Recently, the call to go “beyond Black and White” in discussions of race has become something of a mantra in scholarly circles. The conventional trope of ”two nations, Black and White”-crafted and reproduced over the past half-century by Gunnar Myrdal, the Kerner Commission, Andrew Hacker, and others seems increasingly outdated as unprecedented levels of Asian and Latin American immigration continue to diversify the U.S. population. While the multiracial composition of the American populace has always given the lie to a bipolar racial framework, these post-1965 demographic changes have thrown the framework’s shortcomings into especially bold relief. But what does it mean to go ”beyond Black and White” in thinking about race? As with most ritualistic exhortations, the need to do something is more apparent than how it is to be done.
Scholars have adopted two broad approaches to going “beyond Black and White,” both of which, in my view, have certain shortcofuings. The first approach, which I call the different trajectories approach, examines racialization (or the creation and characterization of racial categories) as an open-ended, variable process that has played out differently for each subordinated group. Michael
Omi and Howard Winant’s discussion of distinct and independent group
trajectories. “Native Americans faced genocide, blacks were subjected to racial slavery, Mexicans were invaded and colonized, and Asians faced exclusion” exemplifies this approach. As David Theo Goldberg notes about this approach, “the presumption of a single monolithic racism is being displaced by a mapping of the multifarious historical formulations of racism. The second approach, which I call the racial hierarchy approach, emphasizes the ordering of groups into a single scale of status and privilege with Whites on the top, Blacks on the bottom, and all other groups somewhere in between.
Gary Okihiro’s argument that Asian Americans have been rendered an intermediate group on America’s bipolar racial scale and Mari Matsuda’s claim that Asian Americans constitute a “racial bourgeoisie” imply such a hierarchy (although both authors are more concerned with the implications of Asian Americans’ intermediate status than they are with the overall notion of hierarchy itself). These two broad approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive: Tomas Almaguer, for instance, addresses both the “differential racialization” of various groups and the single racial hierarchy that these processes produced in a particular time and place.
The shortcomings of both approaches suggest that the mandate to go “beyond Black and White” remains at least in part unfulfilled. The problem with the different trajectories approach is that it imputes mutual autonomy to respective racialization processes that are in fact mutually constitutive of one another. Asian Americans have not been racialized in a vacuum, isolated from other groups; to the contrary, Asian Americans have been racialized relative to and through interaction with Whites and Blacks. As such, the respective racialization trajectories of these groups are profoundly interrelated.
The problem with the racial hierarchy approach, on the other hand, is that its notion of a single scale of status and privilege is belied by the fact that Whites appear to have ordered other racial groups along at least two dimensions or axes historically. Angelo Ancheta, for instance, points out that Blacks have been denigrated as inferior while Asian Americans have been denigrated more often as outsiders or aliens. The challenge, it seems, is to find a way to talk about what Neil Gotanda calls the “other non-Whites” in a way that appreciates both how racialization processes are mutually constitutive of one another and how they can unfold along more than one dimension or scale at a time.
My purpose in this paper is twofold. First, I propose that we use the notion of a ”field of racial positions” in order to move the conceptualization of racial dynamics ”beyond Black and White.” Second, I argue that Asian Americans specifically have been “racially triangulated” vis-a-vis Whites and Blacks in this field of racial positions for the past century and a half. Let me discuss these two points in turn.
According to Stephen Jay Gould, our racial thinking, conditioned by European ethnological frameworks of centuries past, is “subject to visual representation, usually in clearly definable geometric terms.”s My first claim is that public discourse about racial groups and their relative status generates a field of racial positions (or, to borrow Gould’s phrase, a particular “racial geometry”) in a given time and place. The chief architects of this field are those we might call major opinion makers: White elected officials, journalists, scholars, community leaders,
business elites, and so on. Although the most powerful always have the most say in defining it, this field is continuously contested and negotiated within and among racial groups, both at the elite level and at the level of popular culture and everyday life.
Since the field of racial positions consists of a plane defined by at least two axes-superior/inferior and insider/foreigner-it emphasizes both that
groups become racialized in comparison with one another and that they are differently racialized. As a normative blueprint for who should get what, this field of racial positions profoundly shapes the opportunities, constraints, and possibilities with which subordinate groups must contend, ultimately serving to reinforce White dominance and privilege.
My second argument is that Asian Americans have been racially triangulated vis-a-vis Blacks and Whites, or located in the field of racial positions with reference to these two other points. Racial triangulation occurs by means of two types of simultaneous, linked processes:
(1) processes of “relative valorization,” whereby dominant group A (Whites) valorizes subordinate group B (Asian Americans) relative to subordinate group C (Blacks) on cultural and/or racial
grounds in order to dominate both groups, but especially the latter, and
(2) processes of “civic ostracism,” whereby dominant group A (Whites) constructs subordinate group B (Asian Americans) as immutably foreign and unassimilable with Whites on cultural and/or racial grounds in order to ostracize them from the body politic and civic membership (see Figure 1 ). Processes of relative valorizationand civic ostracism are linked both analytically and functionally. They are joined analytically by an essentialized reading of Asian American/Asian culture that commits a double elision among Asian American subgroups, on one hand, and between Asian Americans and Asians, on the other. As Paul Gilroy notes in another context, “Culture is conceived … not as something intrinsically fluid, changing, unstable, and dynamic, but as a fixed property of social groups.
Functionally, the two types of processes work in a complementary fashion to maintain Asian Americans in an triangulated position vis-a-vis Whites and Blacks. As Figure 1 indicates, both processes are required to maintain Asian Americans in this equilibrated position; the abridgment of either would result in an altered group position.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the racial triangulation of Asian Americans is its historical persistence. This paper demonstrates that the racial triangulation of Asian Americans has persisted since its inception in the mid-1800s to the present and that it has undergone only cosmetic changes in the post-1965 era in keeping with contemporary norms of colorblindness. Before the civil rights era, racial triangulation occurred openly, in cultural-racial terms; during the post-civil rights era, racial triangulation has occurred in a coded fashion, in cultural terms decoupled from overtly racial claims. Yet in both periods, racial triangulation (and the field of racial positions, more generally) has functioned as a normative blueprint for which groups should get what, reproducing patterns of White power and privilege.
As Omi and Winant note, racial categories and meanings may be social constructions, but they take on a life of their own over time, profoundly shaping the distribution of goods in society. By illuminating the field of racial positions that lies just beneath the contemporary edifice of prima facie racially neutral laws and policies, this paper helps us to understand how White racial power can continue to thrive in a formally colorblind society. The first part of this paper examines open racial triangulation during the period of 1850 to 1950. The second part examines coded racial triangulation from 1965 to the present, IS The concluding section considers the implications of this paper for future research on race and racialization.
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