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  • The Diversity Paradox by Jennifer Lee and Frank D. Bean
  • Kenneth Prewitt
The Diversity Paradox. By Jennifer Lee and Frank D. Bean. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. 2010.

This ambitious book poses questions key to race relations: a) is diversity resulting from immigration re-drawing America’s race boundaries? b) if so, how does biracial marriage and multiracial progeny fit into this picture? The authors base their analysis on national statistics (the American Community Survey) and in-depth interviews of 46 multiracial adults and 36 interracial couples with children, all Californian.

The major finding: diversity is leading to the dissolution race boundaries. Diversity is defined as social-structural and cultural-attitudinal shifts that accompany demographic dynamics, that is, how many different ethnoracial groups there are, and their relative sizes and geographic distribution. The authors want to measure boundary dissolution net of demographic change; and, in this effort use qualitative data to uncover the mechanisms that give rise to national trends.

The book summarizes the four paths that the 21st-century color line might take. The color line could continue to separate the white and nonwhite, that is, Asian and Latino immigrants and their children will be “racialized.” Alternatively, Asians and Latinos could follow the path of hyphenation, the Irish, Italian, and Slavic who escaped the 19th-century effort to racialize them, becoming white American even as they retain traces of their national origins. This second possibility is the much-discussed black/nonblack color line, African-Americans on one side and everyone else on other. The third is the tri-parte path, with Asians and Latinos hovering between the black and white races. This outcome replaces one with two boundaries, separating Asians and Latinos both from African-Americans and from European Whites. Finally is the post-racial possibility; boundaries fade, the color line disappears.

In investigating which path the nation is on, Lee and Bean offer a rich stream of mid-level findings, fresh insights, clever analysis—altogether a sociological feast. [End Page 142] Space does not permit review of this feast, but even if the reader is unpersuaded on the general finding there is much to be learned from close reading.

The authors write that for Asians and Latinos diversity is weakening the boundaries separating them from whites—evident in proud assertions of multiracialism, in the increase of biracial marriages, and in the acceptance by white America of educationally and economically successful Asians and Latinos. Whether less successful Asians and Latinos, among the latter especially the undocumented, are breaking through the color barrier is not fully examined.

Then there is the paradox—black exceptionalism. The authors find “deep-seated cultural differences” (199) in how whites, Asians, and Latinos view each other and in how all three view African-Americans and correspondingly in how African-Americans view themselves. The authors qualify black exceptionalism by arguing that the black/nonblack color line is not completely immune to the openings presented by diversity. Diversity, Lee and Bean argue, erodes all race boundaries, but, paradoxically, “the new diversity blurs some color lines more than others” (19). For African-Americans there are countervailing factors that markedly weaken the effect of diversity.

The principle countervailing factor invoked is group-threat, that is, as minority numbers grow relative to the white majority, the latter feel threatened. The authors do some clever metropolitan-level analysis to suggest why group-threat might explain black exceptionalism, and in lesser degree to some instances of Latino exceptionalism. The ingenious analysis notwithstanding, the authors acknowledge that the explanation of why the black/nonblack boundary is resistant to the transformation otherwise resulting from diversity is not dispositive.

These general findings suffer from several data problems. One is self-inflicted. The authors use an “upper-bound” (57) definition of non-white, including Latinos who self-define as white as well as all multiracials, but their own qualitative data indicate that for many in these groups race is a “nonissue” (90). The upper-bound definition of non-white tilts the statistical data in the direction of finding that diversity weakens racial boundaries. A second data problem is beyond their control, but might have been noted. The qualitative data make clear the...


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pp. 142-143
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