By José R. Sánchez | National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP)
August 17, 2009
In his New York Times op-ed, "Race and Diversity in the Age of Obama" (August 14th), Dr. Orlando Patterson makes many salient points about the current status of race in these United States, in particular about African Americans and Latinos. I am curious, however, why he is so rigid about the role of race in this country.
He claims that "for non-blacks, assimilation is alive and well in America." African Americans, however, are the exception. They have not and will not assimilate, remain segregated from whites, and share an immutable racial identity. He bases this exceptionalism on the unrelenting poverty and segregation of African Americans compared to other groups. And yet, it is the complexity of racial processes in this country that conspire against any such sure predictions about racial identity and the relations between races. While race seems to seep into everything we do in this country, it is not everything we do. In fact, race hides as much as it reveals about how we go about trying to negotiate and establish class, status, and other such interactions.
This is apparent with the issue of segregation. By itself, housing segregation tells us very little about what is actually wrong in society. Segregation becomes a concern in the context of particular historical periods, as an attribute of the identity of each racial and class group and their relationship to each other. The continuing focus about whether Latinos are more or less segregated than African Americans is, for this reason, quite misplaced. The important question isn't whether more Latinos than African Americans are living among whites. Many Latinos do, in fact, live among whites, very often even in white homes. Many Latinos do so to work in their gardens and to wash their dishes (for very little pay). A lower segregation index for Latinos, thus, doesn't necessarily make Latino life better and their future brighter.
The research on "hypersegregation" mentioned by Dr. Patterson is actually a good indicator of the unique residential pattern of Latinos as their recent internal migration within the US has forged new residential footholds into previously all white communities in the US. Yet, as a measure of racial progress, it is far from enough. We must take into account the specific historical context that gives meaning to any group's residential patterns.
One clear example exists in African American history. Ironically, if there is a desegregated ideal, that ideal already existed for blacks and whites in the 19th century. During the slavery period, slaves and slave owners lived and worked on the same farm or plantation, sometimes in the same house. Can we describe the white-black residential patterns resulting from slavery a sign of assimilation and progress simply because we can calculate low "dissimilarity indexes" for African Americans during that period?
Uprooted from their historical contexts, segregation and housing conditions tell us very little. Dr. Patterson's use of segregation as an explanation for African American exceptionalism, for their non-assimilation into the larger white society, does more to obscure rather than explain the processes delivering a new social reality and culture in the US. It does not help us to understand why African Americans continue to live residentially separate from whites. Nor does it help us to better understand why, compared to Latinos, African Americans also seem live so much more closely and intimately, as Dr. Patterson himself admits, in white people's consciousness in the form of "athletic heroes, matinee idols, pop-music kings, talk-show queens, senators, governors, and now president."
José Ramon Sánchez is Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of Urban Studies at Long Island University - Brooklyn. He is the author of "Boricua Power: A Political History of Puerto Ricans in the United States" (New York University Press, 2007), and co-author of "The Iraq Papers" (Oxford University Press, forthcoming December 2009). Dr. Sánchez is Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.