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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

 | 
Corinne Duboin
, 
Claudine Raynaud

Theorizing Diaspora, Blackness and Post-Raciality

Blackness and the African Diaspora in ‘Postracial’ America

Lisa Veroni-Paccher

Résumé

Attempts at challenging the American racial order have not necessarily succeeded in bringing about an era when blackness and whiteness as racialized identities do not play such a major role in shaping Americans’ lives—an era that can be equated to a postracial one. However, acts of resistance have led to an increasing destabilization of that order. To assess that level of destabilization, we will first look at attacks against the racial order on the part of activists of the Black Freedom Struggle, and the new generation of black politicians as well, and question whether the racial hierarchy has had a lessening importance in today’s sociopolitical realm. Then we will focus on groups that stand at the periphery, because their racial identity is perceived as somewhat ambivalent, namely multiracials and immigrants of the black African diaspora, to see whether they can resist compliance with the existing racial hierarchy. Then we will assess the reality of the decentering of the racial order in contemporary America, using public opinion data on race, racism and racial equality, and focusing on the opinion of Americans—black American youth in particular— along racial lines. In these so-called postracial times when American voters have chosen a biracial president twice, when demographic and immigration trends are evolving at such a fast rate that the nation is not seen as ‘black and white’ anymore, and identities are increasingly recognized as inherently hybrid, to what extent has the American racial order been ‘destabilize[d], decenter[ed] and carnivaliz[ed]’ (Mercer 1988: 57)?

Texte intégral

  • 1 There was a rising sense of optimism about race relations during and shortly after the first electi (...)

1Racial identity is both porous and polarizing in the United States at this historical moment which some social critics have misrepresented as ‘postracial’. They are responding to the occurrence of a twice-elected biracial president as well as to the rapidly-evolving immigration of people of African descent. Racial identity, on the other hand, reflects the incessant interaction existing between how one perceives oneself, how one is perceived by others, and how one believes he or she is perceived by others. In the American hierarchical order, racial identity determines individual or group status in the sociopolitical hierarchy (Dawson 1993, 2002; Bobo 2001, 2012). American society has been historically understood as structured around a black/white binary, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. African Americans have resisted this hierarchy, most notably in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, in the hope of transforming democratic institutions. If challenging the American racial order failed to bring about a democratic era when race no longer determined Americans’ lives1, those acts of resistance have nevertheless destabilized that order. This paper will assess the level of destabilization by underlining how the importance of the American racial hierarchy has lessened in the sociopolitical realm. The new generation of black politicians, and activists and political leaders of the Black Freedom Struggle before them, have resisted the racial order by redefining blackness and transforming racial terminology in the political arena.

2This paper also looks at the way in which the people on the periphery, namely immigrants of the black African diaspora and multiracials, whose racial identity is perceived as somewhat ambivalent, are able to avoid complying with the racial hierarchy. This paper goes on to consider to what extent the new demographic composition may help redefine the contours of race to the point that other hierarchical orders in the US will replace the black/white one.

  • 2 Desmond and Emirbayer’s definition of race as a ‘symbolic category, based on phenotype or ancestry (...)
  • 3 To understand how, in the field of social sciences, race as a symbolic category has been challenged (...)
  • 4 Blackness will thus be construed as a set of personal, social and institutional identities which do (...)

3The ever-changing racial and ethnic composition of America indeed calls for a redefinition of the contours of race, blackness and the black African Diaspora. Black studies researchers debate whether there is room for optimism, whether race as a symbolic category2 can be reappraised to various degrees.3 Unfortunately, the ongoing discussion has been compartmentalized. Academic research is too often broken up along rigid theoretical lines to the extent that scholars do not always benefit from the perspective of others who do not fit their academic framework (Dawson 2002). It also tends to lack reflexivity (Desmond and Emirbayer 2012). By blending empirical, sociological and cultural approaches and focusing on how racial identities are perceived and defined in contemporary America, this article will thus reopen the discussion on the shifting contours of race and blackness.4 The purpose here is to reconcile disciplinary fields that have increasingly grown apart, by reuniting in the same paper the two seemingly contradictory characteristics of racialized identities, namely their rigidity and their porosity.

  • 5 This manifestation of black nationalism was at its best when it generated a sense that the fate of (...)
  • 6 Generations of African Americans had undeniably resisted negative stereotyping before this post-Civ (...)

4Activists and political leaders of the Black Freedom Struggle have attempted to resist the American racial order by redefining blackness. Black Power questioned that hierarchical order built on the black/white dichotomy. It led African Americans to rediscover that, if they could trace a common past based on the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow in a ‘community of suffering’, they could also trace it to a specific African heritage, real or imagined.5 From this point forward, they would also find ways to perform their black identity more openly and positively as well as resist the imposed white standard of negative black stereotyping.6

  • 7 This article of June 30 accompanied the article on the Black Power movement, ‘Angry but they still (...)
  • 8 Without necessarily reworking the notion of ‘white’, token of ‘innocence, virginity, and cleanlines (...)
  • 9 For many blacks, it made no difference: ‘it’s not the name that counts, it’s the thing’ to paraphra (...)
  • 10 Edelin was at the head of the National Urban Coalition at the time.
  • 11 Although there was notable resistance during the Million Man March for example, when Jackson’s spee (...)
  • 12 Of the 2,382 respondents to whom the question was asked, 1,146 (48.1 percent) voiced a preference f (...)

5Redefining blackness by using new terminology is a means of resisting the racial order. A 1969 Newsweek poll7 shows that blacks were slowly but surely shifting to a new appraisal of the label ‘black’ by then, especially among the youth, the wealthy and those living in the North. The aim was to turn the meaning of ‘black’, which used to be associated with ‘evil, sadness and filth’ on its head (Kennedy 2005: 78).8 Thus, in the minds of many young blacks, ‘black’ came to be associated with pride, autonomy, cultural and political resistance, while ‘Negro’ was linked to submissiveness, assimilation and acceptance of the status quo. According to public opinion data, this strategy seemed to have worked, as by the early 80s, blacks’ preferred group name had completely switched to black, a label which had by then lost its disruptive stance (Jaynes and William 1989: 197). In the late 80s, during his second presidential bid, Jesse Jackson chose to make the use of ‘African American’ instead of ‘black’ a major campaign issue.9 According to him, black identity was baseless; ‘African American’ thus emphasized a sense of common fate based on ethnic, not racial, identity (Martin 1991). For Ramona Edelin10, it was a means of unifying all people of the black African diaspora. For her, ‘African American’ was a geopolitical identity that would bring about a ‘cultural renaissance’ in the US and abroad (Ebony, July 89: 76). Within a few years, between one quarter and one third of Americans of African descent self-identified as African American, and by the mid-90s, slightly more than half (53 %) preferred the label over black (36 %)11 (Smith 1992). This percentage has remained relatively stable since.12

6Dramatically challenging the American racial order seems to be an impossible task, because the ‘one-drop’ rule (hypodescent), which automatically assigns children of mixed race to the subordinate group, is so firmly rooted in American culture, that it places blacks in a permanent subordinate position (Davis 1997). If the ‘one drop’ rule remains predominant in America, immigrants who come from countries which play by different rules might not, however, have to comply with the rule. In fact, the Census question on racial categories does not distinguish immigrants from the black African diaspora from black Americans, which makes strategies of resistance against the American racial order seem less relevant. The 1965 Hart-Celler amendment to the Immigration Act changed the face of immigration by suppressing racial quotas and replacing them with a visa preference system. This benefited immigrants from the black African diaspora, especially those from the West Indies (Waters 2001: 35), although it does not compare with the explosion of Asian and Hispanic immigration.

7Black African immigration has increased significantly since the 1980s, by about 200% before the millennium, and by nearly 100% since then, mostly thanks to refugee or diversity visa programs, but also thanks to family-based admissions (Capps, McCabe and Fix, 2012). In comparison, Afro-Caribbean migration—which is mainly based on family-related admissions—from Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic mostly, has slowed considerably in recent years (it grew by 19% as opposed to 92% for black Africans) (Thomas 2012). Because of recent immigration trends, it has become increasingly difficult for the foreign-born population to comply with the US census racial categories. Moreover, the ‘white’ box is checked by less than half of the foreign-born.

8To take but one famous example, the immigrant side of Obama’s biracial identity assuredly does not conform to the common standards imposed on blackness. In other words, Obama is not perceived as stereotypically African American (Scheiber 2004: 109). Obama identified as black only on his last Census form, which was a disappointment for those who hoped he would check more than one box. For others, it marked a subtle connection between all members of the black African diaspora. And this in turn leads to two further questions: do the racial identities of immigrants from that diaspora appear as more desirable than those of black Americans? Do they modify common perceptions regarding blackness?

  • 13 As Fredrickson underlines in Racism: A Short History (2002): ‘Jim Crow, apartheid, or colonization (...)

9Black immigrants from Africa have a much higher educational level and Afro-Caribbean immigrants a higher socioeconomic status than black Americans as a whole.13 It consequently increases the fluidity of ‘blackness’, by putting the emphasis on the variety of experiences of the black African diaspora in the US. However, again, because they will probably be identified as black, those immigrants—especially among first generation immigrants—engage in strategies to retain an identity that differentiates them from black Americans. Mary C. Waters’ landmark study of West Indian immigrants shows that becoming American for them means becoming African American, which those immigrants equate with a lower social status than the one they already have. This definitely contradicts theories of assimilation (ibid. 93).

  • 14 By retaining their accent, identifying themselves first as foreign, resisting racism, etc.

10Those immigrants try to maintain their identities as foreigners to make sure they are not assimilated to black Americans.14 They try to ‘exit’ from blackness (ibid. 151). Moreover, if more than three quarters (77 %) of all foreign-born and American blacks consider themselves as a distinct racial group, only 1/3 (36 %) believe that all members of the black/African diaspora work collectively to achieve common goals. Second-generation immigrants are much less inclined, however, to fight against that African American identity that is being thrust upon them. If they do not actively resist social and institutionalized racial identities, they tend to move down the social ladder because of their association with blackness. Those who resist have only been able, so far, to alter the racial order on an individual level, ‘leapfrogging’ black Americans as a group (ibid.).

11Resisting the American racial order is an overwhelming task, and second-generation immigrants inevitably become absorbed in it as group; only individuals have been able to engage in acts of resistance, but they have been unable to disturb the racial order for the group. Even if acts of resistance multiply, they are not transformative enough to eradicate associations with whiteness and blackness at the personal, social and structural levels. It would mean that America desperately remains black and white, and that the association—to whatever degree—of one person or group with either exclusive blackness or inclusive whiteness still defines that person or that group’s life chances. These acts of resistance multiply and also come from Asian and Hispanic populations, to the extent that they might seem to be leapfrogging members of the black African diaspora, too, without actually distorting the racial order as well.

12Immigration trends in the last 40 years have indeed changed to the extent that the non-Latino white population of the US is shrinking at a fast rate. The US is said to be a nation which is ‘no longer black and white’. Lee and Bean (2010) argue that there are other potential hierarchical racial orders in the US that replace, or are about to replace, the one structured on the black/white dichotomy.

13The first is a racial order based on a black/nonblack dichotomy (Gans 1999) which might be a theoretically valuable model if it implies that various waves of immigrants have not necessarily been racially defined as opposed to whites but rather as opposed to blacks. This enhances their chances of integration, creates a further distance with the black African diaspora (Lee and Bean 2012: 32–33), and accurately reflects current historical trends.

14The second is a racial order based on a white/nonwhite divide. As Latino, Asian and black immigrants have been called nonwhite, some scholars have also argued that the black/white dichotomy has been replaced by, not a black/nonblack one, but a white/nonwhite one. Asian and Hispanic populations have been considered as disadvantaged minorities since the 1960s and thus would appear to be closer to blacks than whites in their experience of discrimination. However, Asian and Hispanic populations probably have less difficulty integrating. The strength of the argument over the existence of a white/nonwhite divide is the instability that it is associated with. The model itself does not challenge the predominance of whiteness. Thus, proponents of the white/nonwhite model argue that ‘black’ cannot be used as a perfect metonym for ‘nonwhite’. If the argument is pushed further, it implies that instead of expanding the boundaries of blackness, such a divide pushes black Americans to the bottom, nonwhite becoming thus a third category in itself that stands above black.

15The third and last is a triracial order, which appears at the same time more fluid but still does not fundamentally modify whiteness. Terms used to name those buffer categories are nonwhite, nonblack or brown (Gans 1999, Bonilla-Silva 2002). People forced into these categories are usually Asian, or Hispanic populations, as well as multiracials. These intermediate categories question whether America can incorporate large immigrant groups in times of economic crisis (Bonilla-Silva 2002).

16These alternative racial orders are not removed from the hegemonic model inherited from the years of official segregation (1896-1964); they reflect it. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as mere inflections of the black/white binary. The value of these alternative orders, and especially that of the triracial one, lie in their more or less implicit emphasis on the space in-between. They underline the fact that that space already exists in the black/white dichotomy and are helpful reminders that blackness and whiteness are porous. They have as much to do with color, heritage and history, as they have to do with an individual’s or a group’s position in the sociopolitical hierarchy. Nonwhiteness or nonblackness thus stand as temporary categories that are more or less attracted to the magnets of blackness or whiteness, until the group or individual associated with these categories become classified one way or another.

17Whiteness might be disappearing for an increasing number of Asian and Hispanic Americans. When they try to distance themselves from black Americans as they fight against the assumption that ‘black’ is not a metonym for ‘nonwhite’, they make whiteness highly visible for those who remain associated with blackness, despite multiplying acts of resistance. Immigrants from the black African diaspora are caught in an intermediary category which is more often than not limited in time and space.

  • 15 See for example the difference between ‘black refers to everybody who’s black’ with ‘I’d like to be (...)
  • 16 The Census, modified in 2000, makes it possible to check as many boxes as possible.
  • 17 Dahl’s model of assimilation concludes that, disregarding their ethnic origin, immigrants will grad (...)

18In ‘Post-Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity’, Ytasha Womack (2010) relates the conversation she had with an English journalist when she tried to explain to him the difference between ‘black’ and ‘African-American’, as if ‘African American’ excluded per se immigrants of the black African diaspora.15 How could those immigrants, who have sometimes just arrived in the US, readily self-identify as African American? According to racial categorization imposed by the US Census, citizenship and legal status are not taken into account, which means that black and African American are blurred into a single category.16 This readily destroys any attempt at decentering the racial hierarchy. Additionally, immigrants of the black African diaspora are, more often than not, perceived by others as black and/or African American, because people tend to rely more on physical traits than other criteria to define someone else’s racial/ethnic identity. It means that, as opposed to other groups, blacks’ racial and ethnic identities are usually not seen as potentially distinct. If ‘Negro’, ‘black’ and ‘African American’ are still defined in opposition to white, whiteness is still associated with a positive American image and presented as the normative standard. The only difference is that, by its implicit acceptance of hyphenation, the relatively new label might lead one to believe, with enhanced optimism, that Robert Dahl’s old concept of ethnic assimilation17 applies to African Americans as a group.

  • 18 Deracialization as a political strategy is the universalization of specific black issues by black c (...)
  • 19 Early in the campaign, he had chosen to distance himself from the most confrontational black leader (...)

19 Labeling is indeed a tricky business, and it becomes all the more political when it is associated with hyper- or deracialization.18 During his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama was regularly accused of being too black to garner white support, and especially working-class white support. At the same time, as he was successfully moving away from race in his campaign so as not to antagonize white voters, he was deemed not black enough. His campaign indeed made the candidate appear not as another black presidential candidate for the Democratic Party nomination, but as a candidate who happened to be black.19 As blacks as a group have tried to take control over how they were perceived by others, black leaders have been divided in their understanding of political racialization, especially since Obama’s rise to prominence. We might wonder then whether, at least at the elite level, there is not a will to make blackness fade away.

20There has been an increasing tendency among black politicians to downplay their racial/ethnic identity so as not to be defined solely as black or African American and, as a consequence, to garner the maximum of votes (McCormick and Jones 1989, Bositis 2001, D’Andra Orey and Ricks 2007). Still, the fading away of blackness need not be permanent, as political racialization is an extremely fluid phenomenon.

21The ties that bind the Black Freedom Struggle and new generations of black politicians are loosening. As Obama cleverly explained in his 1995 autobiography:

I can’t even hold up my experience as being representative of the black American experience [...] indeed learning to accept that particular truth—that I can embrace my black brothers and sisters, whether in this country or in Africa, and affirm a common destiny without pretending to speak to, or for, all of our various struggles—is part of what this book’s about.
(Obama 1995: XVI)

22 The new black politicians are less inclined to refer to the heritage of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, in the same way the millennial generation is historically removed from the era when blacks had to live with de jure segregation and were trying to resist it with all their might. Just like the young generation of black politicians, the young generation altogether tends to be, or at least to sound, more racially optimistic.

23According to recent data, and as the next part of this article will demonstrate, children of the millennial generation believe that race and racism, the vast array of habits, practices and laws that maintain the American hierarchical racial order in place, do not shape their lives the way it shaped the lives of their parents. Indeed, more than two decades of Pew Research surveys confirm that young Americans are perceived to be more racially tolerant than older generations. They have a shared acceptance of interracial dating, they are more inclined to interact with immigrants and have a positive view of that group, as 58% say immigrants strengthen the country (according to a 2009 Pew Research survey; just 43% of adults aged 30 and older agree).

  • 20 66% of Americans aged 18-30 voted for him and voted in unprecedented numbers (60 % in 2012).
  • 21 It consisted in discussion sessions with 18-25 Americans divided in 16 focus groups (divided in 4: (...)

24The millennial generation has been labeled postracial because of its ever-increasing racial diversity, its support for Obama in 2008 and 201220, and its unprecedented acceptance of group interaction across racial lines (PEW 2010). However, that does not necessarily mean that the young generation believe that postracialism is a social reality. In the study conducted by the Applied Research Center between October 2010 and February 201121, most young (age cohort from 18-29) white, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander or black Americans interviewed, first hesitated, and then used other generic words such as ‘discrimination based upon race or color’ or ‘stereotypes’, to define racism. Young whites focused on individual interaction to define racism, whereas blacks focused on structural racism. Meanwhile, defying the label, most agreed with the statement that race continued to matter.

25The MCPCE data conducted by Michael C. Dawson and Cathy Cohen and analyzed below also shows that young blacks are slightly more optimistic than their elders. Overall, these studies underline the persistence of divisions in public opinion along racial lines, even across generations. Whites are generally more optimistic than blacks when they deal with issues of race and racism. Blacks remain the most skeptical when they are confronted with the possibility of seeing racial inequality disappearing any time soon. This black ‘racial pessimism’, to use an expression coined by Michael C. Dawson, is more systematically studied in The Election 2008 and Beyond Survey by the MCPCE.

Figure 1 – Election 2008 and Beyond Chart 1

26 The Election 2008 and Beyond Survey data analyzed here confirms that even though most Americans believe in the permanence of racism, they fundamentally disagree on the extent to which it can be considered a major problem. White Americans (63 %), with Asian Americans (59 %), are much more optimistic than any other group, as the majority believe that race is not a major problem anymore. While Hispanic Americans are almost equally divided on the issue, only ¼ of black Americans (26 %) believe it to be so.

  • 22 The years between 2008 and the present have so far proved them right. A complete picture of racial (...)

27White Americans not only believe that racial equality for blacks is achievable in the future (28 %) but for almost half of those interviewed (48 %), it has already been achieved. Blacks are much more pessimistic, as the majority (57 %) believe that racial equality is not to be achieved in their lifetime, nor any time soon. Even though in relative terms, racism is less pervasive than it used to be, and racial equality is potentially more achievable today, in absolute terms, racism continues to be a barrier to social progress for too many nonwhite Americans, and even more clearly so for blacks. When asked whether the contours of race and racism are fading in the US, black Americans are the ones who paint the most depressing picture of the present, and forecast the gloomiest future.22

Figure 2 – Election 2008 and Beyond Racial Equality Chart 2

28 So far, this article seems to have come to a rather pessimistic conclusion that the 21st century has not brought about any concrete transformation in the racial order. However, a closer examination of the ever-changing composition of the US would seem to suggest that the racialized identities and racial dichotomies will not be forever salient. If one looks at the ever-changing demographic composition of the US, the future appears rather more optimistic. To give concrete facts, interracial marriages have increased by 600% since the 1960s, and there are seven times more biracial children born from these unions (Linehan 2000). Contrary to common perceptions though, interracial marriages overall are usually not a reliable predictor of the American racial order being challenged. In fact, they depend mostly on offer and demand, meaning on the size of racial groups, especially as regards the influx of immigrants, much more than on an actual weakening of the racial hierarchy (Lee and Bean 2010).

Figure 3 – Source: Pew Research Center analysis of the Decennial Census and American Community Surveys, IPUMS files

29 Today, more than 15% of new marriages are interracial, and this trend has been growing steadily over the past decades. It has accelerated in the last few years, although there are great discrepancies along racial lines: only 17% of blacks marry people of other racial categories. Moreover, less than 12% of interracial marriages are of black/white couples. Do blacks resist bi- and multiracialized identities as much as these identities resist them?

Figure 4 – Source: Pew Research Center analysis of the Decennial Census and American Community Surveys, IPUMS files

30When scholars look at biracials and multiracials, they tend to acknowledge that they make the racial order more complex and question the rigidity of racialized identities (Bonilla-Silva 2010). Bi- and multiraciality cast doubt upon whether racial/ethnic self-identification can actually supersede outside perceptions of the social construct, when an individual inevitably ‘interprets another person’s visible, physical features to correlate with a set of features she identifies with a certain race or ethnic group’ (Rich 2004: 20). It shows that the personal construct of one’s racial identity can differ from the collective one, and that it is fluid in time, place and space. In Soledad O’Brien’s documentary Who is Black in America? (Dec. 9, 2012), there is an apparent contradiction in Nayo Jones’s perception of herself as biracial, but not ‘really black’.

31Becca Khalil, who is Nayo’s friend, prefers to consider herself African American; she is light-skinned and her parents are Egyptian, so she might not be perceived as such in the US. Indeed, Becca’s African American friends do not consider her as black as, they say, she will never have to undergo ‘the Black experience’—which they equate with racial profiling. Becca’s personal and social identities, while complementing each other, seem also to contradict each other.

32Despite their initial self-identification—Nayo at the end of the documentary will start to conform to outside perceptions and identify herself as ‘black’ and express relief at doing so—both Nayo and Becca chose to conform to racial categories defined by the US Census. They adopt their ‘institutional identities’. When they filled in their college applications, Nayo checked the ‘black’ box only and Becca checked ‘white’ because they were both afraid of undermining their chances to go to college by contradicting census categorization, or ‘lying’ about their racial identity. Both Nayo and Becca, rather than self-identify, answered the following question: ‘What do you think we think you are?’ (Riley, 2010 Census-Mixed Race). They engaged in what Nikki Khanna calls ‘self-reflected appraisals’, which reminds us that personal, social and institutional identities, while being interdependent, do not necessarily reflect one another.

33Nayo’s and Becca’s choice—or apparent lack thereof—compares to that of the general population, especially blacks and Hispanics, and is consistent with the 2010 Census, where 92.6% of blacks identified only as black, 7.4% chose multiple answers, and only 4.4% identified both as black and white (US Census brief 2010: 3).

34While the increasing salience of multiracial identity, because of immigration and intermarriage trends, would seem to undermine the persistence of distinct racialized identities, thus weakening the racial order, Census self-identifications contradict the trend. Relying on those institutionalized identities means taking imposed racial categories for granted. It does not leave room for real self-identification, devoid of institutional constraints.

  • 23 The inclusion of the two latter groups fluctuates according to context.

35If multiraciality creates a new racial identity as some sort of buffer zone between whiteness and blackness, it might reify racial categories even more. The contours of whiteness have been altered in the past, in a perpetual ‘dialogue of resistance and recognition’ (cf. Hall 1990), to include immigrants from various ethnic groups such the Irish, Polish, and Italian—as well as Hispanic and Arab immigrants, but to a lesser extent.23 While ethnic identities can bear little or no relevance in shaping many people’s lives (Alba 1990, Gans 2012), multiracials who have one black parent definitely do not have the same access to whiteness and cannot be so easily ‘deracialized’. Multiracial identity might constitute the space in-between, a twilight zone, whose fluidity is both its strength and weakness. It is certainly a welcome reminder that racial identity is filled with inherent contradictions and can combine positive (being black gives one access to antidiscriminatory programs), and negative (being black means being discriminated against) characteristics. Multiracial Americans are becoming more visible, their increased visibility modifies how blackness is generally perceived, because it blurs, at least temporarily, the lines between blackness and whiteness. However, it does not fundamentally modify the American racial order, because after the initial hesitation, multiracials can still be identified solely as white or nonwhite.

  • 24 On the importance of external social validation in self-identification, see Vargas 2015.

36Like the snake that bites its tail in the phenomenon of ouroboros, white defines what is black and vice versa. Negative reflections in the mirror that repeat themselves indefinitely, racialized identities are unstable and fluid at the same time, and despite all the nuances, it all comes down to whether Americans are considered white or not. For too many members of the black African diaspora thus, experiencing the fluidity of their identities remains problematic when those identities become rigidified from lack of external social validation.24 It would make sense then, when access to whiteness is completely denied by others, that most African Americans, and multiracials as well as other members of the black African diaspora, when they can, actually choose to retain their blackness. As ‘paired categories’ (Anderson 2013), whiteness and blackness consequently are porous and rigid at the same time, as they work in constant interplay on an axis that remains inherently racialized.

  • 25 For an interesting discussion on intersectionality and the interaction of race, class and gender, s (...)

37Although studying the prevalence of the racial order might make it more important, as it remains under the magnifying lens of the scholar who is looking for answers, this constant interplay between identity categories is not limited to racialized ones. Believing so would be a blatant example of lack of reflexivity. Though questions of intersectionality25 go beyond the scope of this study, it comes as a vital necessity to recognize that racial identities have also been in constant interplay with axes related to ‘class, sexuality, gender, age, political consciousness’ (Gilroy 1993: 493). More than trying to find change in the American hierarchical racial order, what matters is to point out that, despite how they might be perceived by others, racialized identities have been hybridized and remain unquestionably diasporic. They are dispersed and whole at the same time, ‘constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference’ (Hall 1990: 235).

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Notes

1 There was a rising sense of optimism about race relations during and shortly after the first election of Obama (2008-2009). This racial optimism was sometimes accompanied with claims of the waning pertinence of race. The positive images of Obama and his family were said to have created subtle changes in the attitude of some Americans. However, no one dared claim that racial prejudice had disappeared.

2 Desmond and Emirbayer’s definition of race as a ‘symbolic category, based on phenotype or ancestry and constructed according to specific social and historical contexts, that is misrecognized as a natural category’ (2004).

3 To understand how, in the field of social sciences, race as a symbolic category has been challenged, remember for example the heated and contested debate on race versus class around William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and The Truly Disadvantaged (1987). Making symbolic categories compete against each other has however proven to be unproductive, as intersectionality studies have shown. Defending the myth, in 2008 and beyond, that the election of the first black president would bring about a postracial era was also a means to challenge the symbolic category of race. For a discussion on the increasing pertinence of a global identity, see for example Pico Iyer, The Global Soul, Jet Lags, Shopping Mall and the Search for Home (2001).

4 Blackness will thus be construed as a set of personal, social and institutional identities which do not have to match, but are associated with a subordinate position in the racial order—while whiteness is associated to a dominant one.

5 This manifestation of black nationalism was at its best when it generated a sense that the fate of Americans of African descent and maybe also Africans and Afro-Caribbeans was linked (see Dawson 1993). The problem is that promoting blackness was also a way of potentially reifying race leading to racial essentialism, all the more so for those who repudiated their dual identity as black and American as a consequence.

6 Generations of African Americans had undeniably resisted negative stereotyping before this post-Civil Rights generation and had also been proud of who they were despite the imposed social norm of the segregation era.

7 This article of June 30 accompanied the article on the Black Power movement, ‘Angry but they still have a dream’.

8 Without necessarily reworking the notion of ‘white’, token of ‘innocence, virginity, and cleanliness’, which might seem contradictory.

9 For many blacks, it made no difference: ‘it’s not the name that counts, it’s the thing’ to paraphrase Du Bois.

10 Edelin was at the head of the National Urban Coalition at the time.

11 Although there was notable resistance during the Million Man March for example, when Jackson’s speech did not include ‘African American’ but black as a signifier.

12 Of the 2,382 respondents to whom the question was asked, 1,146 (48.1 percent) voiced a preference for ‘black’, 1,173 (49.2 percent) said they preferred ‘African-American’, and 63 (2.7 percent) declined to express an opinion (Sigelman, Tuch and Martin 2005: 434).

13 As Fredrickson underlines in Racism: A Short History (2002): ‘Jim Crow, apartheid, or colonization have left many members of previously stigmatized and legally disadvantaged groups in an economically and psychologically vulnerable situation, which may make it difficult for them to compete with those whose families and forebears have not had to undergo such shattering experiences’ (142).

14 By retaining their accent, identifying themselves first as foreign, resisting racism, etc.

15 See for example the difference between ‘black refers to everybody who’s black’ with ‘I’d like to be connected to a landmass and not a color thank you’ (Ymack 2004: 51–52).

16 The Census, modified in 2000, makes it possible to check as many boxes as possible.
Image

17 Dahl’s model of assimilation concludes that, disregarding their ethnic origin, immigrants will gradually assimilate according to a three-step process. According to that model, ethnic identity becomes less and less relevant to the social and political choices that the newly assimilated immigrants make; economic and social concerns of a broader scope become more central to the immigrants’ lives when they reach the third stage—complete assimilation (Dahl 1961: 34–51).

18 Deracialization as a political strategy is the universalization of specific black issues by black candidates, used to gain enough white support to win the race in districts where the percentage of black constituents cannot guarantee success. See McCormick and Jones 1989.

19 Early in the campaign, he had chosen to distance himself from the most confrontational black leaders from the Congressional Black Caucus, from civil rights organizations and their leaders (NAACP, NUL) and from figures such as Farrakhan or Sharpton, or even Jackson. He also distanced himself from Reverend Wright and traditional black churches later in the campaign because he was aware that religious denominations also divide groups along racial lines. For a more detailed account of Obama’s deracialized campaign tactics, see Diallo 2011.

20 66% of Americans aged 18-30 voted for him and voted in unprecedented numbers (60 % in 2012).

21 It consisted in discussion sessions with 18-25 Americans divided in 16 focus groups (divided in 4: black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander and white), between October 2010 and February 2011.

22 The years between 2008 and the present have so far proved them right. A complete picture of racial equality in the US must take account of events after 2008 such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, the shootings of other unarmed African Americans such as Eric Garner in New York City or Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and the unrest and protests which followed (with the Black Lives Matter Movement). Those events emphasized the systematic racial bias of the criminal justice system (see also Michelle Alexander’s analysis of the mass incarceration of African American males as a form of racialized social control in The New Jim Crow [2012]. Those events do not help paint a bright picture of the future for too many African Americans indeed. This paper has a more modest goal here, however: to understand how racialized identities are perceived by white and nonwhite Americans so as to see whether there is room for racial optimism.

23 The inclusion of the two latter groups fluctuates according to context.

24 On the importance of external social validation in self-identification, see Vargas 2015.

25 For an interesting discussion on intersectionality and the interaction of race, class and gender, see Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Fall 2013 issue of the W.E.B. Du Bois Review 10: 2.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1 – Election 2008 and Beyond Chart 1
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/9478/img-1.jpg
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Légende Figure 2 – Election 2008 and Beyond Racial Equality Chart 2
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/9478/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 39k
Légende Figure 3 – Source: Pew Research Center analysis of the Decennial Census and American Community Surveys, IPUMS files
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/9478/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 17k
Légende Figure 4 – Source: Pew Research Center analysis of the Decennial Census and American Community Surveys, IPUMS files
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/9478/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 10k

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Université de Bordeaux Montaigne

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