Editor's note: This is part 2 of a three-part series. To read part 1, click here.
(The Root)—When it comes to race in America, there’s no question that things are changing.
Here’s what we know for sure: The country is becoming more diverse. Half of kids under age 5 are members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Non-Hispanic white Americans will almost certainly be outnumbered by everyone else over the next three decades. Americans who consider themselves multiracial are growing in numbers faster than any other group.
Then there’s the part that the census can’t measure—the stories that reveal that racial identity is getting more complicated and convoluted all the time: a teen who once called herself Latina “coming out” as black; a woman everyone thinks is Greek announcing that she’s biracial; the news that 12 percent of Jewish households consider themselves “multiracial or nonwhite”; a leading African-American history scholar’s discovery that he has 49 percent European ancestry.
Think of the photo galleries circulating on the Internet that are designed to appeal to our collective fascination with the idea that there’s more to identity than meets the eye, including “15 Celebrities Most People Don’t Know Are Black” and “People You Might Not Realize Are Asian.” It’s no surprise that kids growing up against this backdrop had no idea why so many adults were up in arms over a Cheerios commercial’s depiction of a multiracial family.
Is this a sign that we’re swiftly approaching an America in which we all look about the same, and we will dispense with the messy and imprecise exercise of putting one another into racial categories?
Almost certainly not. Experts agree on that.
So what are their predictions about the future of race in America? How might the ways in which we think about it and talk about it actually change in our lifetimes? If we’re not postracial—or even close—what are we? And where are we going?
The only real consensus about the answer to this complicated question is, it depends.
Here are four very different theories about the evolution of race in America and what exactly the meaningful changes that are within reach will require from all of us.
1. We could all finally reject the idea that biology divides human beings into five racial groups. But science isn’t enough. It will take a political movement.
Dorothy Roberts, author of Fatal Invention: How Politics, Science, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century, says it’s no longer a secret or even a little-known fact that what we think of as “race” is simply a set of political categories that were created to govern people.
According to the University of Pennsylvania School of Law professor, the information has been out since the scientists who mapped the human genome declared that racial differences didn’t exist at the genetic level.
Sure, says Roberts, race “uses various biological demarcations that help distinguish who belongs to one or another [group]. But those—skin color, hair color, the shape of the nose or the lips—are only part of what we use to determine what race someone is.” Thus, the same person’s racial identification could change with time, place and perspective—or even over a lifetime—and is impossible to pin down objectively in the way that good science would require.
But has anyone—even those in the scientific community—fully shaken off what she calls “myth of race as a biological category”? Not even close, and that’s one of Roberts’ greatest frustrations.
This is why we still see headlines like those proclaiming that the human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccine is “less effective in blacks,” she says—as if African Americans, by virtue of their social identity, actually have different body chemistry.
“Race exists as a political grouping, and that does have an impact on health, but that’s very different than saying you can diagnose illness and prescribe medications based on an assumption that race innately determines people’s health. It’s unscientific, and it’s bad medical practice,” Roberts insists.
Despite the proof that there’s no genetic basis for race, she says she doesn’t expect this to change anytime soon because “race has always served a political purpose. “
Thus, her prediction: In medicine and elsewhere, whether America’s future includes a rejection of the view that humans are divided into natural biological categories that determine their traits “completely depends on political interests and political struggle.”
2. We might develop more accurate ways to describe our identities. But only if the census does it first.
Kenneth Prewitt, author of What Is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans, sees an American population rapidly outgrowing what he calls “the 18th-century, antique races” that currently appear on the census and other government forms.
But, he says, it’s difficult for people to identify themselves in nuanced ways—and even harder to make accurate social policy—when newspapers, statistics and accountings of disparities all use those federally mandated categories that fail to reflect the details of our actual experiences.
“The current categories got crystallized before the civil rights era, and they got maintained to undo the damage,” but they no longer mean much, says Prewitt. He calls them “clumsy” because they lump people from wildly disparate backgrounds under “Asian,” for example, and throw the children of recent Ethiopian immigrants under “black,” along with the descendants of American slaves.
Prewitt hopes that the current race and ethnicity questions on the federal census are ultimately dropped and replaced by more-nuanced inquiries—think a drop-down menu with in-depth questions about parentage and personal identity. These, in turn, can provide a broader baseline vocabulary for talking about population groups that reflect reality and making policies to address their needs.
His outlook: When it comes to how we talk about race and address racial disparities in our lifetimes, “Radical change is technically and politically achievable,” but it will have to start with the way the federal government teaches us to classify one another.
3. We could begin to shake off racial stereotypes. But if residential segregation and concentrated poverty persist, black people won’t get this opportunity.
Georgetown University law professor Sheryll D. Cashin, author of the forthcoming Place Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America, says that racial identity is partially a choice and is partially externally imposed.
In the foreseeable future, she says, “For some, it will be less of a cage.” But the people who can free themselves from that cage and decide whether and how their race defines them will be the affluent and highly educated.
The people Cashin thinks will have with the least say in how their race defines them? African Americans. And that will have everything to do with residential segregation and concentrated poverty.
“I would bet money that if I live to be 100, as long as neighborhoods that are identified as ghetto neighborhoods—neighborhoods that are black and poor—are still there, a strong and pervasive stereotype will continue to attach to their residents,” she says. “These folks will be black, they will be ‘othered’ as black, and they won’t have much volition to perform some other identity.” She says the associations will even spill over to black people who live elsewhere.
That’s why Cashin predicts that although the way that Latinos, Asians, mixed-race people and even, to some extent, very high-income black people redefine what their racial identity means is “up for grabs,” low-income black people won’t have those same options, unless and until housing patterns and accompanying economic opportunity change dramatically.
Her best guess about America’s racial future: The black-versus-nonblack fault line is not likely to go away in the next 50 to 75 years, or for as long as the stereotype that comes out of ghetto neighborhoods continues to apply even beyond those boundaries.
4. “People of color” could lead the way on equality. But only if they see themselves as one group.
Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, says it’s possible that people of color—blacks, Asians, Latinos—are on the verge of doing something white people did a long time ago: identifying themselves as a group and emerging as a powerful majority.
“White people didn’t identify as a race until politically and economically it benefited them to do so—they were just Irish, Italian, Greek, etc.,” she points out.
Blackwell believes that America’s nonwhite citizens are now on the cusp of an opportunity to do something similar, but, as she clarifies, “I don’t see it as coming together to take from others, but rather to have a strong voice about the direction of the nation that includes everybody.”
For her that means coming together behind strategies and pushing for policies to build more inclusiveness, to address inequity and to allow people to build wealth again.
“If things go well, if we become fully inclusive, if we invest in equity, it will free all people to explore their differences and what they have in common,” she predicts.
Her outlook: The fact that by 2043 the majority of Americans will be of color will be relatively meaningless if blacks, Latinos and some Asian groups that are being disproportionately left behind don’t come together to see what they have in common and push for an equity agenda.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.