Place-based racial identities and shared futures

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The nation’s growing racial diversity received significant media attention following the release of the 2020 Census results, which show that a declining number of people in the United States identify themselves as white. Rather predictably, this led to a good deal of hand-wringing over a shrinking white population. 

In his most recent book, The Great Demographic Illusion, sociologist Richard Alba, criticizes the idea of an emergent white minority because many American children and youth today claim mixed raced backgrounds.  They maintain kin connections with both white and non-white kin, and, Alba argues, are well-represented in mainstream milieus. In his view, the mainstream is expanding and becoming more inclusive through intermarriage and integration, so the long-standing “color line” seems to be blurring.

Sociologists Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean take a less benign view, suggesting that recent demographic and social transformations are “reinventing” a new kind of color line, one that divides Black people from non-Black people. They too acknowledge growing rates of intermarriage and multiracially identified people.  But relying on both interview data and responses from the 2000 Census, they suggest Asian Americans and Latinos show less social distance from whites than they do from African Americans.  

One of the foremost scholars of race and racism, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, offers a complementary perspective: rather than a color line dividing the U.S. into a racial binary, he argues that we now see the emergence of a more pluralistic racial order, one resembling a tripartite system of whites, “honorary whites,” and collective Blacks. In this view, a sort of assimilation to the mainstream remains possible as long as both some distance and a high level of anti-Blackness stays in place.

These latter analyses represent important efforts to acknowledge both the persistence of racism, and the changing nature of how race and racism works today.  We contribute and further nuance this discussion by looking at how racial experiences and meanings change over time in a particular place – and, in particular, how and why other “minority” groups might move closer to and not further from Blackness.  

In a way, this question is not entirely new: Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou long ago wrote about “segmented assimilation.” But that term has always conjured up a sense of falling down the social order when confronted by structural impediments, with minority groups economically and socially “stuck” in an underclass. But what if innovative strategies of belonging and proximity to Blackness prompt changes in the structures that impede progress?

That is the story we find in our new book, South Central Dreams: Finding Home and Building Community in South L.A.. The backdrop is the massive demographic change in South L.A. between 1970 and the current day: once 80 percent Black, the area is now more than two-thirds Latino. And while others have written about the conflicts of the early periods of ethnic transition, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, we wanted to return and see what it all looked like today, particularly through the lens of Natalia Molina’s notion of relational racialization in which whiteness is decentered as the main axis of demographic consideration.

Using a mixed method approach that combined deep statistical analysis with 200 interviews with residents, we uncovered a story showing the importance of place, change over time, and the shared project of collective home in shaping new configurations of racial identities and experiences.   

Our book chronicles the experiences of first generation Mexican and Central American immigrants arriving in South L.A. Monolingualism, anti-black prejudices brought from their countries of origin, and experiences with street violence, and gangs led first generation to mostly “shut in and shut out.” While color lines eventually softened, they generally kept their distance from African Americans.

But the life experiences of their children, the second-generation Latinos who were raised in South L.A., were totally different.  They grew up with Black friends, Black music, and were schooled by significant Black teachers, mentors and community leaders.  Yes, there were tensions, and sometimes even “race riots” in the schools, but the upshot is this: they developed a sense of self and home defined by place-based racial identity, one articulated as strong affinity with Black people and culture.   

Indeed, a surprising finding is that many of the Latinos raised in South L.A. feel racially distant from friends and relatives in East L.A. who they perceive as too racist against Blacks, and too nationalistic.  For this generation, raised “in an aura of blackness,” as one of our respondents said, the color line between Brown and Black has faded. Partly as a result, Black-Brown organizing by vibrant social movement organizations has taken deep root.

This is not to minimize the sense of Black sorrow and melancholy over the change, including the erosion of South L.A. as the  locale for the important churches, clubs and public spaces of Black Los Angeles. As one veteran African American journalist and Civil Rights activist declared at a public forum in the historic Central Avenue neighborhood, “We got what we wanted, but we lost what we had.”

But while Black population numbers have diminished in South L.A., Black culture, leaders and community organizing legacies remain vibrant. And much as in Jennifer Jones’ evocation of Black-Brown “shared fate” in the South, we see a new generation of Latinos emphasizing shared commonalities and struggles with African Americans. Rather than ethnic succession which seeks to erase the past, we see ethnic sedimentation in which communities come together to pursue a common destiny. 

As we were completing the first phase of our field work, a slogan emerged to promote community organizing during the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1992 uprising: “South LA is the Future.” Meant to evoke a sense of pride of place, it signaled that something very different was being forged here. And perhaps this explains what the real fear provoked by the nation’s demographic change is all about: that whiteness will no longer be the center of the conversation or the aspirational goal for people of color. 

In that shift, sociologists will have much to contribute in terms of new theory and new empirical studies. More complex approaches, more mixed methods strategies, and more considerations of the relationships between communities of color will be needed for American to both understand the coming transition and to go through it with some degree of grace and common ground.


Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Manuel Pastor are co-authors of South Central Dreams: Finding Home and Building Community in South L.A. (NYU Press 2021), and they teach in the Department of Sociology at USC.

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