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Who is White? Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide.

Who is White? Latinos, Asians,

and the New Black/Nonblack Divide

By George Yancey

Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003 * 230 pages; $22.50 [paper]

There has been much talk about "Whites" becoming a "minority" (i.e., numerically) in the U.S. by 2050. In his book, Who is White? Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide, Yancey directs readers not to take this current popular truism for granted. Instead, he obliges us to rethink and pay attention to what our racial labels actually mean. Importantly, Yancey offers an alternative way to investigate and understand this future projected hypothesis of "Whites as a minority" by stating,

I will illustrate that while the transformation of nonblack minorities into majority group status is occurring, the separation of African Americans from the dominant culture, in spite of efforts by blacks to move into mainstream American culture, is just as strong as it ever has been. These twin processes of nonblack assimilation and black separation will move nonblack and black minorities in opposing directions--reinforcing the racial divide in the United States. (4)

Yancey does not disagree that those who we think of as "White" today will be a minority by 2050, but rather posits that membership to the "White" label will be broadened to include those that we consider today as "Latinos" and "Asians." He pursues this claim by reminding the reader of how other "non-White" groups (i.e., "White ethnics," such as people who are Irish, Jewish, Italian, etc.) in the past were incorporated into the "White" category when the "traditional Whites" (i.e., "northern European Whites") were in danger of becoming a minority in the U.S. (1) Thus, he hypothesizes that this will happen with "Latinos" and "Asians." He bases his hypothesis on structural acceptance data (i.e., marriage outside their own "race" and place of residence; in addition to acceptance by other "races") and attitudinal data regarding several policy dimensions, which put "Latinos" and "Asians" closer to "Whites" than to "Blacks."

Another important contribution is Yancey's attempt not to divorce his methodological and theoretical emphasis on ideas and attitudes from a structural understanding of racism (or the historical racialization of society and the existence of racist structures today). (2) Nopper (2005) and Davis (2004) also reviewed Who is White. (3) Both authors discuss in greater detail specific points Yancey raises in his book. In his review, Nopper (2005) hones in "antiblack racism as the structuring and generative ideology of US race relations and social inequality," (3) whereas Davis ignores it.

Yancey would argue that it is one thing to want to "move out" of "Black space" or to assume that it should be good to do so; but, it is another thing to be unable to do so even if you wanted to (irrespective if it is good or bad). Davis (2004) obfuscates this structural claim presented by Yancey; which has nothing to say regarding any normative comment about "Black culture." Nevertheless, I do agree with Davis (2004) regarding Yancey's lack of differentiation within the "racial groups" he discusses, which end up truncating other possibilities to foresee different future U.S. racial realities. This lack of differentiation is partly due to survey methodology and sampling limitations, which we as analysts must overcome and not become prisoners of, if we really want to better understand social reality and project better futures.

Historically, throughout social theory and thinking we have been able to identify three main "elements" that humans covet: power, wealth, and status. The first two have received greater attention to the detriment of the last one; and this is especially true when we are dealing with contemporary societies. Although it would be simplistic and naive to think of these coveted social "elements" as independent, it is still analytically useful to demarcate them. Yancey highlights how an emphasis on "status" might present analytical and praxis leverage.

Over all, Yancey's argument could be considered too pessimistic, but it is still a well-thought-out pessimism. Nevertheless, a better alternative is not to just be an optimist. Several scholars have preferred the terminology of "possimists," which is a combination of pessimist and optimist. The term "possimist" reminds us to maintain a cautious optimism, in which we are neither overly pessimistic or overly optimistic. The dangers of Yancey's pessimism is that while we do not take as given the supposed "Whites's" minority status by 2050, we end up taking as a given "Blacks'" lowest caste status with no possibilities of coalition allies. The "possimist" would take Yancey's cautioning seriously, but would not close future windows of opportunities beforehand. Partly, Yancey himself opens up windows of opportunity with his cautionary tale. Nevertheless, we might maintain them opened (analytically and strategically) by further unpacking those groups he labels as "Latinos" and "Asians" (and "Whites" from a political race perspective (4)). Although those labels might be bureaucratically efficient, they are not productive for purposes of real social understanding or coalition-building efforts because they end up reifying those constructed borders instead of criticizing their construction.

In order to illustrate this point of "windows of opportunities," let us take a look at the case of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. Two reasons for selecting Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans are first, Puerto Ricans represent the second largest Hispanic/Latino group after Mexicans (they also represent the second oldest Hispanic/Latino group within what we know today as the U.S.); and second, Puerto Rican case presents interesting avenues of understanding the case of globalization and repression (i.e., colonization).

Part of the relevance of Yancey's cautionary note, according to my understanding, is the understanding and praxis of racial issues throughout so-called Latin America. Although we need to be cautious and not oversimplify, Latin America overall has tended to minimize the overt dealing of race and racism. (5) We have read in many places the quintessential Latin American example of Brazil's "racial democracy" being fallacious. And if we adjust to contingent and contextual characteristics (i.e., independence date and repressed ethnic/racial groups; and the exclusion of Haiti), this might be considered true overall throughout the region.

Nevertheless, ethnic and racial issues have become part of national agendas and mobilized throughout the last twenty years of the 20th century (e.g., Chiapas, Mexico; Brazil's black movement; Bolivia's peasant mobilization; Guatemala's Rigoberta Menchu, among others). I state this because even though we could agree about the repression of "talking about race and racism" throughout Latin America, this "reality" cannot be considered static; if not for anything else but the reality that nation-states and global arrangements are racialized. (6) Although this is not true any more, Puerto Ricans who migrated from the Island used to concentrate themselves in New York City (NYC). Juan Flores, (7) among others, writes about the experiences of this migrant population of Puerto Ricans, calling attention to the deep connections between these migrants and the black community in NYC (i.e., politically, socially, and culturally).

Flores analyzes Puerto Ricans as a racialized working class culture. He also adds the element of colonialism in order to bring light to the Puerto Rican reality and enrich our understanding of marginalized communities. This is neither for reifying the notion of the nation-state nor for undermining the relevance of race and class. He does so for underscoring the un-realization of this "common" route of political organization for the Puerto Rican case and positing that what seemed to be the Puerto Rican "oddity" (i.e., having a colonial status) might represent a potential example of possible transnational realities.

Thus, Flores uses the Puerto Rican case (i.e., on the Island and within the U.S.) to uncover the effects of globalization now that a "traditional" understanding of the nation-state is being questioned (structurally). Furthermore, the Puerto Rican case makes explicit the racialization of reality (in addition to U.S. "Blacks") from the migration point of view. Many critics highlight the low ranking status of "Latinos" and attribute it to "illegal immigration"; however, while Puerto Ricans have been legal U.S. citizens since 1917, they still occupy the "lowest socio-economic ranks" within the U.S. In other words, the issue of legality is only a superficial and insufficient explanation for how the "Latino" communities fare within the U.S. A more complete explanation and better understanding of these realities only arise from a racial structural perspective, which contingently puts into spatial and temporal contexts these troubling exclusionary outcomes.

I would like to present one final comment regarding the usually heated discussion of "self-interest." I have read about differentiations between "self-" vis-a-vis "group interest" in order to make sense of the so-called "White working class" or "poor Whites" voting against their "self-interest" because of their support for Republicans. This is the case because "self-interest" tends to be automatically associated to material/economic "self-interest." Thus, some have attempted to explain this analytical inconsistency by creating and stating the reality of "group-interest" and the possibility of it trumping "self-interest" (i.e., understood as material "self-interest"). (8) Martinot (2003) provides an analytical example of an ideational structural fight, which supports Yancey's work:

What the left requires, if it wishes to develop movements of opposition to oppression (in general), is a strategy to unravel the cultural framework, to invent a corrosive alternative to the white identity that is woven into and constitutes it. It would need strategies that would call for an end to the property entitlement of whiteness, and thus the property basis of society itself. To break down the racialized class structure and put an end to racism, the entire structure of racialization, meaning the social structure of whiteness and the white corporate state that concretizes it, would have to be demolished. To do this, an alternate politics and political culture would have to evolve in the United States--one that stands outside the white corporate state and makes possible a distance from the systems of narratives by which people have been racialized, so that they can be rethought and reencountered again as people and not as generalizations. (9) (208)

Yancey's findings and analytical efforts could be understood as an exemplification of those "symbolic" interests, within a discussion of the relevance of "status." All of this discussion, I argue, makes relevant and essential two dimensions of structural inequalities that I think need to be thought of simultaneously: understanding structural dynamics (i.e., historically and contemporaneously) and conceiving and implementing strategic interventions (i.e., materially and ideationally) to redress structural disparities. While, certainly not mutually exclusive, there can be tension between these two structural dimensions--one being essentially material and the other more ideational. I think we should attempt to address this tension, not solely through more analysis, but rather through communicative action. Yancey's work helps us work and walk better in that direction.


(1) For a detailed discussion on how "ethnic whites" became "whites" see: Roediger, David R. (2005). Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Become White, The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York,: Basic Books.

(2) For a discussion on material and ideational structures see Sewell, William H. Jr., "A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation." American Journal of Sociology Volume 98 Number 1 (July): 1-29, i992.

(3) Amanda Davis, and George Yancey "Who Is White?: Latinos, Asians, the New Black/ Nonblack Divide." African-American Review (Spring): 2004. Available at the World Wide Web:

( Tamara K. Nopper, "The Browning and Yellowing of Whiteness." The Black Commentator Issue 138 (May),:2005. Available at the World Wide Web: (

(4) See Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres. The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

(5) See Evan S. Lieberman, Race and Regionalism in the Politics of Taxation in Brazil and South Africa. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

(6) See David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2002; and Andrew L. Barlow, Between Fear and Hope: Globalization and Race in the United States. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

(7) See for example: Flores, Juan. Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1993. Flores, Juan. From Bomba to Hip Hhop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

(8) See also Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1999.

(9) Steve Martinot, The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

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Author:Osorio, Hiram Jose Irizarry
Publication:CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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