Miller Center

Colloquium - Unstable Boundaries: Skin Color, Immigration, and Multiracialism in the American Racial Order

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The Miller Center is a nonpartisan institute that seeks to provide critical insights for the nation’s governance challenges.

Vesla Weaver
November 2, 2007
12:30PM - 12:30PM (EDT)

Vesla Weaver
Vesla Weaver

Vesla Weaver, Assistant Professor in the Politics Department of the University of Virginia


The boundaries within and across racial and ethnic groups in the United States are at present unstable, and the traditional American racial hierarchy may be loosening. By that claim, we mean three things: First, differences within the Black and Latino populations (and perhaps within the White and Asian populations) may be increasing in salience and significance; we study them through the lens of skin color disparities. Generally, light-skinned members of a group are multiply advantaged, compared with darker-skinned counterparts, and that fact has important implications for the possibilities of social and economic mobility, political influence, and cultural prestige. Second, high rates of immigration have generated questions about how people who do not fit clearly into a Black-White binary are influencing the extant American racial order. Do Hispanic Americans comprise a distinct race analogous to African Americans and European Americans; are they members of an ethnic group with an array of races, or does their presence require Americans to rethink the whole meaning of racial identification? What implications can be drawn from the fact that as a group, Asian Americans enjoy a higher socioeconomic status than European Americans; does that undermine the traditional racial order or only modify it marginally? Third, we are witnessing an unprecedented multiracial movement comprised of people who are demographically or ideologically descended from more than one race or ethnicity; some of them seek to maintain hybridity or identify with more than one racial or ethnic group. They are making claims on the polity and society in the name of blurring racial boundaries and perhaps reshaping the racial order.

Two earlier periods of American history witnessed similar boundary instability within and among groups – the 17th century, and the decades from 1870 through 1920. In both cases, the blurred boundaries were resolved into fixed racial identities (whether imposed or chosen), and a reinforcement of the American racial hierarchy in which Whites are deemed superior and Blacks inferior. The motivation for this project is to evaluate whether, how, and how much the current boundary instability resembles or differs from that of earlier periods. That is, has American society changed enough in the past half-century so that boundary instability is now a harbinger and perhaps cause of undermining the racial order? We eschew simple prediction, but seek to provide guidelines for understanding what has, and has not, changed.

To examine this question, we analyze data from about a dozen surveys, electoral campaigns and outcomes, the internal dynamics of the Census Bureau, Black and White popular media from 1865 to the present, the multiracial movement, the recent history of immigration, and other sources. We are seeking both to identify lessons from the turn of the 20th century that are applicable to the 21st century, and to trace the history itself of the rise and fall of racial boundary instability over that period in order to explain how the United States has reached its current complexity. We conclude by identifying six possible futures for the American racial order (some more plausible than others), and by analyzing the contradictory normative and political impulses behind each.

Unstable Boundaries: Skin Color, Immigration, and Multiracialism in the American Racial Order is a book project co-authored with Jennifer Hochschild and Traci Burch.

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