000, and the Chicago region 360,000–almost all from immigration or births to recent immigrants. Most of the nation’s fastest-growing cities are in the West and Southwest, and their growth is attributable to immigration. More than half of the residents of New York City are immigrants or children of immigrants. How will these demographic changes affect racial politics?

Projections show that the proportion of Americans who are neither white nor black will continue to increase, dramatically so in some regions. By 2030, whites will become a smaller proportion of the total population of the nation as a whole, and their absolute numbers will begin to decrease. The black population, now just over 13 percent, will grow, but slowly. The number of Latinos, however, will more than double, from 24 million in 1990 to almost 60 million in 2030 (absent a complete change in immigration laws). The proportion of Asians will also double.

A few states will be especially transformed. By 2030 Florida’s population is projected to double; by then its white population, now about seven times as large as either the black or Latino population, will be only three or four times as large. And today, of 30 million Californians, 56 percent are white, 26 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian, and 7 percent black. By 2020, when California’s population could grow by as much as 20 million (10 million of them new immigrants), only 35 percent of its residents are projected to be white; 40 percent will be Latino, 17 percent Asian, and 8 percent black.

These demographic changes may have less dramatic effects on U.S. racial politics than one might expect. For example, the proportion of voters who are white is much higher than the proportion of the population that is white in states such as California and Florida, and that disproportion is likely to continue for some decades. Second, some cities, states, and even whole regions will remain largely unaffected by demographic change. Thus racial and ethnic politics below the national level will be quite variable, and even in the national government racial and ethnic politics will be diluted and constrained compared with the politics in states particularly affected by immigration. Third, most Latino and Asian immigrants are eager to learn English, to become Americans, and to be less insulated in ethnic communities, so their basic political framework may not differ much from that of native-born Americans.

Finally, there are no clear racial or ethnic differences on many political and policy issues; the fault lines lie elsewhere. For example, in the 1995 Washington Post survey mentioned earlier, whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians showed similar levels of support for congressional action to limit tax breaks for business (under 40 percent), balance the budget (over 75 percent), reform Medicare (about 55 percent), and cut personal income taxes (about 50 percent). Somewhat more variation existed in support for reforming the welfare system (around 75 percent support) and limiting affirmative action (around a third). The only issue that seriously divided survey participants was increased limits on abortion: 24 percent support among Asian Americans, 50 percent support among Latinos, and 35 percent and 32 percent support among whites and blacks respectively. Other surveys show similar levels of inter-ethnic support for proposals to reduce crime, balance the federal budget, or improve public schooling.

But when political disputes and policy choices are posed, as they frequently are, along lines that allow for competition among racial or ethnic groups, the picture looks quite different. African Americans are overwhelmingly likely (82 percent) to describe their own group as the one that “faces the most discrimination in America today.” Three in five Asian Americans agree that blacks face the most discrimination, as do half of whites. But Latinos split evenly (42 percent to 40 percent) over whether to award African Americans or themselves this dubious honor. The same pattern appears in more specific questions about discrimination. Blacks are consistently more likely to see bias against their own race than against others in treatment by police, portrayals in the media, the criminal justice system, promotion to management positions, and the ability to get mortgages and credit loans. Latinos are split between blacks and their own group on all these questions, whereas whites see roughly as much discrimination against all three of the nonwhite groups and Asians vary across the issues.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the coming complexity in racial and ethnic politics is a 1994 National Conference survey asking representatives of the four major ethnic groups which other groups share the most and the least in common with their own group. According to the survey, whites feel most in common with blacks, who feel little in common with whites. Blacks feel most in common with Latinos, who feel least in common with them. Latinos feel most in common with whites, who feel little in common with them. Asian Americans feel most in common with whites, who feel least in common with them. Each group is running after another that is fleeing from it. If these results hold up in political activity, then American racial and ethnic politics in the 21st century are going to be interesting, to say the least.

Attitudes toward particular policy issues show even more clearly the instability of racial and ethnic coalitions. Latinos support strong forms of affirmative action more than do whites and Asians, but sometimes less than do blacks. In a 1995 survey, whites were much more likely to agree strongly than were blacks, Asians, and Latinos that Congress should “limit affirmative action.” But the converse belief–that Congress should not limit affirmative action–received considerable support only from African Americans. Across a variety of surveys, blacks are always the most likely to support affirmative action for blacks; blacks and Latinos concur frequently on weaker though still majority support for affirmative action for Latinos, and all groups concur in lack of strong support for affirmative action for Asians. Exit polls on California”s Proposition 209 banning affirmative action found that 60 percent of white voters, 43 percent of Asian voters, and just over one-quarter of black and Latino voters supported the ban.

What might seem a potential coalition between blacks and Latinos is likely to break down, however–as might the antagonism between blacks and whites–if the issue shifts from affirmative action to immigration policy. The data are too sparse to be certain of any conclusion, especially for Asian Americans, but Latinos and probably Asians are more supportive of policies to encourage immigration and offer aid to immigrants than are African Americans and whites. A recent national poll by the Princeton Survey Research Associates suggests why African Americans and whites resemble each other and differ from Latinos in their preferences for immigration policy: without exception they perceive the effects of immigration–on such things as crime, employment, culture, politics, and the quality of schools–to be less favorable than do Latinos.

Taking advantage of the possibilities

We can only guess at this point about how the complicated politics of racial and ethnic competition and coalition-building will connect with the equally complicated politics of middle-class black alienation and poor black marginality. These are quintessentially political questions; the economic and demographic trajectories merely set the conditions for an array of political possibilities ranging from assimilation to a racial and ethnic cold war. I conclude only with the proposal that there is more room for racial and ethnic comity than we sometimes realize because most political issues cut across group lines–but achieving that comity will require the highly unlikely combination of strong leadership and sensitive negotiation.