Arts & Culture

‘Nation-shaking’ racial, ethnic changes

6 min read

Real earthquakes are slow to build and fast to erupt. Other, metaphorical, quakes, can follow the same pattern — and be just as earthshaking.

Take the demographics of race, for one. By the year 2040, whites will no longer make up the majority of U.S. citizens. They’ll be surpassed in numbers by a steady percentage of blacks, a modest growth in Asians, and — most of all — by a booming rise in Latinos.

By 2100, the percentage of American whites will shrink dramatically, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. Whites, about 70 percent of the population now, will get whittled to just 40 percent.

This kind of rapid, nation-shaking demographic change captivates Harvard Kennedy School political scientist Kim M. Williams, an adviser to the U.S. Census Bureau and a Radcliffe Fellow this year.

In a lecture at Radcliffe Gymnasium (Dec. 17), the HKS associate professor of public policy hoped that some enterprising scholar would write a book on how whites will be affected by the rise of Latino political power.

But Williams has another book in mind. It was inspired by a demographic fact, not a demographic projection. In 2007, she noted, the number of U.S. Latinos edged past blacks for the first time. Latinos became, in effect, America’s majority minority.

When this shift happened, Williams was busy on another book. But she scratched out a note to herself and carried it around for months. It read: “What happens when blacks are no longer at the center of civil rights enforcement?”

That questioned simmered. “We’re moving away from the black-white divide,” Williams told her pre-break Radcliffe audience of about 80. With Latinos on a demographic fast track, she said, “you can’t really study race in the way you did even 15 years ago.”

But what will replace the black-white divide? How will jostling racial groups react to one another in a changing political environment?

In her next book, Williams is investigating some of those questions. “Transition: The Politics of Racial and Ethnic Change in Urban America” explores how blacks are coping with the rise of Latino political power.

The challenge from Latinos comes at an awkward time. In some urban centers, blacks had only recently challenged white dominance to become politically ascendant. Now another racial challenge is at hand, making it possible that — in political terms — urban blacks face successive domination.

Williams set out to measure how her self-defined “black elites” were coping with emergent Latinos. In the summer of 2007, she oversaw an ambitious data-gathering project by nine graduate students in the same number of cities. Using uniform questionnaires, they surveyed 346 black leaders from the influential worlds of politics, business, and religion.

Interviews are still being transcribed, and data points encoded. But preliminary results show that most blacks already think they are being “displaced” by Latinos, said Williams.

That’s true, complained one black respondent from Los Angeles. “The minority discourse is about Latino immigrants right now.”

Williams cast a wide net for her interviews, choosing cities where Latino demographic pressures vary and where blacks had already made significant political inroads: Paterson, N.J., and Hartford, Conn., in the Northeast, Detroit in the industrial heartland, North Miami in the Latinized South, and other cities: Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., Houston, Los Angeles, and Oakland, Calif.

Williams wants to open up new scholarly ground. Conceptually, she said, no one is looking at how black political elites might be displaced by Latinos. And political science scholarship offers few theoretical models to assess racial and ethic change in the political arena.

But she found inspiration in one older book: Peter Eisinger’s 1980 study of racial and ethnic transition in three American cities, “The Politics of Displacement.”

Eisinger looked at how “Yankees” in Boston were displaced by the Irish from 1880 to 1930. He also examined two 1973 mayoral elections that broke race barriers: wins by Maynard Jackson in Atlanta and by Coleman Young in Detroit.

Eisinger’s concept of “dislocation domains” for white elites helped Williams study the similar pressures now being felt by black elites.

Dislocation can be demographic, as when Latinos simply outnumber blacks. Dislocation can also be political, economic, or even symbolic — as in how “the same vocabulary” of emergent racial political power is expressed in different ways, said Williams.

She showed two contrasting covers from Newsweek magazine. One from 1970 pictured three gruff Black Panthers in leather jackets — “the face of black power,” said Williams. The other, from 2005, pictured Los Angeles’ new Latino mayor, smiling and suit-clad.

Williams also looked at Eisinger’s idea that displaced whites used “modes of adjustment.” That helped, but she decided that the differences between adjustments by black and white elites were simply too great.

In the 1970s, for instance, one “mode of adjustment” for whites was urban white flight — “withdrawal,” in Eisenberg’s terms. Blacks don’t typically have that choice, said Williams.

In addition, whites conceded part of the political arena in some cities decades ago, she said, but they kept control of the economic sphere — something blacks had never controlled to begin with.

In short, said Williams, blacks may be “the newly dislocated” in American politics, but they “don’t have the same range of options” for coping with that dislocation because of an emergent political force.

The shortcomings of the Eisinger model left Williams hunting for her own scholarly framework.

She settled on a model that uses preferences in immigration policies as a proxy for the “strategic adjustments” blacks have to make in the face of political challenge from Latinos. “You can’t understand race,” said Williams, “unless you understand immigration.”

Expectations of how well blacks and Latinos will get along is partly a matter of geography, she said — dependent on where Latinos are in the majority already (Los Angeles) and where they are not (Detroit).

But it’s already evident, said Williams, that blacks have a more liberal view of interracial cooperation in the political sphere than whites do.

Immigration policy preferences divide people into four categories, she said, ranging from very liberal “cosmopolitans” (in favor of Latino entry and rights once they get here) to the deeply conservative “classical exclusionists” (no entry, no rights).

But many blacks fall into a category Williams calls “egalitarian nationalists.” They don’t like the idea of open borders, or of Latinos taking their jobs. But they bristle at the idea of denying anyone rights once they get to America.

“A lot of black people are in that space,” said Williams. “When you start talking about second-class citizens — black people are not really down with that.”

Her line drew a laugh. But Williams likes the idea of using immigration attitudes as a way of getting to the “ideological commitments” those attitudes reveal.

The black-white political divide is disappearing as the sole way of interpreting the political landscape — in part because of Latino demographics. That fascinates Williams as a scholar, but she wonders: What’s next?

One clue, said Williams, is in how black Americans respond to the rise of Latino power and influence.