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Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance for a More Integrated America

reviewed by Natasha Kumar Warikoo - July 06, 2010

coverTitle: Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance for a More Integrated America
Author(s): Richard Alba
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674035135, Pages: 320, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

When it comes to understanding racial change and integration in the United States, Richard Alba is a groundbreaker. His early work more than twenty five years ago charted major social changes that rendered white ethnic identities obsolete except in symbolic ways—by the 1980s, Italian American identity, among others, had gone “Into the Twilight of Ethnicity,” due to social mobility and economic opportunities, and despite the marginalization, racialization, and low educational outcomes of Italian Americans of previous generations (Alba, 1985). More recently, in Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration (with Victor Nee) Alba brought back into discussions of ethnicity the notion of assimilation, but with a twist. Alba and Nee show how the social distance between ethnic communities and the American mainstream in the United States has shortened, not only by ethnic minorities entering the mainstream, but also through the mainstream changing and opening avenues for minority participation and expanding the notion of what it means to be “American.” This blurring of the boundaries between ethnic and racial groups makes for a more inclusive society, according to Alba. In Blurring the Color Line, the topic of this review, Alba again makes a ground-breaking argument about racial change in America. This time, he looks forward to the next twenty years when the baby boomers have retired, an extraordinary opportunity for racial minorities to enter the highest rungs of the economic ladder and hence to blur racial boundaries.

The central premise of Blurring the Color Line is that periods of “non-zero-sum mobility” are ones during which racial boundaries can shift. For historical precedent, Alba looks back to the mid-20th century, a time of great social mobility for non-Protestant whites, including Irish and Italian Catholics and Eastern European Jews. Alba forefronts three conditions for “white ethnic” social mobility and the consequent blurring of the boundary between white Protestants and white Catholics and Jews during this period. Most importantly, this was a time in American history of “non-zero-sum mobility,” by which Alba means that white ethnics could improve their lives without the established white Protestants experiencing downward mobility.  During World War II and the subsequent twenty-five years, higher education exploded. White-collar and professional jobs expanded their proportion of the job market, as well, taking advantage of an increasingly educated workforce. These opportunities allowed working class Italian and Irish Americans, among others, to live the American dream of generational mobility. Alba cites two other conditions of ethnic boundary change: “the ability to convert socioeconomic advance into social proximity to the dominant group” and a belief in the moral worth of the disadvantaged group on the part of the majority group (p. 78). The former, residential integration, happened through large-scale suburbanization, and the latter through World War II emphasis on the unity of (white) soldiers with diverse ethnic backgrounds. This social mobility, of course, left African Americans behind, through Jim Crow segregation, federal housing loans that “redlined” African American neighborhoods and prevented residential integration for African Americans, anti-miscegenation  laws, and more. Still, Alba notes that the United States developed into a bi-racial hierarchy of whites and blacks rather than tri-racial hierarchy of white Protestants, white Catholics and Jews, and blacks. To those who suggest this social mobility was due to Italian, Irish, and Jewish Americans being “white,” Alba shows with considerable data that one hundred years ago these groups—especially Jews and the Irish—were seen as racially distinct from white Protestants.  

Through impeccable detail that Alba modestly describes as “back-of-the-envelope” computing, Alba then turns to the twenty-first century, asking whether another period of non-zero-sum mobility will happen, and what it will take. This time, Alba posits the potential for African Americans and Latinos to benefit from demographic change—namely, the retirement of the predominantly white baby boomers who currently dominate the top of the income distribution, creating unprecedented opportunities for high-status job uptake by underrepresented groups. This demographic shift has the potential to blur the thick boundary that now exists between black and white racial identities in the United States. Of course, top positions in the labor market are already slowly diversifying and will inevitably continue to do so; the real question is whether we will see a more massive shift—one that blurs racial boundaries. Alba suggests that this blurring is contingent upon the United States not using immigration to fill the vacancies at the top, which in any case may not be an available avenue for highly-skilled workers in the future. Furthermore, African Americans continue to face barriers with respect to residential integration and intermarriage; these factors will also influence the degree to which racial boundaries shift and blur. Lastly, and most urgently, this potential for social change depends on the degree to which African Americans and Latinos are able to develop the skills and educational attainment to qualify for the top-tier job vacancies. This is where education comes in, a crucial piece of the puzzle about the direction in which the United States will move with respect to race in the next twenty years.  

Alba’s detailed narrative shows how public education can make the difference between significant, rapid social change with respect to race, and slow, more piecemeal blurring. One might read this book as another argument for why public education needs to be ramped up, especially in urban areas, but the implications, I believe, go further. They suggest that if Americans are serious about social change toward racial equality and lifting barriers to success for African Americans and Latinos, then the crossroads of the present provides an unprecedented opportunity. If we marshal the political will to make school funding progressive rather than regressive; to place high quality teachers in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods; and to teach and assess 21st century skills necessary for college and job market success, then the United States can see dramatic changes in the color lines that currently stratify American society.  

Blurring the Color Line presents an impressive amount of evidence to support Alba’s sophisticated arguments, and he presents all sides of the complex arguments of the book.  Impressive in its lucidity, in addition to quantitative analysis the book is rich with details about complex sociological research related to the topics of the book. I would have liked to see Alba speculate on a third possible pathway for the United States, to move toward a society with racial groups that are not hierarchical. Although Alba has redefined “assimilation” to mean a blurring of the boundary between two groups (rather than one being incorporated into the other), his model for social change seems to exclude the possibility for a multicultural society. That is, what if non-zero-sum mobility happens alongside the maintenance of stronger ethnic and racial identities than the symbolic ethnicity of white ethnics today? It may be the case that residential integration and intermarriage make for more “blurred” racial boundaries, but is this necessarily a better society? In Britain, for example, although British Indians have high levels of education and income, they are less likely to intermarry than are Afro-Caribbeans, who as a group are less educated and earn lower incomes; British Indians also live in more segregated neighborhoods than do Afro-Caribbeans in Britain. In this scenario, African Americans might prefer to live in black middle class neighborhoods and marry endogamously, while enjoying economic mobility.  

A theory as overarching as Alba’s is impressive in its detail, its reach, and its ability to explain the past and hypothesize about the future. Alba’s optimism for the potential for social change is tempered by his observation that non-zero-sum mobility will not in itself change the economic structure of the United States, which is tainted by inequality greater than other Western countries. He is hence more ambivalent about the coming retirement of the baby boomers to improve the life chances of the poorest Americans, especially the minority urban poor, given that the increasing inequality in American society that is likely to continue. On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum are elite universities. Here, Alba’s explanation is less clear. He notes that Ivy League universities imposed quotas on Jews during the 1920s, thereby strengthening the boundary between Jewish and white Protestant identities. These quotas were lifted after World War II, during the period of non-zero-sum mobility that Alba describes, which included an expansion of higher education outside the Ivy League. However, Ivy League universities did not expand. In fact, the vast majority of students from elite high schools were accepted to Ivy League institutions up to the 1940s, but then admissions rates at those institutions dramatically declined from 1940 to 1960 (Stampnitzky, 2006). Why white Protestants ended the boundary excluding Jews at a time when there was increasing competition for seats at Ivy League universities remains a puzzle. Minor quibbles aside, Alba’s overall explanation for racial boundary change during the 20th century and his hopeful suggestion for the 21st are extremely compelling.  


Alba, R. D. (1985). Italian Americans: Into the twilight of ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Stampnitzky, L. (2006). How does “culture” become “capital”? Cultural and institutional struggles over “character and personality” at Harvard. Sociological Perspectives 49: 461-481.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 06, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16055, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:15:42 AM

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About the Author
  • Natasha Warikoo
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    E-mail Author
    NATASHA KUMAR WARIKOO is Assistant Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City (University of California Press, 2011), a study of youth culture at diverse urban high schools in Britain and the United States.
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