John Iceland is Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State University, and former Branch Chief, Poverty and Health Statistics Branch, Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division, U. S. Census Bureau. He is also the author of Poverty in America: A Handbook (UC Press, February 2006), and most recently, Where We Live Now: Immigration and Race in the United States (UC Press, January 2009).
By John Iceland
In the wake of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, many commentators and talking heads have launched into a debate about whether our country has entered a “post-racial” era, where Americans have finally embraced equality and color-blindedness and shed much of its racially-charged baggage.
Among those who study racial and ethnic relations in the U.S., there are frequent disagreements about these kinds of issues, which often boil down to the question of whether the proverbial glass is half empty or half full. On the one hand, even the most cursory look at economic statistics indicates deep levels of socioeconomic inequality in the U.S., with the black median household income, for example, at 62 percent of the median white household income.
On the other hand, by many measures blacks are doing much better than in the past. The black middle class has grown considerably over the past several decades. Black poverty rates have declined. Blacks, while still disadvantaged, have gained in political and economic power.
Some have noted that increasing racial and ethnic diversity—a result of large-scale immigration from Latin America, Asia, and even Africa—may be serving to ease the historical and stark black-white divide. Immigrants themselves are extraordinarily diverse. They include manual laborers with less than a primary school education and well-educated scientists who continue to spur economic innovation in places such as Silicon Valley.
My book, Where We Live Now, uses residential patterns in the U.S. as a window on the social distance between various racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups. There are in fact many reasons to be optimistic about the racial and ethnic relations. Black-white residential segregation, which could appropriately be termed American Apartheid a generation ago, while still high today, has nevertheless declined over a several-decade period. While Hispanic and Asian immigrants often find comfort in ethnic enclaves, the evidence presented in my book indicates that over time and across generations we are witnessing a pattern of “spatial assimilation”—a reduction in differences in the residential patterns across groups. In metropolitan areas with a greater proportion of immigrants, black-white segregation is also lower, suggesting that immigrants are indeed often serving to ease the old black-white divide.
Obama’s electoral victory does not signal that “everything” has changed. But it does serve as a signpost that things have changed, and that they continue to change, in America. As I conclude in Where We Live Now, ethnic-group affiliations clearly continue to play important and vital roles in the organization of American life. Nevertheless, there are also a growing number of places where groups are creating new kinds of connections and new kinds of communities.