Buffer Races and Castelike Minorities

Fareed Zakaria’s recent Washington Post editorial on immigration has rightly been praised for its clarity.

Compared with every other country in the world, America does immigration superbly. Do we really want to junk that for the French approach?

The only criticism I’ve seen of Zakaria is that he conflates German guest workers with second or third generation France citizens of foreign descent. (See Moorish Girl for more on “immigrants” vs. “citizens.”) But I think there is a deeper problem here. The reason immigrants tend to do well in America is not because America is a more welcoming society, but because we already have a permanent racial underclass in our African American population! (And, to some extent, Latinos and Native Americans as well.)

America’s recent immigrants serve a useful purpose, deflecting attention away from one of the core conflicts in our society. American immigration policy in recent years has favored middle class Asian immigrants. Their arrival conflates the black/white dichotomy that led to so much social unrest in the 1960s. This can be seen in the area of Affirmative Action policies where it has been widely remarked that those who would benefit most from their termination would not be White Americans, but the children of Asian immigrants!

Popular in Marxist academic circles, the concept of Asian immigrants to the US acting as a “buffer race” has never made it to the mainstream. I would argue that part of the reason for this lies in the intrenched logic of American “multiculturalism.” According to the dominant narrative, America is a “salad” (no longer a “melting pot”) in which each culture adds its own unique flavor to the mix. This narrative hides the very different histories of America’s various ethnic minorities.

In their celebrated essay, “Black students and the burden of ‘acting White.'” (1986, Urban Review 18(3), 176-203) Ogbu and Fordham suggest a tripartite classification for thinking about America’s ethnic minorities:

In order to account for this variability, we have suggtsted that minority groups should be classified into three types: autonomous minorities, who are minorities primarily in a numerical sense; immigrant minorities, who came to America more or less voluntarily with the expectation of improving their economic, political, and social status; and subordinate or castelike minorities, who were involuntarily and permanently incorporated into American society through slavery or conquest. Black Americans are an example par excellence of castelike minorities because they were brought to America as slaves and after’ emancipation were relegated to menial status’ through legal and extralegal devices… American Indians, Mexican Americans, and Native Hawaiians share, to some extent, features of castelike minorities.

What it means to be a “castlike minority” can be understood by looking at our prison population (more here):

Since 1989 and for the first time in national history, African Americans make up a majority of those entering prison each year. Indeed, in four short decades, the ethnic composition of the U.S. inmate population has reversed, turning over from 70 percent white at mid-century to nearly 70 percent black and Latino today, although ethnic patterns of criminal activity have not fundamentally changed during that period.

While South Asian immigrants may never become white in the same way that Jewish and Irish immigrants did (Fareed Zakaria has commented that TV ratings drop whenever he appears on a talk show), I would argue that the reason immigration has “worked so well” in America is that immigrants usefully distract us from the real racial issues in this country, while for many European countries, immigrants are the racial underclass.

15 thoughts on “Buffer Races and Castelike Minorities

  1. Useful post..i had understood some of the differences, but you have stated them with better conceptual clarity.
    btw, where would u place the hispanic community?

  2. Rix,

    Good question. The problem is that the hispanic community is so diverse – both economically and racially, that it is hard to deal with en bloc. Then there is the difference between legal and illegal as well! It certainly makes life complicated.

    One example I might use is an elite college near Philadelphia which admits a large number of students from top private schools in Puerto Rico. This allows the school to look “diverse” without admitting any African Americans from the Philadelphia area. At the same time, there are Puerto Ricans in New York whose experience is very similar to that of African Americans (see Bonnie Urciuoli’s work).

    I think there has been a lot of exciting work on this in the past 5-6 years, but (to be perfectly honest) since I’ve been focusing on Taiwan during that time I’m out of date. If anyone has suggestions for works I might look at to answer Rix’s question, I’d love to know!

  3. Great, great post — this is a point that (white) U.S. students are really resistant to hearing; they’re so eager to congratulate themselves for viewing all “races” “equally” in the multiculturalism format that they can only hear an anti-racist argument that articulates distinctions between the historical experiences of different “races” as, well, racist. I’m glad to have the notion of “caste-like minority” in my pedagogical toolkit, thanks!

  4. Doesn’t defining whether a minority is “caste-like” in terms of that minority’s entry into america (which is an immutable, past event) create a dialogue in which the minority’s status is presumed to be likewise immutable?

    I’m all for acknowledging historical contingency, but contingency isn’t destiny.

  5. I’ve also been thinking about these things recently, especially the Wacquant institutional approach to caste exclusion, in regards to my research in the suburbs of Paris.

    I find his article “The new “peculiar institution” useful, but only when reading it in the context of an ethnography that deals with caste exclusion (in prison, ghettos, etc). Otherwise, one gets the idea that this caste exclusion contiuum is made up of an overarching historical machinery in which humans have little influence, and more importantly, which doesn’t take into account the experience of ghetto residents or inmates. The logic is sound, but what are the mecanisms of these changes, and where are the actors? This isn’t a critique of Wacquant because it’s a short article and he’s also done participant-observation stuff–I just think both perspectives (macro and micro) are essential to interpret the situation (and are represented pretty well in Philippe Bourgois’s In search of respect).

    However, in terms of Wacquant’s thoughts on the situation of caste exclusion and “anti-ghettos” in France, I can say that my experience in the field has completely contradicted his reflection (in strong marxist tradition) that French youth whose parents came from North or sub-saharan Africa “feel French” and that it’s class, not ethnicity that matters in their disenchantment and protest. I have to say, all evidence I’ve seen thus far goes against such an interpretation. When was the last time Wacquant came to the Paris suburbs?

    Maybe it’s de Tocqueville syndrome….

    Kerim–hmmm, what school could that be? (it seems we have the same alma mater).

  6. Patrick, your argument would seem to pressuppose that “caste” IS immutable in, say, India — an assumption which current government policy there certainly does not not support. “Caste” itself — like “caste-like” statuses — are all socially constructed,

  7. Funny thing is, in study after study White Americans deny that there is any such thing as “institutional racism” while African Americans insist they are victims of it. They must all be delusional, right? After all, there isn’t any conspiracy of history against them, so it must all be in their heads?

    There is a big difference bewteen a cultural logic and a conspiracy. For instance, when employers systematically promote fellow whites over blacks they may simply be looking for people “like themselves” who they feel comfortable hanging out with. But the result is racism nonetheless. Multiply that on a societal scale and you begin to see what institutional racism looks like. It isn’t inevitable, but it isn’t a negligble force either.

  8. Taking another tactic: Women continue to earn 70% on the dollar compared with men. Conspiracy? Inevitable force? Or just institutionalized sexism? I personally choose the answer that seems the least absurd.

  9. Kerim,

    You overlooked the fact that not all immigrants “do well” in America. Undocumented immigrants (primarily but not exclusively Latino) continue to supplement America’s permanent racial underclass as David Jaeger documents in a paper recently posted on the Center for American Progress website (http://www.americanprogress.org/site/pp.asp?c=biJRJ8OVF&b=1528891).
    African Americans and other castelike minorities do not provide enough low skilled workers for the US economy. Jaeger notes, “if the undocumented were removed from the labor force, there would be a shortfall of nearly 2.5 million low-skill workers.”

  10. Greg,

    I have to disagree. This argument — that undocumented immigrants do work that “no one else wants” or “no one else is available to perform” masks both extant forms of institutional discrimination AND the fact that undocumented immigrants are hired to perform work under abusive conditions rather than hired to perform work for which no other workers are available. Their desirability as workers is not about general scarcity — it is about specific forms of exploitation.

  11. Paul Krugman agrees with Ozma:

    it’s intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do “jobs that Americans will not do.” The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays – and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

  12. Last night’s “Late Show with Jon Stewart” was a special on Race in America (“a country of immigrants…who owned other immigrants”). Any insights? Dunno, but it’s funny. You can watch bits here

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