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  • A New American Dilemma?: Asian Americans and Latinos in Race Theorizing 1
  • Edward J. W. Park (bio) and John S. W. Park (bio)

Within the last two decades, the racial composition of the nation has undergone a profound change. Immigration reforms originally intended to favor Europeans have resulted, ironically, in the influx of over 15 million Asian and Latino immigrants. 2 The newcomers have settled in neighborhoods, both Black and White, and they are now part of the national economy, culture, and politics. More so than ever before, they are central participants in American race relations, often by appearing in the spectacular social breakdowns that unfortunately constitute much of American race relations: riots in Miami in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1992, punctuate these changes. 3 Moreover, they are intertwined in a host of racial issues, like affirmative action and immigration, and their larger presence indicates a move toward a much more complicated multi-racial society. 4

Yet, while American society confronts multiracial realities, much of recent American race theory either dismisses the significance of Asian Americans and Latinos altogether, or subsumes them into traditional biracial models. The newcomers are neither “Black” nor “White,” but they are still characterized in those terms, and this tendency impedes the development of new and compelling ways to examine current race relations. We live in a multiracial society, but we seem stuck in biracial [End Page 289] thinking. To help remedy this problem, the purpose of this article is three fold: first, to review, and then critique, several contemporary theories on issues of race; second, to discuss how the new influx of Asian Americans and Latinos now complicate those same issues; and third, to propose a number of steps that can serve as starting points toward effectively theorizing race relations in a changing, multiracial America.

Contemporary Race Theory and Multiracial Complexities

In many contemporary theories of race, Asian Americans and Latinos lose their distinctive racial positions. For instance, Asian Americans are sometimes described as “White,” sometimes “Black,” either in the way they act politically as a group, or in their demographic characteristics, or in their historical oppression. Similarly, Latinos are sometimes physiologically “White,” although some are “Black,” and to one theorist, they are demographically “Black,” while to another, they are nevertheless capable of becoming “White.” Oftentimes, race theorists conceive the role of Asian Americans and Latinos in a way that tends to marginalize their impact on the “core” of American race relations. The idea seems to be that while these groups are present in ever greater numbers, their presence doesn’t change American race relations overall.

In the preface to his book, hailed as one of the most accurate, insightful, and realistic statements on contemporary race relations to date, Andrew Hacker says that he focuses on black and white Americans “[because] other groups find themselves sitting as spectators, while the other two prominent players try to work out how or whether they can coexist with one another.” 5 In this account, one of the “spectators,” Asian Americans, if not already “literally White,” have the requisite class background and “technical and organizational skills” to assimilate with Whites. In addition, increasing rates of intermarriage between Asian American and Whites are another sign of assimilation, and the children of those unions will become a “new variant of White.” 6 The other “spectator,” Latinos, “are already ‘White’ [in large numbers],” and those who fail the phenotype test can nonetheless “claim a strong European heritage, which eases their absorption into the ‘White’ middle class.” 7 A [End Page 290] large part of this particular race theory posits that the very concept of Whiteness will change, as the inclusion of Asian Americans and Latinos will expand the category of Whites. 8

In another, similar version of race theory, Stephen Steinberg suggests that Asian Americans and Latinos are like Whites chiefly because of their role in the economy and their impact upon African Americans. 9 Here, Steinberg argues that the presence of Asian Americans and Latinos undermines the chances that African Americans will integrate more fully into the mainstream economy, because the former groups are used by white capital to undercut both the employment base and the wage structure for African...

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pp. 289-309
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