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A Post-Racial Society or a Diversity Paradox?

Jennifer Lee, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, examines issues at the intersection of immigration and race and ethnicity. A member of the Cultural Contact and Immigration working group, Lee is also the co-author, with Frank Bean, of The Diversity Paradox, published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2010. The book uses population-based analyses and in-depth interviews to examine patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. Lee wrote the following analysis of her research. She also compiled a reading list for more information.

Race and immigration have become so inextricably linked in the United States that one can no longer study race without considering immigration, and correlatively, one cannot understand the debates about immigration without considering race. Given the centrality of these issues, Frank D. Bean and I examine how trends in immigration, intermarriage, and multiracial identification are re-shaping our ideas about race and the color line in our book, The Diversity Paradox.

To provide a sense of just how timely these issues are today: immigrants and their children account for about 23% of the U.S. population, and 85% originate from Latin America and Asia, making the country more racially and ethnically diverse than at any point in our history. In 1970, Latinos and Asians comprised only 5% and 1% of the nation’s population, respectively, but by 2010, their populations more than tripled to 16% and 5 percent. Latinos have grown so rapidly that they have surpassed blacks as the largest minority group, and while smaller in size, the Asian population is the fastest growing group in the country.

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Along with increased immigration, we find rising rates of intermarriage. In 1960, less than 1% of U.S. marriages were interracial, but by 2008, this figure rose to 7.6%, meaning that 1 out of every 13 U.S. marriages was interracial. If we look at only new marriages that took place in 2008, the figure rises to 14.6%, translating to 1 out of every 7 American marriages.

The rising trend in intermarriage has resulted in a growing multiracial population, which became highly visible in 2000 when for the first time in history, the U.S. Census provided Americans the option to “mark one or more” races to identify themselves or members of their households (see Figure 1). In 2000, 2.4% of Americans identified multiracially, and in 2010, the figure increased to 2.9 percent. Among Americans under the age of 18, the multiracial population increased by 46% since 2000, making multiracial children the fastest growing youth group in the country. Demographers project that the multiracial population will continue to grow so that by 2050, 1 in 5 Americans could claim a multiracial background, and by 2100, the ratio could soar to 1 in three.

At first glance, these trends appear to signal that we’re moving into a "post-racial" era, in which race is declining in significance for all Americans. The election of Barack Obama as President seemed to confirm this sentiment, and immediately following his election, some journalists and pundits claimed that we have finally moved beyond race.

Fig. 1: Excerpt from
U.S. 2000 Census Form

However, if we take a closer look at these trends, we find that they mask vast inter-group differences. For instance, Asians and Latinos intermarry at much higher rates than blacks. As Table 1 shows, about 30% of Asian and Latino marriages are interracial, but the corresponding figure for blacks is only 17%. However, if we include only U.S.-born Asians and Latinos, we find that intermarriage rates are much higher. Nearly, three-quarters (72%) of married, U.S.-born Asians, and over half (52%) of U.S.-born Latinos are interracially married, and most often, the intermarriage is with a white partner. While the intermarriage rate for blacks has risen steadily in the past five decades, it is still far below that of Asians and Latinos, especially those born in the United States.


The pattern of multiracial identification is similar to that of intermarriage (as Table 2 shows): Asians and Latinos report much higher rates of multiracial identification than blacks. In 2010, 15% of Asians and 12% of Latinos reported a multiracial identification. The corresponding figure for blacks is only 7 percent. Although the rate of multiracial reporting among blacks has risen since 2000, it increased from a very small base of only 4.2 percent.

What remains perplexing is that given of the history of racial mixing in our country, the U.S. Census estimates that about 75-90% of black Americans are ancestrally multiracial, yet only 7% choose to identify as such. Cleary, genealogy alone does not dictate racial identification. Given that the “one-drop rule” of hypodescent is no longer legally codified, why does the rate of multiracial reporting among blacks remain relatively low?

These are some of the vexing questions that we tackle in our book, The Diversity Paradox, drawing on analyses of 2000 Census data, 2007-2008 American Community Survey, as well as 82 in-depth interviews: 46 with multiracial adults and 36 with interracial couples with children.

Turning to the in-depth interviews with the interracial couples, we found that while all acknowledged their children’s multiracial or multiethnic backgrounds, the meaning of multiraciality differs remarkably for the children of Asian-white and Latino-white couples on the one hand, and the children of black-white couples on the other. For the Asian-white and Latino-white couples, they may go to great lengths to maintain distinctive elements of their Asian or Latino ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but they believe that as their children grow up, they will simply identify, and be identified as “American” or as “white,” using these terms interchangeably, and consequently conflating a national origin identity with a racial identity.

The Asian-white and Latino-white respondents also revealed that they can turn their ethnicities on and off whenever they choose, and, importantly, their choices are not contested by others. Our interview data reveal that the Asian and Latino ethnicities for multiracial Americans are what Herbert Gans and Mary Waters would describe as “symbolic”—meaning that they are voluntary, optional, and costless, as European ethnicity is for white Americans.

Table 1: Intermarriage Rates

By contrast, none of the black-white couples identified their children as just white or American, nor did they claim that their children identify as such. While these couples recognize and celebrate the racial mixture of their children’s backgrounds, they unequivocally identify their children as black. When we asked why, they pointed out that nobody would take them seriously if they tried to identify their children as white, reflecting the constraints that black interracial couples feel when identifying their children. Moreover, black interracial couples do not identify their children as simply “American” because as native-born Americans, they feel that American is an implicit part of their identity.


The different patterns of identification between Asian and Latino interracial couples on the one hand and the black interracial couples on the other, stems, in part, from the relative newness of the Asian and Latino multiracial populations, combined with the lack of historical rules that govern their choice of identities. Unlike blacks, Asians and Latinos have not been legally subject to the “one-drop rule” of hypodescent.

To give a brief history of the one-drop rule: it was first implemented during the era of slavery so that any children born to a white male slaver owner and a black female slave would be legally identified as black, and, as a result, have no rights to property and other wealth holdings of their white father. When the United States abolished slavery, southern states such as Tennessee and Louisiana legalized the rule of hypodescent in 1910, and other states soon followed suit. By 1925, nearly every state in the country had institutionalized the practice into law.

The U.S. Census soon followed, and in 1930 made a fateful decision that had an enduring impact on the way that Americans define blackness. In 1930, census enumerators were instructed to classify all mixed-race black individuals as “Negro,” with specific directions that read, "A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned to Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood. Both black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction."

The sheer paradox of the one-drop rule is self-evident: it is not a two-way street. One can be 7/8 white (as Homer Plessy was, of Plessy v. Ferguson 1896), and not be white, but any trace of “black blood” makes one black. By adopting the one-drop rule of hypodescent, the United States refused to acknowledge the mixed racial backgrounds of black Americans by legally assigning them a black racial identity.

Table 2: Multiracial Identification by Census Racial Categories

It was not until 1967, in the case, Loving v. Virginia when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the final ban on interracial marriage, that the one-drop rule also lost its legal legitimacy. While the rule is no longer legally enforced, its legacy remains culturally intact, and explains why 75-90% of black Americans are ancestrally multiracial, yet only 7% choose to identify as such. It also explains why we, as Americans, are so attuned to identifying black ancestry in a way that we are not similarly attuned to identifying and constraining Asian and Latino ancestries.

On this note, it is also critical to underscore that a black racial identification also reflects agency and choice on the part of interracial couples and multiracial blacks. Given the legacy behind the one-drop rule and the meaning and consequences behind the historical practice of “passing as white,” choosing to identify one’s children as white may not only signify a rejection of the black community, but also a desire to be accepted by a group that has legally excluded and oppressed them in the past, a point underscored by Randall Kennedy.


But regardless of choice or constraint, the patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification point to a pattern of “black exceptionalism.” Why does black exceptionalism persist, even amidst the country’s new racial/ethnic diversity? It persists because the legacy of slavery and the legacy of immigration are two competing yet strangely symbiotic legacies on which the United States was founded. If immigration represents the optimistic side of the country’s past and future, slavery and its aftermath is an indelible stain in our nation’s collective memory. The desire to overlook the legacy and slavery becomes a reason to reinforce the country’s immigrant origins.

That Asians and Latinos are largely immigrants (or the children of immigrants) means that their understanding of race and the color line are born out of an entirely different experience and narrative than that of African Americans. Hence, despite the increased diversity, race is not declining in significance, and we are far from a “post-racial” society. That we continue to find a pattern of black exceptionalism—even amidst the country’s new racial/ethnic diversity—points to the paradox of diversity in the 21st century.

JENNIFER LEE is a professor at University of California, Irvine.

Reading List 

DaCosta, Kimberly McClain. 2007. Making Multiracials: State, Family, and Market in the Redrawing of the Color Line. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Davis, F. James. 2001 [1991]. Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Foner, Nancy and George M. Fredrickson (Eds). 2004. Not Just Black and White: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Gans, Herbert J. 1979. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2(1):1-20.
Smith, Rogers. 1993. "Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America." American Political Science Review. 87(3): 549-566. (PDF)
Hollinger, David A. 2008. “Obama, The Instability of Color Lines, and the Promise of a Postethnic Future.” Callaloo 31(4):1033-1037.
Humes, Karen R., Nicholas Jones, and Roberto R. Ramirez. 2011. Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010. U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration: United States Census Bureau.
Kennedy, Randall. 2003. Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. New York: Pantheon Books.
Moran, Rachel F. 2001. Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nobles, Melissa. 2000. Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Waters, Mary C. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.