Although racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States have been afforded many opportunities, they have also experienced a great deal of oppression over the course of U.S. history. Native Americans lost thousands of acres of land to early American settlers, and a large percentage of the Native population died in the process. In the midto late 1800s, individuals of Chinese descent were welcomed to the country to help build railroads, only to be excluded from citizenship and naturalization once the task was completed. Thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were interned in the name of national security following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars worth of land and personal property. Blacks in America suffered the peculiar institution of slavery, the failure of reconstruction, and the insults and violence of Jim Crow. They also endured violence and bloodshed during the fight for civil rights, and they continue to address the backlash against affirmative action. Hispanics, likewise, have faced discrimination. They have been exploited for their labor and marginalized based upon their race, country of origin, and the continued use of their native tongue. Collectively, these groups are referred to as nonwhites.
Whites in America are the dominant racial group, and as such have historically had greater access to property, power and prestige than other racial groups. There have historically been large socioeconomic differences between whites and nonwhites, particularly in regard to wealth, income, educational attainment, and occupational opportunity and prestige. These differences have been most apparent between whites and blacks. Variations have also been observed between blacks and other racial and ethnic minority groups, and there has been an emergence of a “black” versus “nonblack” dichotomy. There are political as well as methodological implications for this distinction.
The designation “black” is used to describe a group of individuals that share not only similar phenotypical characteristics, such as skin color. Even more significantly, those labeled “black” are similar in that they are likely to receive unequal treatment compared to whites. The classification of “black” and “nonblack” persons is problematic, however, because the latter term often includes groups that may not be identified as black but have nonetheless had experiences comparable to that of blacks in terms of social and economic injustice. Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans, for example, have suffered discrimination and unequal treatment in many arenas.
Moreover, the use of these terms to refer to various groups in quantitative analyses may provide support for the belief held by some about the inherent pathology of black culture, while also helping to mask the role of structural barriers in limiting upward social mobility among blacks and other minority groups. Instead of addressing the structural barriers that contribute to observed black-white disparities, efforts to eliminate the “black” category have emerged.
Some have questioned the usefulness of the black-nonblack dichotomy, given the successes of the multiracial movement in the late twentieth century. In 2000, for example, the U.S. Census Bureau allowed individuals to identify with more than one race. The use of this dichotomy is also deemed by some to have little use politically, given what can be described as the “Latin Americanization” of American racial norms. American society, in other words, can be seen as moving from a biracial classification system to a more complex multiracial or multicultural classification system. But the political successes associated with the multiracial movement do not render the black-nonblack dichotomy, or other racial classification scheme, empty. Instead, they highlight the fact that such classifications are multilevel and multidimensional—and often politically contested.
SEE ALSO Minorities; Whites
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2003. From Bi-Racial to Tri-Racial: The Emergence of a New Racial Classification System in the United States. In Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the “Color-Blind” Era, ed. Cedric Herring, Verna Keith, and Hayward Derrick Horton. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Keister, Lisa. 2000. Wealth in America: Trends in Wealth Inequality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Oliver, Melvin, and Thomas Shapiro. 1995. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. New York: Routledge.
Zuberi, Tukufu. 2001. Thicker than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Lori Latrice Sykes