Three Bad Ideas about Race in America

June 7, 2024   |   Tags:

My forthcoming article, Three Bad Ideas about Race in America, has been posted on SSRN.

Here is the abstract:

In this Essay, prepared for a symposium honoring Brown v. Board of Education's seventieth anniversary, I examine and critique three influential propositions regarding race promoted by some academic theorists and pundits.

Part I discusses and rejects the notion that differences in socioeconomic status among different American subgroups are best explained by the power relationships groups have with the dominant white majority.

Part II considers the claim that racial categories define collective actors who inevitably have common interests and outlooks. This Part concludes that this idea is flawed and perhaps incoherent.

Part III addresses the proposition that white Americans should be encouraged to cultivate a "white racial consciousness" so that whites will recognize their privilege and become "antiracists." Part III concludes that such encouragement is both wrongheaded and dangerous.

Those who promote the ideas discussed and critiqued in this essay share several premises: pessimism about the US overcoming its racist history; what I consider a naïve belief in an identitarianism shaped by antiracist ideology as the best way to mitigate racism; and a concomitant belief that preserving the salience of existing socially (and legally) constructed racial categories is both inevitable and mostly desirable.

These premises, in turn, are ultimately based on a skepticism of or hostility to the ability of liberalism to overcome racism. In other words, they represent a rejection of the optimistic racial liberalism prevalent among civil rights activists when Brown was decided.

And here is an excerpt:

One explanation provided for the success of some nonwhite minority groups is that these groups became "white adjacent," or "honorary whites" via social evolution. This permits them to succeed in a white supremacist society. This theory lacks explanatory power. For example, it cannot explain why Chinese Americans but not Cambodian Americans are "white adjacent," unless white-adjacentness is a tautology—the more successful members of a minority group are, the more the group is "white adjacent."

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that skin color rather than race itself explains these differences. Thus, within the Asian American group, Chinese, Filipinos, Korean, and Japanese, whom he says have relatively fair complexions, qualify as honorary whites. Darker-complexioned Southeast Asians, such as, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, however, are relegated to being part of the "collective black," and thus are doomed to lower socioeconomic status.

Granting arguendo that the color line Bonilla-Silva draws makes sense, there are still empirical gaps his theory cannot explain. For example, why were Filipino Americans among the poorest ethnic groups in the US in the late 1960s, but now have higher average incomes than Japanese or Chinese Americans, who in turn are wealthier on average than are white Americans? What do we make of Asian Indian Americans, who often have dark complexions yet have the highest income of any national-origin group? If their Caucasian physiognomy gives them an advantage, why don't other South Asian Americans, such as Pakistani, Bangladeshis, and Nepalese, have the same advantage? Why are Appalachian whites, despite being of white Protestant origin and resident in the US for centuries, at the bottom of the socioeconomic indicators pile? Why are Ethiopian and Somali Americans, whose physiognomy is relatively close to Europeans, less economically successful than are Nigerian Americans, who have a more distinctively African appearance?

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