Contingent Public Policies and Racial Hierarchy: Lessons from Immigration and Census Policies


Hochschild JL, Burch T. Contingent Public Policies and Racial Hierarchy: Lessons from Immigration and Census Policies. In: Political Contingency: Studying the Unexpected, the Accidental, and the Unforeseen. edited by Ian Shapiro and Sonu Bedi. New York: New York University Press ; 2007. pp. 138-170.

Full Text

7/15/2006 10:00 AM

Contingent Public Policies and Racial Hierarchy:

Lessons from Immigration and Census Policies


Jennifer Hochschild

Traci Burch


Harvard University

July 15, 2006


For Political Contingency, ed. Ian Shapiro and Sonu Bedi.


NOTE: not final version.





This is not a revolutionary bill.  It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to our wealth and power.

                                                       --President Lyndon B. Johnson, October 3, 1965


Census 2000 will go down in history as the event that began to redefine race in American society.

-- Kenneth Prewitt, January 2001



Individually or in combination, two federal policies have the potential to transform the American racial and ethnic hierarchy more than any other policy changes since the civil rights movement.[1] They are the Immigration Act of 1965 and the introduction of the "mark one or more" instruction in the race question on the 2000 census.  Unlike the civil rights activities of the 1940s through 1960s, the first change was not intended to overturn the racial order and the second was a response to a process of transformation already underway. Both were, and remain, highly dependent on the isolated choices of many people around the world, as well as strategies of political and business leaders, and economic or other forces outside anyone’s control.  Because the long-term effects of these policies have not played out fully, their ultimate outcomes will remain unclear for a long time – but they could be substantial.

            Substantively, this chapter[2] explores the design of each policy, their separate and possible joint consequences, and their potential long term effects.  Theoretically, we use these policies as vehicles to examine various kinds of political contingency such as unforeseen and thus unintended consequences, conditional individual acts by nonpolitical individuals[MSOffice1] , and unpredictable external shocks to a political system[MSOffice2]  such as a terrorist attack or economic depression.  We aim to demonstrate that contingency is much more important in understanding politics and policy-making than actors or analysts are usually willing to recognize, and that organizing a political narrative in terms of various kinds of contingency and degrees of likelihood of a contingent outcome gives coherence and structure to the analysis while retaining the necessary level of indeterminacy.


Why Focus on Contingency, and What Is It? 

It is commonplace to observe that government policies may have unintended consequences, whether because policymakers fail to consider or predict accurately the impact of their choices or because the world changes in unpredictable ways after the policy is promulgated.  It is also commonplace to observe that government actions can affect how people categorize themselves and others into races or ethnicities, which in turn can affect group’s privilege or disadvantage relative to others in society.  But putting these two observations together yields some unexpected outcomes.

            Consider first the role of contingency in politics.  Analysts tend to ignore it, or to seek to explain it away. For example, the juridical commitment to originalism in interpreting the Constitution gives insufficient weight to the fact that policy designers in 1789 were not omniscient.  Amendments to the Constitution, after all, show that later designers recognized unforeseen contingencies that needed to be addressed for the Constitution to remain viable; we have no grounds for assuming that by now the document is in its final, perfect form and should be interpreted only through the eyes of its authors.  Functionalist arguments are similarly flawed because they ignore contingency.  The presumption that policies or structures were designed to produce the effects that they actually have had, or that political actors can actually create institutions that correspond to their creators’ interests, slights the possibility that policies and institutions were intended to do one thing but actually did another.[3] 

Some theories of path dependency or incrementalism – the presumption that policy processes follow a more or less straight and predictable line from some (perhaps random) starting point – are equally blind to contingency.  Most generally, the search for broad covering laws to explain political processes, institutions, and outcomes is predicated on the idea that contingent events are random, ultimately unimportant, or otherwise swamped by the power of the covering law.  But unless one is prepared to argue that the Black Death of the 1300s had no impact on the history of Europe, or that the presidency of Abraham Lincoln was immaterial to the outcome of the American Civil War, this claim is implausible.

            Political actors can be as loathe as political scientists to accommodate contingency in their efforts to make sense of the political arena.  The outcome of an election may appear uncertain in advance, but every victorious politician claims that he won because of some identifiable virtue, policy stance, or experience.  Passage of a law or outcome of a battle may seem similarly unpredictable ahead of time, but after the fact no floor leader or general will eschew a perfectly rational-sounding explanation for whatever outcome occurred. 

            If contingency matters, what is it?  Many things, as Andreas Schedler shows in this volume.  We focus on several components that correspond to aspects of the history of the 1965 immigration law and the 2000 census.  Perhaps most important is the fact that “causal effects are not invariant, but context-dependent”[4]  That is, how policies shape events that occur after they are implemented depends on whether the context of implementation resembles the context of passage or was correctly anticipated by policymakers.  For the 1965 immigration law, those conditions did not hold.

            A second form of contingency, which partly explains the first, is what Schedler calls conditional or uncertain individual action.  That is, it is impossible to predict some external conditions or how particular conditions will motivate individual actions.  Less abstractly, millions of people around the world decided after the mid-1960s that they preferred migration to staying at home, and many chose migration to the United States rather than elsewhere. (Even the terms “decided” and “chose” may be too volitional to explain some migratory paths.)  Their choices, of course, were not completely autonomous; at the same time that people increasingly wanted to migrate, US businesses would increasingly seek both skilled and unskilled labor, especially from relatively low-paying, non-white nations.  Had these various individual actions and economic imperatives been different, the immigration law and its successors would not have had the unforeseen effects that did in fact ensue.[MSOffice3] 

A third form of contingency results from the unintended effects of the 1965 immigration law.  In Schedler’s language, it corresponds most clearly with the intersection of normative, conceptual, and practical commitments.  No one can confidently predict how the presence of millions of new immigrants and their children will affect racial and ethnic categorization and hierarchy over the next few decades. Immigrants might “become” white or black, thus reinforcing the extant racial order, or they might ally with American minority groups and disrupt the racial order, or they might remain as separate groups and complicate the racial order.

Contingency becomes even more evident, and more speculative, when one adds the possible effects of census 2000 to the current and possible future effects of the 1965 immigration law. The decision to permit people to “mark one or more” race does not demonstrate unintended consequences; supporters and opponents shared the expectation that permitting people to identify with more than one race on the census (and eventually on other governmental and nongovernmental forms) would lead to the blurring of group boundaries. What remains to be seen is whether this official recognition of racial mixture will have any substantial impact on the degree to which people actually choose to belong to more than one race, and whether such a choice will in turn have any effect on their affiliations and alliances. 

All of this is highly contingent in the sense of Schedler’s “individual action,” and suggests as well two more forms of contingency – those of Schedler’s “individual actor” and “catastrophic event.”  Individual political actors will have a big impact on the eventual effects of the 1965 immigration law on racial identity and coalitions, as well as on the effects of adding publicly-legitimated multiracialism to those identities and coalitions.  If political candidates run for office on the basis of a strong, single racial identity (David Duke for whites; Ron Dellums for blacks), that will push coalitional politics in one direction.  Conversely, if candidates campaign on the promise of incorporating immigrants into extant communities (Antonio Villaraigosa), or seek to use individual multiracialism to promote multiracial coalitions (Barack Obama), or promote nativism (Randy Cunningham), that will push coalitional [MSOffice4] politics in a different direction.  What individual actors will decide to do in the political arena over the next few decades is, in Schedler’s terms, conditional and uncertain.

Finally, there is the possibility of a catastrophic event.  If, for example, non-Americans make several more attacks like those of September 11, 2001, or if some other event permits nativist anxiety to culminate in a restrictive new immigration policy (as happened in 1924), then the combined effects of the 1965 immigration law and the 2000 census could move in yet another direction.  In that case, we predict eventual stabilization of the current racial hierarchy, with immigrants assimilating into whiteness or blackness and multiracialism remaining the identity of a small number of liminal individuals.

Thus the concept of contingency, and the many particular forms that it can take, enables us to organize an otherwise bewilderingly complicated set of policies, trajectories, and possibilities.  In the rest of this chapter, we focus on past rather than future contingencies, for the good reason that we have actual evidence about what has already happened. But we return intermittently to a discussion of various possible futures, since that is the arena in which the multiple types of contingency come into full view.  In doing so, we use another simple but powerful theoretical typology, Paul Pierson’s “time horizons of different causal accounts”[5]   This chapter focuses on short-term causes, slighting his discussion of “slow-moving causal processes,” but it uses his distinction between short-term and slow-moving outcomes.  The former may be highly contingent, as we demonstrate for both immigration and multiracialism, but they can be understood as plausible or likely contingencies. Longer-term outcomes – caused by dynamics such as generational replacement, evolutionary selection, or cumulation of small changes[6] Pierson, 2004-- are probably even more contingent; any predicted long-term outcome in the American racial order is best thought of as possible or even imaginable rather than likely or certain.  That does not make questions about the long term less interesting, however, or less important.


The Immigration Act of 1965 and the Racial Order

The Laws: Prior to the 1965 Immigration Act,, entry into the United States was largely governed by the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924. It enshrined in law the nativist and xenophobic sentiments that only northern and western Europeans should be welcome to join American society as citizens.  The most recent substantial modification prior to 1965, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, preserved both national origins quotas and the limit on the number of immigrants admitted to the United States. Within the quotas, strong preference was given to those with needed job skills; after them came relatives of United States citizens or permanent resident aliens. The McCarran-Walter Act did permit spouses and unmarried minor children of citizens to immigrate without limits, and it abolished racial, gender, and marital prohibitions on becoming a naturalized citizen.  It maintained a strong preference for northern Europeans and a relative or absolute disinterest in the rest of the eastern hemisphere. The McCarran-Walter Act continued the pattern of saying nothing about western hemispheric immigration.[7]

            Although pressures to abolish the national origins quotas persisted since 1924, the climate after World War II sharpened demands on the United States to modify its immigration policies in order to admit citizens from other parts of the world on an equal footing.  As President Truman wrote,

Long dormant questions about the effect of our immigration laws now assume first rate importance.  What we do in the field of immigration and naturalization is vital to the continued growth and internal development of the United States—to the economic and social strength of our country—which is the core of the defense of the free world.  Our immigration policy is equally, if not more important to the conduct of our foreign relations and to our responsibilities of moral leadership in the struggle for world peace.[8]

President Eisenhower also spoke urgently of the need for immigration reform in state of the union addresses, the Democratic Party included changing immigration policy in its platform, and President Kennedy spent much time trying to change the law.  However, it took the shock of Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson’s ascendance to the presidency, heightened Cold War anxieties, and the momentum of the civil rights movement and Great Society ambitions to finally get serious revisions.  The Immigration and Nationality Law of 1965 (the Hart-Celler Act) included:

  • More preference to immigrants with a close relative already in the United States;
  • Preference to highly skilled workers in the arts and sciences;
  • Limits on eastern hemispheric immigration of 170,000 per year;
  • Elimination of  discriminatory policies against Asian immigrants;
  • Safeguards for American jobs through labor certification provisions;
  • Provisions for admitting refugees; and
  • New limits on western hemispheric immigration of 120,000 people per year.[9]

Country-specific provisions were eliminated, but immigration from any one nation in the eastern hemisphere was limited to 20,000 people per year.  Immigration from the western hemisphere was not subject to country quotas.

The Hart-Celler Act has been substantially amended, most importantly in the Immigration Restriction and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, the Immigration Act of 1990, and the USA Patriot Act of 2001.  All three laws maintained the basic division between family- and employment-based selection criteria for each hemisphere, kept an overall quota on immigration, and exempted immediate family members of United States citizens from these restrictions.  American immigration policy has thus resisted major changes since 1965.


Demographic Effects of the 1965 Law:  The number of immigrants to the United States had historically varied according to factors ranging from potato-killing blights and murderous pogroms to the need for labor created by industrialization and westward expansion.  But laws are clearly associated with the level of flows, as figure 1 shows:


Figure 1 here


In the decades after the 1924 immigration law took effect, immigration declined.  However, World War II and the Cold War generated new populations of displaced people, creating demands that the United States open its doors to groups other than western Europeans.  After 1952, congressional provisions often admitted refugees fleeing political persecution and natural disasters, as well as immigrants with distinct scientific or artistic skills.  As a result, by 1965 overall levels of immigration were creeping upward and only a third of immigrants actually came in under existing quotas.[10]  Thus despite quotas, many immigrants arrived from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. 

Nevertheless, the short-term outcome of the Hart-Celler Act was powerful. Since it abolished national origins quotas, the source of immigrants shifted even more dramatically, as figure 2 shows:


Figure 2 here


For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, conflict had focused on which European or Asian nationalities were entering the United States and which should be permitted to do so.  Immigration from Mexico and Latin America was first unregulated and largely ignored, then unregulated and sought by employers, then controlled (at least officially) through deportation and bracero programs.  But by the 1970s, these old conflicts and employment policies were outmoded.  Immigration from the “white” nations of Europe and Canada was replaced by immigration from the “nonwhite” nations of Latin America and Asia.[11]  Moreover, these data understate the change since they do not include the rising and now large number of undocumented immigrants, mostly from non-European nations. 

Put in terms of group membership, in 1970, whites (mostly native-born) comprised 83 percent of the United States population; blacks (almost all native-born) were 11 percent; Asians and Pacific Islanders (almost all foreign-born) were 1 percent; and Latinos (mostly foreign-born) were 4 percent.  By 2000, the figures were, respectively, 69 percent, 13 percent, 4 percent, and 13 percent.  If immigration policies are not changed, racial and ethnic minorities (as currently understood) will grow as a percentage of the nation until European Americans are less than half the population by roughly 2050.  It seems astonishing that the citizens of the United States, most of whom want to maintain what they see as the traditional identity of their country, legislated themselves such a diverse population that the dominant race will soon become a minority.[12]  Part of the explanation of that conundrum is that they did not deliberately choose to do so; the path toward this outcome was the unintended consequence of the decisions of millions of individuals responding to global economic, political, and demographic changes in the context of a law designed to do something else entirely.[MSOffice5]  


The Intentions of Proponents:   Proponents designed the Immigration Act of 1965 primarily as a symbolic gesture, aimed at various audiences.  For American citizens, they expected passage of this act, along with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, to signal an end to government-sanctioned Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States.  For people both in and outside the United States, they wanted an act to reflect the country’s growing “role of critical leadership in a troubled and constantly changing world,” as the Secretary of State put it (Rusk, House, July 2, 1964).  Given the Cold War and civil rights activity, the United States needed to be seen as a fair and meritocratic society, not one that judged people and nations through a lens of “bias and prejudice” (Rusk, House, July 2, 1964).  As Congressman Seymour Halpern (R-NY) said while opposing the “outrageously discriminatory” country quotas of the existing law, “Our immigration policy must dovetail with our foreign policy, if we expect to be successful in leading the free world.”[13]

What they were all referring to was the fact that the extant law gave 70 percent of the immigration slots to residents of the British Isles, Ireland, and Germany, even though almost half went unused – leaving unfilled immigration spaces despite long waiting lists from other nations. Thus the national origins system, which constituted “overt statutory discrimination against more than one-half of the world’s population,” (CITE) was the [MSOffice6] primary target of the bill’s proponents. 

Family reunification, the need for workers with specific skills, and humanitarian issues with respect to refugees were also targets for change.  But Congress did not see the 1965 law as “a comprehensive revision” of the McCarran-Walter Act;[14]  its purpose was merely to allocate visas so as to “choose fairly among the applicants for admission to this country without proposing any substantial change in presently authorized immigration.”[15]  After all, the laws’s drafters estimated, the increase in annual eastern hemispheric immigration would “not exceed 2,000.”[16]  Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, for example, assured a House Committee that the projected increase of 60,000 annual immigrants “would be nearly invisible” in a work force growing by almost three million a year (CITE).  Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz similarly testified that passage of S500 would bring in only 24,000 new workers a year (along with perhaps 100,000 people outside the labor force such as housewives, and children). In a workforce of about 86 million by 1970, working immigrants “would have no appreciable impact.”[17]

Nor were legislators concerned about the loophole of family reunification, even though the proposed law would exempt more categories of family members from annual quotas. Congressional Quarterly cited a prediction of  “30,000-40,000 immigrants annually… under these non-quota provisions.”[18]  Debates over changing the rules for western hemispheric immigration were much more intense and drawn-out.  President Johnson and his allies opposed any western hemispheric quotas in order to remain a “good neighbor” and retain the United States’ “special relationship” with nations to the north and south.  Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY), for example, called the proposed western hemisphere ceiling “most unwise and improvident in terms of United States’ relations with Latin America.”[19]  Conversely, labor unions, the American Legion, the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, and other groups worried about too many Latin American immigrants, whether because they would compete with native-born Americans for jobs or because they were of a disfavored race, ethnicity, or nation.  Enough members of Congress feared that immigration from the western hemisphere was rising too rapidly and would continue to do so that they imposed a cap of 120,000. Since about 140,000 had immigrated in 1964 from Canada, Mexico, and Latin America, they expected the quota to decrease or at least curtail immigration from that stream.  As the authoritative review article in Congressional Quarterly put it, the law “closed off the possibility of a very substantial increase in future immigration from the one area on which there previously had been no numerical restrictions. In this sense, HR 2580 could be described as a bill which... foreclosed any long-term upward trend in the number of immigrants.”[20]

Supporters did not expect abolition of national origins quotas to significantly change the origins of immigrants to the United States, except for a slight increase in southern and eastern Europeans.[21]  Attorney General Robert Kennedy testified, “Mr. Chairman, 40 years ago the national origins system was adopted on the theory that immigration posed a threat to the ethnic composition of the United States.  Today, even if one were to accept the assumption underlying that theory, as I do not, the idea that quota immigration could significantly affect our population is absurd”(House, July 22, 1964).  To the claim that the bill would let in “hordes of Africans and Asiatics,” Representative Emmanuel Celler (D-FL) responded:

The bill would not let in great numbers of immigrants from anywhere at all…. [T]here will be some shift of immigration to countries other than the ones in Northern Europe which are now favored …but quota immigrants will have to compete and to qualify to get in, and quota immigration will not be predominantly from Asia and Africa ....  Actually, many countries in Africa do not use their present quotas of 100” (extension of remarks in House 4/28/65. Congressional Record, Senate p. 8852).

Projections by State Department officials and other experts supported these assertions.  Norbert Schlei, an Assistant Attorney General, anticipated 5,000 Asian immigrants in the first year after abolishing the quotas -- but then immigration from that source would “disappear” (House Subcom. #1, 23 Jul 1964). Abba Schwartz, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs, predicted about 12,000 more Jamaican immigrants over the long run.  He estimated only 820,000 newcomers from the eastern hemisphere in the five years after passage of the law, 82 percent of whom would be European (House Subcom #1, 3 Aug 1964).

            Judging by public opinion surveys, the American public agreed with supporters of the act in not expecting or wanting dramatic changes in this policy arena.  According to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 25 questions were asked on national surveys in 1964 and 1965 about immigration and immigrants.[22]  On three of three questions, respondents overwhelmingly rejected increases in the overall level of immigration. On four others, respondents preferred quotas based on skill rather than nationality, and on one question each, they endorsed “admitting people who escape from Communism” and agreed on the importance of an immigrant “having relatives who are American citizens with whom he can live.”  Respondents preferred that immigrants come from Canada, Great Britain, Scandinavia, or Germany—and not from Russia (sic), Asia, the Middle East, Mexico, or Latin America (the questions did not ask about Africa or the Caribbean).

            Nor were Americans very interested in passage of the law itself. Barely 10 percent “felt bad because of U.S. strictness in limiting immigration” before it was passed; a majority knew nothing about American immigration policy; only a third knew that the law had in fact passed; and barely any found the law “important… personally” or deemed it one of President Johnson’s major accomplishments.  Had citizens been told that the immigration law of 1965 would have as much influence on American society as that era’s civil rights laws or Great Society legislation, they would have been dumbfounded.


The Anxieties of Opponents:  Opponents projected different effects of the bill.  Representative Joe Skubitz (R-KS) thought it could raise unemployment and would “place... increased demands upon education, housing, health facilities, and transportation.”[23]  Senator Sam Ervin Jr. (D-NC) feared it was “just one little hole in the dike for unrestricted immigration.”  (However, even Ervin predicted only 66,000 new job seekers a year.)[24]  The president of the Republican Committee of One Hundred Inc. warned that it would “enormously increase the number of immigrants permitted to enter the United States annually for permanent residence.”[25]

            Antagonists also predicted more accurately the effects of the proposed law on the United States’ racial and ethnic makeup. The president of the Daughters of the American Revolution argued that “abandonment of the national origins system would drastically alter the source of our immigration.”[26]  The Greenwich Women’s Republican Club also feared that the new bill “could change drastically the entire character of our Nation” since “the preponderance of immigrants . . . will begin to come more and more from Asia.”[27]   The spokesman for the Military Order of the World Wars believed that “the pending bills would discriminate against our own national origins, roots, and cultures and thereby produce radical changes in the homogeneity of our nation.”[28]   The president of the Republican Committee of One Hundred assumed that “we want to build a national population based on the predominantly northern and western Europe stock which discovered, explored and developed America, and which today so deeply cherishes our freedom and our ways of life,” then asked rhetorically if instead “we [are] willing to permit the American population makeup to be based rather on the makeup of foreign lands whose natives can get in line fastest, in the greatest number, under a first-come, first-served scheme of entry.”[29]  These warnings went largely unheeded, however, whether because they were not believed or because of their taint of nativism and racism.[MSOffice7] 


The Contingency of Individual Actions:  Table 1 summarizes our analysis of the rationales used in all of the congressional hearings on the immigration bill.  It confirms the qualitative analysis above, and suggests why the legislation passed.


Table 1 about here


The final bill passed with a lopsided vote of 320-69 in the House and a voice vote in the Senate.  President Johnson signed it, despite his dislike of western hemispheric quotas.  Given that advocates, legislative supporters, and the president all did not intend or expect to destabilize the United States’ demography, change how Americans thought about racial groups, or create new groups, why did those things happen?

Here is the first place in which contingency enters the analysis.[30]  Proponents of the Hart-Celler Act were presumably not foolish or deceptive, and the legislative process was apparently neither corrupt nor misguided.  Experts and lawmakers were acting on the best available information at the time.  What happened, of course, is that circumstances changed in unanticipated ways.[MSOffice8]   Immigration around the world began to increase in the 1960s and accelerated over the next few decades. The number of migrants rose from about 75 million in 1960 to about 175 million in 2000 – from 2.5 percent to 2.9 percent of the world population.  The United States absorbed the highest proportion of immigrants by an order of magnitude; the U. N. estimates that the United States had received 35 million recent immigrants by 2000, compared with the Russian Federation at 13 million, Germany and the Ukraine at about 7 million each, and France, India, and Canada at roughly 6 million each.[31]  Legal immigration to the United States rose to over a million people a year in 2001 and 2002, with illegal immigration adding several hundred thousand more annually.

Furthermore, migration levels from what the United Nations identifies as less developed regions and least developed countries rose especially fast.  In 2003, for example, the proportion of immigrants to the United States from Europe dropped to under 15 percent, the proportion from Asia reached a third of all legal immigration, and the fraction from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America reached over 40 percent. Illegal immigrants also came disproportionately from Latin America.

In short, people made and are still making the choice to move, for reasons that are perfectly explicable in retrospect but were not reasonably predictable in 1965.  Contingency – that is, conditional and uncertain actions by unconnected individuals in many nations around the world -- met a law, and the law, or at least its promulgators’ intentions, gave way.


Consequences for the American Racial Order

Ramifications of the 1965 act will affect how Americans conceive of and experience race for much of this century.  But the direction of the ramifications remains unresolved.  Here are the third and fourth forms of contingency -- the normative, empirical, and pragmatic choices of millions of individual actors, as well as the political calculations and commitments of identifiable political and social movement leaders.  These multiple contingencies suggest several possible long-term consequences of immigration for the American racial and ethnic order.

On the one hand, immigration frequently exacerbates tensions between newcomers and native-born groups, especially when new groups challenge the existing distribution of social status, economic resources, and political power.  The arrival of millions of Eastern and Southern Europeans in the late nineteenth century destabilized the category of “white,” contributing to severe labor unrest, the flourishing of nativist and racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and repression of African Americans as well as Asians and Native Americans.[32]  Today, groups continue to racialize themselves, respond to others in racially nationalistic terms, and experience racialization by others, all in the context of competing for resources or fending off attacks.  Some argue, for example, that Latinos should embrace a panethnic racial identity because “the assignment of racial boundaries arises in the form of social practices” – practices which include discrimination that has led to the subjugation of Latinos.[33]  Others claim that Asians have been racialized and set up as targets by whites who seek to use them to justify subordinating purportedly inferior groups such as blacks.[34]  Native- and foreign-born blacks frequently clash over elections, status, and jobs, resulting in tensions and negative stereotyping by both groups.[35]

 Such tensions can be expected to increase as cities become more ethnically fragmented, as the proportion of immigrants in a given city increases, and as immigrants move into communities unused to demographic change.[36]  Over the next few decades immigrant families and native-born Americans may well address these tensions by separating into distinctive communities, each with its own resources, centers of power, and vulnerabilities.

Alternatively, the presence of new groups may disrupt the extant American racial order, not merely add new groups into it.  If new, non-white minorities perceive that they share an interest in dismantling white supremacy, they could form coalitions with existing minority groups in order to effect such a change.[37]  Such destabilization is most likely to begin in states such as California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas, where non-whites already constitute a majority of the population. Or perhaps immigrants will lead the way into a postmodern, highly contextualized structure in which Americans “experience race as a fluid, situational category that matters in some contexts but is irrelevant in others.”[38]

 On the other hand, immigrants might simply blend into and thereby strengthen the traditional American black-white binary.  After all, most ethnic European immigrants “became white” by the mid-twentieth century,[39]  thereby reinforcing old patterns of white supremacy and treatment of blacks as the ultimate out-group.  A century later, many members of new groups are assimilating into mainstream American-ness by blurring boundaries through intermarriage, economic mobility, and acculturation.[40]  According to this framework, even those who are not succeeding or are unable to enter mainstream society (a.k.a. “become white”) are also assimilating, but into blackness – thereby once again reinforcing the classic racial order of the United States.[41]

There is sufficient evidence for all three possibilities that each is a reasonable prediction.  Which ends up as the primary pattern, or whether something else entirely different comes to predominate (e.g. class- or religion-based politics?), depends on the normative, empirical, and pragmatic choices yet to be made by millions of individuals and hundreds of political leaders.  It also depends on long-term forces such as generational replacement, evolutionary ecology, and the accumulation of many small changes.  Just as the short-term outcome of the 1965 Immigration Act -- rapid and substantial demographic change -- was contingent in the sense of unanticipated, so the long-run outcome – shaping the United States’ system of racial hierarchy -- is contingent in the sense of unpredictable and uncertain at present.


Mark One or More: The Census, Racial Boundaries, and Racial Hierarchy

The new instruction to “mark one or more” race in census 2000 may further complicate the outcomes of the demographic changes wrought by recent immigration laws. The invitation to identify as multiracial has not yet had much impact on the American racial order, and it may never do so.  Nevertheless, here too prediction is risky since the policy’s eventual effect is contingent on individual actions and particular actors. 

            Unlike the 1965 Immigration Act, both proponents and opponents expressed similar predictions about how “mark one or more” would influence Americans’ racial understandings; they differed mainly on whether these changes would improve or worsen the racial order.  There was also a strange disjunction, unlike in the history of the Hart-Celler Act, between the issues on which most Congressional testimony focused and the grounds on which policy makers and experts decided the change.  Tracing these patterns can give us a handle on which long-term contingent outcomes seem plausible, possible, or fantastical.

            The census’s racial and ethnic categories have been about as malleable over time as any “objective” measure from a purportedly technical, nonpolitical agency can be. Across decades and sometimes within one census, the categories have mixed citizenship status, what we commonly understand as race, nationality, religion, and ethnicity.  In 1850, the census had two racial categories -- Black (slave or free) and Mulatto, with White as the unnamed other.  By 1930 it identified ten groups --White, Negro, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, Korean, Other mixed races-- and by 2000 it offered an array of races, nationalities, tribal possibilities, and ethnic identities, as shown in figure 3:  


Figure 3 here


The census first separately identified the ethnic category of Hispanic in 1970, but only in a sample of states; by 2000 the question on ethnicity had also effloresced into a list of Latin American or Caribbean nationalities asked of all respondents.  Instructions to enumerators have consistently shown concern about how to tabulate people of mixed races, with the perennial goal of locating each person in his or her sole “real” racial group. Only in 2000 was racial mixture invited.

            Even if the examples of nationalities on the census form are collapsed into the five major “races,” allowing people to check more than one box produces 126 possible combinations of race and ethnicity.  In 2000, about seven million people -- 2.4 percent of the enumerated population – responded by marking more than one race (almost all chose two, but 823 chose six). Less than 3 percent is obviously a small fraction of the population, and if multiracial identification remains at that level these individuals will be a conceptual anomaly and a headache for statisticians, but little more. However, although they disagreed on how, why, and to what effect, proponents, opponents, policy makers, and experts all agreed before the fact that officially recognizing multiracialism would deeply affect American racial categories and structures over the long run. 


Purposes and Predictions of Multiracialism in the Census:  By the early 1990s, advocacy groups were pressing for a category of “multiracial” to be added to the specified racial groups originally set in an OMB (Office of Management and the Budget) directive of 1977.  In response to this and other concerns about the census’s racial and ethnic categories, Congressional committees held two sets of hearings.  Also during the 1990s, the multiracial movement held a March on Washington, the census bureau conducted field experiments to test responses to various formats and wordings of the race and ethnicity items, and the National Academy of Sciences held a workshop that published an important report.  In 1997 OMB issued a revised standard that led to the instruction of “mark one or more” on the 2000 census. 

Table 2 summarizes the rationales of those supporting and opposing a multiracial category who testified before Congress in the 1993 and 1997 hearings:


Table 2 here


As the table indicates, the hearings evinced a wide array of considerations.  Some who testified noted that the existing system of racial categories no longer fit the changing demography of the United States.  Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), for example, did not know what to make of the Cape Verdeans in his district: “People have a problem out there. Are they African-American? Are they Black? Are they Cape Verdean?” (July 29, 1993: 211).  Perhaps, it was suggested, a multiracial category would make him and others better able to classify and understand their new constituents. Representative Stephen Horn (R-CA) observed in his 1997 opening statement that “high rates of immigration and intermarriage between people of diverse racial backgrounds are rapidly changing the composition of our Nation’s population.”[42]  An administrator from OMB took no position on changes to the census, but similarly pointed out that “during the past 20 years, our country’s population has become more racially and ethnically diverse, largely as a result of the growth in immigration and interracial marriages.” CITE

Nevertheless, the intersection between immigration and multiracialism received more attention outside than within the Congressional hearings.  The report from the National Academy of Sciences’ 1994 workshop noted that the Immigration Act was “changing the composition of the minority population” and that “population projections [along with other factors]… have led to the current debate about racial and ethnic populations and how they are classified.”[43]  The report predicted “increasing numbers of people with multiple ancestries, for whom future preferences for self-identification are unknown.... These factors raise questions about the usefulness of demographic analysis and population projections based on conventional assumptions of ‘closed’ ethnic groups with no exogamy.”  In an explicit recognition of contingency, the report observed in the next sentence that “the largest degree of consensus at the workshop was that any revision in the standard will itself need to be able to adapt to change.”[44]

Scholars too had been regularly pointing to the connections among immigration, intermarriage, and instability in racial and ethnic categories. Hugh Davis Graham first described the unintended (in his word, “strange”) interaction between immigration and the practice of affirmative action.[45]  Kim Williams noted that the impact of “mark one or more” might be “most far-reaching, ultimately, in the ways in which it interacts with high levels of immigration.”[46]  Frank Bean and his co-authors discussed whether Latinos’ and Asians’ “high levels of intermarriage and multiracial reporting” signalled that “the long-standing black-white divide is breaking down;” they remained agnostic.[47]  Sonya Tafoya showed the implications for intermarriage if immigration levels elsewhere came to match those in California.[48]

OMB’s revision of the census categories in 1997, which permitted “mark one or more” but not a category labeled “multiracial,” accorded with these analyses.  The agency again observed that the existing “minimum categories... do not reflect the increasing diversity of our Nation’s population that has resulted primarily from growth in immigration and in interracial marriages.”[49]  In the formal language of the Federal Register, one can see officials struggling with the contingent consequences of the Immigration Act of 1965 and its successors. The Revision stipulated the social construction of race, asserted the need to “respect…individual dignity” by self-identification, and called for “reliable” and “meaningful” categories achieved through “appropriate scientific methodologies.”  It aimed, perhaps contradictorily, for racial and ethnic categories that are “comprehensive in coverage and produce compatible, nonduplicative... data” – and are “kept to a manageable size” as well as “understood by respondents and observers.”  In a final acknowledgement that current racial labels may be highly unstable, OMB permitted “additional categories …provided they can be aggregated to the standard categories.”

            In contrast to the experts’ focus, participants in the Congressional hearings generally paid little attention to immigrants and their intermarriage.  Political controversy lay elsewhere.  Some advocates saw a multiracial option as a step toward eliminating all official racial and ethnic categories. Thus Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich (R- GA) stated that

It is wrong for some Americans to begin creating subgroups to which they have a higher loyalty than to America at large…. Ideally, I believe we should have one box on federal forms that simply reads, ‘American.’ But if that is not possible at this point,… allow[ing] them [i.e. Americans] the option of selecting the category ‘multiracial”… will be an important step toward transcending racial division and reflecting the melting pot which is America.”[50]

Other proponents had a wholly different motivation: identification would permit multiracials to move under the umbrella of antidiscrimination laws and regulations. Thus, “it would be wrong to say that I would only be discriminated against because I am Korean or Asian American.…  Sometimes people are discriminating against others just because they are multiracial – not because they are perceived to be one thing or another.”[51]

Representative Horn’s opening statement articulated a third reason for support, which also ignored immigration and demographic change:  “An individual with parents from two different categories may not wish to choose one parental identity over the other. The children of two such individuals could conceivably belong to all of the current categories and feel that to choose just one is meaningless or offensive.”[52]   This was the grounds on which Representative John Conyers (D-MI) broke with the rest of the black Congressional delegation: we “are becoming a more color-blind society, but we cannot guarantee equality for people of all races if we do not allow people to identify their complete racial background. We must not create a divide between multiracial people and other minority communities by denying multiracial people their right to stand up and be counted on the census.”[53]  Finally, arguments about the medical necessity of being able to know how many people there are of particular racial mixtures influenced the decision-makers of OMB, even if they lacked some of the rhetorical punch of other reasons for support.

Opponents of the multiracial designation offered a wholly different set of predictions about the likely effects of blurring racial boundaries.  Most people of color who testified and almost all black legislators argued that multiracialism would inhibit, not expand, enforcement of civil rights laws.  As Representative Danny Davis (D-IL) put it, “Until a process to collect meaningful, accurate or specific racial and ethnic data that remedies past, current and/or even prevent future discrimination is in place – I feel that the multiracial category could jeopardize the civil rights of many minorities as well as provide inconsistent and damaging effects on overall racial counts.”[54]  Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D- D.C.) was even more emphatic, casting a wide net in her explanation of why the temptation of multiracialism can mislead African Americans: 

At one point, blacks thought they might mitigate the effects of being black by claiming something else in their heritage. “Oh, I am black, but I am also American Indian….” Oh, it was so pitiful. About the only thing that American racism did for us is saying no, you are one or the other….  So I sit here as a light skin black woman and I sit here to tell you that I am black. That people who are my color in this country will always be treated as black…. We who are black have got to say look, we are people of color, and we are readily identified.  Any discrimination against one of us is discrimination against another.[55] 


Policy Consequences:  Unlike the experts and policymakers, in sum, most of those involved in the Congressional hearings on multiracialism paid relatively little attention to immigrants or immigration law.  They focused instead on issues of personal identity and civil rights, especially for (implicitly native-born) blacks and whites, the two groups least affected by recent demographic change.  The experts are clearly right about the links between immigration and intermarriage; nevertheless, a complete analysis of contingency requires asking also whether the long-run outcomes will speak to Congressional hopes and fears.

            Consider the short-term outcomes first. A third of the almost seven million Americans choosing more than one race in census 2000 combined white and “some other race.”[56]  Most identified their second “race” as Hispanic or as a European or Middle Eastern nationality, suggesting that as immigration continues to rise, the number of people who think of themselves as only partly white will also rise.[57]  Immigrants, young adults, and the relatively well educated were also disproportionately likely to mark more than one.[58]  That suggests that multiracials may set a trend or function as bellwethers of changes that are coming more slowly to the rest of American society.[MSOffice9] 

Institutional changes also make it plausible that Americans will increasingly identify as multiracial.  Federal agencies are required eventually to include the new instruction in their surveys and data collection; a few states mandate a multiracial or “mark more than one” option, and others have considered doing so.  Universities are following suit, and hospitals are slowly moving in the same direction; other large institutions will arguably follow.  Sooner or later, therefore, Americans may become familiar with the option of choosing more than one race.

Finally, interracialism as a literal fact is rising, as figure 4 shows.  For whites and blacks, the base is very small so the overall numbers remain tiny, but the dramatic shift in the curve suggests a genuine and significant change.  For other groups, especially Asians and Latinos, intermarriage rates are high in absolute terms and rising fast, especially among the young.


Figure 4 here


Where racial intermarriage rises, so does the number of interracial children, as figure 5 shows for the black-white population:


Figure 5 here


The result of all of these forces might be confirmation of Kenneth Prewitt’s prediction with which we started, that “Census 2000 will go down in history as the event that began to redefine race in American society.” If that turns out to be right, then the current racial and ethnic order may change significantly.

But all of this change is contingent on normative, empirical, and pragmatic choices of millions of individuals – many not yet living in the United States -- so we must consider plausible alternatives.  Some federal agencies and many private institutions are slow to incorporate “mark one or more” into their operations.  A follow-up survey of those who chose more than one race in census 2000 showed great instability, with about equal proportions of people going back and forth between one race and more than one.[59]  The 2004 American Community Survey showed a small but consistent decline in the proportion of people, in every social group, identifying with more than one race.[60]  One of the United States’ best demographers, Reynolds Farley, is even describing multiracialism as “a social movement that succeeded but failed.”[61]  In sum, even the short-term outcomes of changing the 2000 census are not yet clear; it is too soon to see how individual actions, and the choices of political actors, will settle out.

Still, the short-term contingencies seem reasonably constrained compared with the possible long-term implications of high and rising levels of immigration combined with official recognition of multiracialism.  Perhaps those who testified that multiracialism will disrupt American racial categories and eventually undermine racial hierarchy itself will be proven correct.  Or perhaps those who testified that it could undermine essential black solidarity will have their worst fears realized.  Latinos describe their culture as one of mestizaje, racial mixture, regardless of any particular individual’s family heritage.  If current patterns of immigration and current birth rates persist, the Hispanic culture of racial mixture might come to pervade American society.  Alternatively, people of Hispanic descent could be seen as a new monoracial group, thereby obscuring their ancestral diversity.  Multiracials could provide crucial links between potential coalitional partners, or might develop a new coalition among themselves.  If, say, a third of Americans identify with more than one races a few decades from now, race and ethnicity as we now know them will mean something very different personally, culturally, and politically—but that remains in the realm of speculation, not reasonable prediction. [MSOffice10] 

The likelihood of these possible long-term consequences of the interaction between immigration and multiracialism depends, in part, on a final form of contingency, a catastrophic event that leads to the curtailment of immigration or the hardening of racial group lines[MSOffice11] .  These possible outcomes are, in short, contingent in the strongest sense of that term – indeterminate, conditional, and uncertain.



“Policies that start small may, if conditions are right for self-reinforcement or if unintended consequences are large, end up being extremely significant.” Conversely, “policies that make a grand entrance may erode unless they possess characteristics that generate not just initial success but substantial resilience.”[62]   The outcomes of the 1965 immigration law and its successors illustrate the first point, and the eventual outcomes of the change in the 2000 census might – or might not -- end up illustrating the second.  Thus we find contingency in the future of group boundaries and racial hierarchy in the United States.  The composition of the American population has been shaped by the unanticipated choices of millions of people around the world who used a law devised for other purposes; how we understand and practice race in the United States will be shaped by the choices of millions of Americans, old and new, over the next few decades. Contingency probably does not always rule politics, but sometimes it does.




Table 1: Rationales for Support and Opposition to 1965 Immigration Act, in 1964-65 Hearings of House of Representatives and Senate

Rationale for Position

Favor Change (N=184 speakers)

Oppose Change (N=65 speakers)

No Stated Position (N=20 speakers)

Concern about message that other nations are not good enough

24 %

2 %

5 %

Desire to help neighbors and maintain good relations in western hemisphere




Opposition to racism or racial discrimination




Need for skilled workers – e.g scientists, doctors




Sends desired message to immigrants living in US




Endorse fairness to all nations




Concern about backlogs in some countries




Endorse family reunification




Desire to help refugees from terror and disasters




Concern about strain of immigrants on public services




Concern about population growth throughout the world




Concern about too many immigrants taking US jobs




Concern that immigrants can't assimilate




Concern about urban unrest




Desire to preserve Anglo-Saxon heritage




Concern about exacerbating Communist threat by admitting subversives




Fear that law permits unlimited immigration




Makes pejorative comments about Africans




Makes pejorative comments about Asians




Makes pejorative comments about Latin Americans




Average Prediction (scaled from “Expect no change in annual immigration” = 1 to “Expect 1 million or more annual immigrants” = 6)*




* When making predictions.

Table 2: Rationales for Support and Opposition to Multiracial Classification on 2000 Census, in 1993 and 1997 Hearings in the House of Representatives

Rationale for Position


Change (N=19 speakers)



(N=16 speakers)

No Opinion (N=23 speakers)

Each person has the right to determine his or her own or child's identity

26 %

0 %

9 %

Better form, or the next stage, of  civil rights enforcement and/or Voting Rights Act enforcement




Permits better medical research or treatment




Step toward eliminating racial categorization or classification




Better measure of actual demography of US (or better measure of coming demographic changes in US)




May increase number of people who identify as multiracial




Makes us better able to recognize and appreciate all ancestries -- humanism




Already being done by other organizations and/or states




Will inhibit enforcement of civil rights/voting rights laws




Will reduce number in a racial/ethnic group, so less federal or state funding for that group




Way to escape blackness or other disadvantaged racial/ethnic group




Other nations have tried "multiracialism," with bad results




Too complicated or otherwise problematic statistically or logistically




Makes pejorative comments about multiracials and/or about those endorsing the category




Makes pejorative comments about opponents of multiracialism







Source: Katz, 2004



Figure 2:










Figure 3: Ethnicity and Race Items on 2000 Census












Source: data and charts from Roland Fryer, Harvard University




Source: data and chart from Roland Fryer, Harvard University


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[1] Our thanks to participants in the conference on “Contingency in the Study of Politics,” Yale University, December 3-5, 2004, for helpful reactions and suggestions. Jennifer Hochschild also thanks the Guggenheim Foundation, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University for financial and intellectual support of the project of which this is a part.  We are grateful to Abimbola Orisamolu and Sarah Talkovsky for research assistance, and to Susanne Evanger, Nancy Gordon, Susan Schechter, and Katherine Wallman for clarifying the roles of OMB and the census bureau.

[2] This chapter is part of a book-length project, written along with Vesla Weaver of Harvard University, on the possible political consequences of unstable racial and ethnic boundaries in the United States. 

[3]  Pierson, 2004; see also Skocpol, 1985

[4] Schedler 2007, XX.

[5] Pierson 2004, 81.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For a good political history of immigration laws, see Tichenor, 2002

[8] Truman, 1952

[9] “Legislative History, 1965

[10] Ibid., 3331.

[11] Reimers, 1992

[12] To cite only one example, three-fifths of respondents to a 1995 survey would rather “encourage immigrants to blend into American culture by giving up some important aspects of their own culture” than encourage them to “maintain their own culture more strongly” Gallup/ CNN/ U.S.A. Today, 1995.

[13] Congressional Quarterly, 1965: 472

[14] “Legislative History,” 1965, 3329.

[15] Ibid., 3332.

[16] Ibid., 3333.

[17] Congressional Quarterly, 1965: 474.

[18] Ibid., 461.

[19] Ibid., 478.

[20] Ibid., 462.

[21] That, indeed, was part of the point of the bill, since Democratic politicians were eager to maintain the support of white ethnics.

[22] There were no other survey questions from 1960 to 1970. All evidence from this and the next paragraph comes from polls in the Roper Center database.

[23] Congressional Quarterly, 1965: 473.

[24] Ibid., 474.

[25] Ibid., 476.  Other opponents worried that immigrants would exacerbate racial strife or make blacks worse off, import a Communist threat, or worsen levels of organized crime.  Overall, however, groups that had derailed immigration reform throughout the 1950s did not oppose the 1965 law because most accepted reassurances that the quotas would keep levels of immigration tolerably low. As Congressional Quarterly summarized, “Spokesmen for these organizations said one of their major goals had been achieved – imposing what amounted to an over-all world immigration quota and thus guaranteeing against an excessive number of immigrants. They pointed out that the net effect of the final bill was to limit immigration to about 320,000 persons a year” (Congressional Quarterly, 1965, 480).

[26] Duncan, 1965

[27] Chapin and Gonzalez, 1965

[28] Fortier, 1965

[29] Congressional Quarterly, 1965:  476.

[30]  The contingent factor of President Kennedy’s assassination perhaps was also a necessary although not sufficient condition of passage of the Hart-Celler Act. We have no quarrel with that claim; it is simply outside the scope of our consideration.

[31]  Poster on International Migration 2002, by UN Population Division, Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs. See

[32] Jacobson, 1998

[33] Haney Lo'pez, 1997

[34] Kim, 1999

[35] Waters, 1999; Rogers, 2004

[36] Jones-Correa, 2001; Frey et al., 2006; Zúñiga and Hernández-León, 2005

[37] Guinier and Torres, 2002; Thompson, 2005

[38] Kasinitz et al., 2004, jacket description; Fernandez-Kelly and Schauffler, 1995

[39] Jacobson 1998; Roediger, 2005; Gerstle, 1993

[40] Alba and Nee, 2003; Perlmann, 2005; Smith, 2003

[41] Waters 1999; Portes and Rumbaut, 1996

[42] Horn, 1997, 1


[43] Edmonston et al., 1996, 6.

[44] Ibid., 35

[45] Graham, 2002

[46] Williams, 2006, 34 of ms.

[47] Bean et al., 2004, 26

[48] Tafoya, 2002

[49] Office of Management and Budget, 1997, 58782.

[50] Gingrich, 1997


[51] Matt Kelley, quoted in  Moore, 2001, 3 of internet version.

[52] Horn, 1997, 4


[53] Conyers, 1997, 536.


[54] Davis, 1997, 44.


[55] Norton, 1997, 260.

[56] Looked at in the opposite direction, about 2.5 percent of nonHispanic whites, almost 5 percent of nonHispanic blacks, 6 percent of Hispanics, and 14 percent of Asians chose more than one race.

[57] Tafoya et al., 2004

[58] Ibid.; Farley and Alba, 2002

[59] Bennett, 2003

[60] Farley, 2005

[61] Farley, 2004

[62] Pierson 2004, 166.


Last updated on 06/13/2010