How, If at All, Is Racial and Ethnic Stratification Changing, and What Should We Do about It?


Hochschild JL. How, If at All, Is Racial and Ethnic Stratification Changing, and What Should We Do about It?. In: Race, Reform, and Regulation of the Electoral Process: Recurring Puzzles in American Democracy. edited by Heather Gerken, Guy Charles, and Michael Kang . New York: Cambridge University Press ; 2011. pp. 7-16.

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5/27/2010 10:16 AM

How, If at All, Is Racial and Ethnic Stratification Changing,

and What Should We Do about It?

Jennifer L. Hochschild

Harvard University


Race, Reform, and the Regulation of the Political Process: Recurring Puzzles in American Democracy, ed. Heather Gerken, Guy Charles, and Michael Kang (order?)  (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2010?)

These chapters on the politics of groups push the reader to consider a difficult but essential question:  how, if at all, are old forms of racial and ethnic stratification changing?  A broadly persuasive answer would have powerful implications ranging from constitutional design and electoral strategies to interpersonal relationships and private emotions.  However, the question is not only difficult to answer for obvious empirical reasons, but also because, for scholars just as for the general public, one’s own views inevitably shape what one considers to be legitimate evidence and appropriate evaluation of it. So the study of racial dynamics is exasperatingly circular, even with the best research and most impressive researchers.   

            Although my concerns about circularity lead me to raise questions about all three chapters, I want to begin by pointing out their quality.  Each provides the reader with a clear thesis, well-defended by relevant evidence and attentive to alternative arguments or weaknesses in the preferred one.  Each chapter grows out of a commitment to the best values of liberal democracy – individual freedom and dignity, along with collective control by the citizenry over their governors – but commitments do not override careful analysis.  Each chapter is a pleasure to read and teaches us something new and important.

            My observations begin with a direct comparison of Pildes’ and Karlan’s evaluations of the United States’ Voting Rights Act and its appropriate reforms.  I then bring in Hutchings and his colleagues’ analysis of American racial and ethnic groups’ views of each other, which provides some of the essential background for adjudicating between Pildes’ and Karlan’s positions.  Underpinning my discussion, and becoming more explicit in the conclusion, is an observation that is not new with me but is nevertheless important: people who identify as progressives are often deeply suspicious of attempts to alter policy about or understandings of  racial and ethnic stratification, while people who identify as conservatives are often most eager to see and promote modifications.  There is something deeply ironic here – both in the difficulties of many on the left in recognizing what has changed and in the difficulties of many on the right in recognizing what has not.


Should the Voting Rights Act Be Continued, Adjusted, or Transformed?

Richard Pildes argues that it is time for the “next generation” of voting rights legislation to take over from the several-times-renewed Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.  In his view, the VRA succeeded in its initial mission of “getting out in front” of white public officials’ strategies for disfranchising black voters, so much that it is now getting in the way of its own underlying purpose of voting equity.  Section 5 of the VRA is both overinclusive – requiring oversight that is no longer necessary – and underinclusive – not capable of addressing current barriers to citizens’ exercise of their right to vote.  Given politicians’ tendency to move in only one reform direction at a time, he urges Congress to largely scrap the old VRA and replace it with a new law that addresses more contemporary obstacles to voting such as felon disfranchisement, outmoding voting technologies, and inefficient or deliberately ineffective electoral procedures.  Although these contemporary obstacles may disproportionately affect people of color, they are not intrinsically about racial discrimination per se, so the underlying framework of the old VRA needs to be rethought rather than adjusted.

            Pamela Karlan does not quite accuse Pildes of naïveté about continuing racial discrimination, but such a suggestion hovers around the edges of her essay. She points to persistent racial bloc voting, especially whites’ disproportionate rejection of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy in areas covered by Section 5 of the VRA, as well as the possibility of discrimination in local elections and the distinctive barriers faced by Latinos and Native Americans.  For these reasons, among others, the United States must maintain the old VRA.  In fact (Pildes might agree here), “the government has an obligation to facilitate citizens’ exercise of the franchise,” and to become even more vigilant against states’ and courts’ tendency to water down citizens’ voting rights, especially focusing on citizens of color given America’s history of racial stratification.  Karlan’s most pointed argument is that the VRA does not only protect individuals’ right to vote – a protection that in her view we still need – but also gives minority groups’ “leverage in demanding accommodation of minority concerns.”  Section 5 is what gives that leverage, and therefore it warrants continued support or even strengthening.

            Pildes and Karlan agree on a lot of particular reforms, and share an underlying commitment to equality of individual suffrage rights and equity among group rights.  They share the goal of overturning the effects of centuries of discrimination against black Americans.  Nevertheless, the tone of their chapters differs intriguingly.  Karlan worries more about whites’ continuing preference for racial domination, or at least their indifference to its continuation.  For example, if Section 5 were repealed, “the Democratic party might be tempted to spread concentrations of minority voters among several districts” in order to promote its highest priority, electing more Democrats, even if that diluted blacks’ political influence.  Or, Southern whites have historically “resist[ed] minority political aspirations,” and “this backlash phenomenon seems to be alive and well today.”  Thus we must never forget that “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

            In contrast, Pildes implicitly asserts that the past is dead or at least dying, and that our preoccupation with protecting minorities against the evils of twentieth-century-style discrimination is getting in the way of protecting them, and others, against twenty-first-century problems.  To put my words into his mouth, racial and ethnic stratification is changing – decreasing in important ways while persisting or even worsening in others.  If we cling too tightly to winning the last war, we jeopardize ourselves in the next one.  In his own words, “the voting rights issues we face today are no longer defined by the near-complete exclusion of black voters by a number of readily identifiable state and local governments…. If Congress is serious about protecting the right to vote, it is going to have to go beyond that model.”  Many of the most serious barriers to voting, in fact, “tend to impact not only racial minorities, but also the poor and the elderly generally.”  Most broadly, Pildes calls for laws and policies that are uniform across states and have “universal terms that extend coverage to all voters.” In sum, with a few important exceptions, we no longer need laws targeted at specific racial or ethnic groups in particular locations because nonAnglos are often powerful enough to protect their own interests.  Instead we need laws to protect newly recognized categories of powerless Americans, a majority of whom might even be white.

In my view, Pildes has the stronger argument; I see more change than continuity in the American racial order since the VRA was formulated and renewed.  Some of that change is for the better. With two exceptions (1976 and 1996), a higher proportion of whites voted for Barack Obama than for any of his Democratic party predecessors in the eleven elections since 1968 (Clayton 2010): 71).   Nine states, including three from the old Confederate south, switched from Republican in 2004 to Democratic in 2008, due to a combination of some white support, very strong black and Hispanic support, and changing proportions in the voting public.  To put it most simply, Americans have now shown that “a black candidate can win in the majority-white constituency that is the national presidential electorate” (Ansolabehere et al. 2010): 1409). 

But some of the change in the American racial order since the VRA was formulated is for the worse.  The proportion of young nonAnglo men involved with the criminal justice system has skyrocketed; by 2001, 17 percent of black and 8 percent of Hispanic men, compared with 3 percent of white men, had ever been in state or federal prison (U. S. Department of Justice 2003) – and the numbers and disproportion have risen since then.  Put another way, although blacks comprised 12 percent of the population in 2008, they represented 28 percent of all arrests (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2008): table 4.10.2008).   Poor or poorly educated young black men (and therefore their families) are especially involved [(Western 2006); (Clear 2007)]. Thus the old issue of felon disfranchisement has not only taken on new urgency as the prison population has soared in recent decades, but also it has more impact on racial disparity now than at any time since the late nineteenth century.

I will leave to the experts questions about how exactly to shape voting rights laws in order to combat these new forms of racial and ethnic stratification.  But I am convinced that the problems revealed since roughly 2000 are broader and deeper challenges to liberal equality than are those persisting from the civil rights era (again with pockets of exceptions).  I urge analysts and activists alike to focus more on policies to fight new forms of political inequality than on policies to protect against old ones.

Racial Attitudes: The Answers You Get Depend on the Questions You Ask

One of the most important changes in racial and ethnic stratification in the United States over the past few decades has been the rise in immigration.  As everyone reading this book knows, Americans have set themselves on a course to become a majority nonAnglo country by the middle of the twenty-first century (if Hispanics are understood as nonwhite).  I believe this to be historically unprecedented; never before has the majority group in a democratic polity permitted its elected officials to enact laws that will predictably make that group a minority.  The United States could, of course, create a new version of the 1924 Immigration Act in an effort to curtail immigration of the “wrong” kind of people, but with each passing year since the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, that choice seems less likely.

            As readers also know, the process of immigrant incorporation is difficult, often incomplete, and sometimes nonexistent. As I write, the state of Arizona is preparing to implement a draconian law to identify and arrest illegal immigrants, and several other states may follow suit.  More generally, relations between native-borns and foreign-borns, as well as among nationalities and panethnic or racial groups, can be fraught.  For this among other reasons, Vincent Hutchings and his colleagues’ National Politics Survey offers very welcome information.

            The NPS has many virtues, starting with the fact that it is “the first multi-racial and multi-ethnic national study of political and racial attitudes.” It includes large samples of five distinct groups (the standard four, plus Afro-Caribbeans).  A slight majority of the Afro-Caribbeans and Hispanics, and three-fourths of the Asian American respondents were immigrants (as were roughly 5 percent of the African Americans and Anglo respondents).  The questions are extensive and, unlike too many surveys, they include a lot of political items designed to permit tests of important theories within political science.

            The chapter by Hutchings and his colleagues reinforces Karlan’s view that twentieth-century-style discrimination is alive and well.  Over 90 percent of black respondents believed that their group faces at least some discrimination, as did over 80 percent of Hispanics and Afro-Caribbeans, 70 percent of Asian Americans, and even 40 percent of whites.  The question is clearly very broad, but if we consider the responses in relation to one another rather than in absolute terms, all nonAnglo groups report a great deal more discrimination than do nonHispanic whites.  Additional reports on this survey show that about a quarter of blacks and Latinos, compared with about 15 percent of the other three groups, agree that whites want to keep their own group down.  A majority of the members of all nonAnglo groups reported that they have faced at least a little discrimination sometime in their life.  And as the chapter shows, NonAnglo groups are all more likely to see whites as zero-sum competitors for jobs or political influence than to see each other in the same light, although intergroup competition among non-Anglo groups is also robust.  

            Like a law or regulation, perceptions of mistreatment or competition can be overinclusive, underinclusive, both, or neither.  But these 2004 results are drearily similar to results from many other surveys over the previous several decades, and also to studies using matched testers or aggregate data analysis.  The NPS shows that it would be foolish – and no one in this volume is anywhere near that foolish – to argue that racial and ethnic stratification has disappeared in the United States or is on a certain path to extinction.

            Nevertheless, the Hutchings et al. analysis would be stronger if the authors addressed the possibility that the degree or kind of racial and ethnic stratification is changing in the United States.  I see several directions for development.  First, the questions invite reports of illegitimate treatment or hostile relations, but there are no countervailing questions inviting reports of cooperative treatment or productive relations.  Respondents can report the absence of discrimination or hostility but they have little opportunity to express the presence of desirable interactions.  Similarly, respondents are asked if “more good jobs (or influence in politics) for [another group] means fewer good jobs for people like me,” but not whether “more good jobs (political influence) for another group improves the chances that my group will attain good jobs (political influence).”  Respondents can disagree with the idea of zero-sum competition, and generally a majority do (mean scores are below 0.5 in table 1).  But they have no place to report positive-sum perceptions.

            Questions focused on successful racial or ethnic relations might, of course, reveal even deeper perceptions of maltreatment, and in any case since these questions were seldom asked in earlier surveys one would find it hard to track change over time in positive interactions.  Still, it would be useful to know if people who perceive a great deal of discrimination also see group dynamics as more complex, multi-faceted, or even attractive than these items allow them to express.

            A similar observation has to do with the classic item on “linked fate.”  The NPS shows that half to two-thirds of all five groups agree that “what happens generally to [R RACE] people in this country will have something to do with what happens in your life”  (Hutchings AAPOR presentation).  These results also accord with those in other surveys over the past few decades, although the NPS helpfully extended the question to all five groups – a rare innovation.  A lot of research shows that perceptions of linked fate are associated with a variety of political views and behaviors, so that item reveals a lot about persistence of racial and ethnic stratification.  However, the question is asked immediately after the series on zero-sum competition among groups and other questions on racial identity, so there is the risk of a priming effect – how great it might be we do not know.[1]  In addition, the Pew Research Center recently asked roughly the opposite question, with intriguing results.  In 2007, 37 percent of black respondents agreed that “blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the black community is so diverse” (no other group was asked this question).  Young black adults were more likely than older ones to agree (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2007).  A year later, young adults were also more likely than older ones to agree that “there is no general black experience in America” (Harris/ABC 2008).  In 2009, about a third of blacks said that middle class and poor blacks have only a little or almost nothing in common; only 22 percent saw “a lot” in common (Pew Research Center and National Public Radio 2009).

            Is a sense of linked fate being dissipated, or perhaps never was as strong as surveys imply?  If so, what does that suggest about contestation against racial and ethnic stratification?  One could interpret these new items as showing that many blacks (and perhaps members of other nonAnglo groups) finally have a sufficiently secure status that they can afford to publicly reveal, and perceive in others, various personae unconnected with traditional racial politics – political conservative, Japan scholar, venture capitalist, rower.  Or one could interpret these new items to mean that the sense of racial solidarity so essential to protect against persistent racism (Shelby 2005) is being lost in the vain pursuit of acceptance by Wall Street brokerages or elite country clubs.  There is a third possibility: perhaps affluent blacks benefit from the lowering of traditional racial barriers, but poor blacks are harmed by the loss of the traditional middle class black commitment to lift as we climb (Ford 2009).  Whatever the answer – and the right answer will turn out to be as much a matter of political activity yet to come as of interpreting trend lines – public opinion surveys and other types of research need to be open to the possibility that the ways in which we have understood racial and ethnic stratification are increasingly outmoded.  We need to analyze the dissolution of racial ties as much as we need to track linked fate.

            Another query for the (next?) NPS survey builds from the distinctive nature of the 2004 sample.  As I noted earlier, a majority of NPS respondents are immigrants.  But the survey was translated only into Spanish, presumably for reasons of expense and logistical difficulty.  That means that Latino immigrants who were not comfortable with English could readily participate but immigrants from other parts of the world who were not comfortable with English could not.  Thus the Asian sample may substantially differ from the Latino sample in its members’ degree of assimilation to the United States.

More generally, it would be very useful to have more items that emerge from an immigrant’s perspective rather than that of a native-born racial minority. For example: what do you find most startling about American racial and ethnic relations? Most problematic?  Most gratifying?  What benefits do your children receive from living in the United States? What harms do they encounter? What would draw you into political activism?  Perhaps nativism differs from discrimination in important ways that new survey items could reveal.  Of course, one would need to construct such questions carefully so that they also make sense to native-borns – but the central point is that since a quarter of the American population are now immigrants or the children of immigrants, the kinds of issues that we should be studying in order to understand racial and ethnic stratification may be changing. 

            Hutchings and colleagues’ chapter inspires a final question, focused more on the results of their analysis rather than on the survey itself.   One of the criteria for a good social science theory, in my view, is that it can explain movement in several directions. Why does political support for, say, intervention in Iraq rise and then fall? Or, why do politicians support the president of the opposite party on some occasions but not on others?  Racial contact theory has this quality; it can explain high levels of racial antagonism (too little contact, or the wrong kind of contact, among people of different races), low levels of racial antagonism (reasonably favorable contact), and racial amity (a great deal of the right kind of contact among people of different races). 

I find it harder, however, to see how group position theory, or several of the others that the NPS tests, can explain movement in different directions.  As Bobo and Hutchings explain its underpinnings, group position theory was developed to explain how “feelings of competition and hostility” emerge from “judgments about positions in the social order.”  It is easy to see, of course, why Herbert Blumer in 1958 saw no reason to explore the absence of inter-group hostility and competition, never mind the presence of inter-group sympathy and cooperation.  But the theory would be richer, and arguably more relevant to what Hutchings et al. characterize as “the nation’s increasingly complicated racial atmosphere,” if it were extended or modified to show how different beliefs about group position can lead to different racial dynamics.  Can group position theory explain feelings of cooperation and amity?  Can it explain instrumental political coalitions?  Alternatively, if a group’s members increasingly diverge in their judgments about their own and other groups’ positions in the social order, does group position theory lose its utility? 

Once again, the degree to which it seems worthwhile to develop more multi-faceted theories about race depends on one’s view about whether traditional forms of racial and ethnic stratification are changing in important ways.  In my view they are, and I would urge survey researchers to develop new forms of evidence to test that claim.  Change is not synonymous with improvement, so progressives worried about group-based inequality need not resist the idea that American politics are changing -- but it does call for innovation in data collection as much as in institutional design.


Do American Minority Groups Still Have “an” Interest?   

Opinions and perceptions, such as those that Hutchings et al. analyze, work through electoral structures, such as those that Pildes and Karlan evaluate, to produce political and policy outcomes.  Determining whether racial and ethnic stratification are changing involves deciding whether minority groups in a majoritarian democracy are getting more or less of what they want and need.  That decision, in turn, requires measuring a group’s interests, which turns out to be increasingly difficult to do.

In some polities at some times – the United States before 1964, South Africa before 1994, Israel at present – it is easy to identify minority interests. At a minimum, they include first-class citizenship, the rights and opportunities to participate in liberal democratic governance, and interpersonal decency and respect.  All of that almost certainly requires governmental intervention in the society and economy.  Even after a polity relinquishes legal segregation – the United States after 1964, South Africa after 1994 -- a minority group may be so disproportionately poor that its interests remain easy to identify. They include jobs, decent schooling, health care, decent housing, physical safety.  The satisfaction of such interests probably also requires extensive policy intervention in the society and economy, although the best policies may be a little less clear than in the first stage.  But when legal segregation is in the distant past and when a substantial proportion of the group has moved into the middle or even top end of the income spectrum, it is harder to determine the group’s interest.

            Arguably, that is where minority groups in the United States are now; whether other countries such as Cuba, Brazil, and the United Kingdom are similarly positioned remains a subject of intense debate.  What are group interests beyond the same rights and security as all other residents of the state if a third or half of minority group members are in the middle or upper middle classes?  What are group interests if minority group members marry people outside their group in high and increasing numbers, or if they occupy a disproportionate share of the slots in high-status universities, or if a member of the group holds the most powerful and visible elected position in the nation, possibly in the world?  If, as in the United States, a black man is the most important political figure, and black men are especially likely to be poor, uneducated, jobless, and incarcerated, and  blacks are disproportionately victimized by crimes committed by other nonwhites, is there any longer a “black interest”?  One could ask a parallel question about immigrants, especially since newcomers to the United States tend to have either much less education and remunerative job skills, or much more education and remunerative job skills, than do native-born Americans.

            As Hutchings et al. show, even if people are upwardly mobile they may identify their interests with that of their group; and as Karlan shows, even groups that have attained some power may still share an interest in protection against previously-dominant groups.   Nevertheless, it is harder than it used to be to assume that progressives’ social welfare policy preferences are identical to minority groups’ interests.  One can still endorse those preferences, as I do, but in some places the argument increasingly needs to be made on behalf of a decent society as a whole or on behalf of poorer residents of the polity, rather than on behalf of a uniquely disadvantaged group.  And we must be especially careful not to automatically equate conservatives’ social welfare policy preferences with endorsement of minority group subordination; as group dynamics get more complicated, the right policy becomes less self-evident.

            That is real progress, and progressives should celebrate it.  My final and strongest plea is that we welcome what has changed for the better while simultaneously grappling with what has changed for the worse – in policy design, scholarly theories, data collection, and political action.  That peroration comes perilously close to being a cliché, but some clichés are right.





Ansolabehere, Stephen, Nathaniel Persily, and Charles Stewart. 2010. "Race, Region, and Vote Choice in the 2008 Election: Implications for the Future of the Voting Rights Act." Harvard Law Review. 123 (6): 1386-436.

Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2008. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

Clayton, Dewey. 2010. The Presidential Campaign of Barack Obama: A Critical Analysis of a Racially Transcendent Strategy. New York: Routledge.

Clear, Todd. 2007. Imprisoning Communities. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ford, Richard. 2009. "Barack Is the New Black: Obama and the Promise/Threat of the Post-Civil Rights Era." Du Bois Review. 6 (1): 37-48.

Pew Research Center and National Public Radio. 2009. Social Trends Racial Attitudes in America Survey.

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. 2007. Racial Attitudes in America. Pew Research Center. (

Shelby, Tommie. 2005. We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

U. S. Department of Justice. 2003. Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001. Washington D.C.: Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (

Western, Bruce. 2006. Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.




[1] In most other surveys, the linked-fate question similarly comes after a series of questions about group identity and conflict, so the concern about priming effects is more general.

Last updated on 05/30/2011