WHITE IDENTITY AND RACE RELATIONS IN THE 1990s

Ashley W. Doane, Jr.
University of Hartford

Pp. 151-159 in Perspectives on Current Social Problems, edited by Gregg Lee Carter.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon.  1997.  Direct Correspondence to Ashley W. Doane, Jr., Hillyer College, University of Hartford, West Hartford, CT  06117 (Internet: doane@mail.hartford.edu).    Copyright (C) 1997  Allyn & Bacon.
 

 What does it mean to be white in the United States in the 1990s?  How does white identity--how whites view themselves--affect race relations in American society?  These are questions which have largely been overlooked by sociologists.  In fact, one of the most understudied areas in the sociology of race and ethnic relations is the nature of dominant group identity.  For example, textbooks--an important way in which we present our discipline to the larger society--focus either on minority groups or dominant group attitudes towards minorities.  The lack of analysis of the nature of white identity is an important oversight, for in social interaction our views of others are shaped by how we view the world, including how we view ourselves.
         In this chapter, I will focus upon three major issues.  First, I will examine how the identity of dominant groups is often "hidden" or taken-for-granted in social interaction and how this leads whites to be unaware of the many ways in which they are "privileged" in American society.  Second, I will analyze whiteness as a social problem; that is, how the hidden nature of white identity negatively affects intergroup relations between whites and peoples of color.  Finally, I will examine how white identity is undergoing a process of change, and I will briefly explore the implications of these changes for the future of race and ethnic relations in the United States.  This is a significant issue.  Understanding the nature of white identity is important for both whites and peoples of color as they work to build a racially just society in the twenty-first century.
         Before I discuss issues of white identity and race relations, it is useful to define our core concepts.  As used in popular discourse--and in sociological literature--the concepts of race and ethnicity are often ambiguous and/or confused with each other.  This is due in large part to the socially constructed nature of race and ethnicity.  Both of these concepts describe social groupings; however, the social understandings which define groups and group membership have evolved over time as a result of changes in intergroup relations in American society.  For example, the "racial" categories used by the United States Census have changed dramatically during the last hundred years (Lee 1993).  Ethnicity and race have similarities (and are often confused) in that both are socially constructed identities that have had a powerful influence upon intergroup relations (current ethnic conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, and Sri Lanka have been as fierce as racial conflicts), the major difference is the basis for group identification.
         In the contemporary United States, individuals have both a racial and an ethnic identity.  Race (e.g., Black, White, Asian, Native-American) can be defined as a way of classifying or grouping people based upon physical/biological traits which have been given social significance.  While past theories of race (and the beliefs of some people today) held that race had a biological or scientific basis--and many scientists attempted to "prove" that whites were biologically superior--most social and natural scientists now believe that race has no scientific validity (see Montagu 1974; Reynolds 1992; Cavalli-Sforza, Menozzi and Piazza 1994).  What this implies is that the essence of race is not contained in physical or biological differences, but in the social meaning attached to these differences.  In contrast to race, ethnicity (e.g., Italian-American, Chinese-American, Jamaican-American, Mexican-American, Mashantucket Pequot) can be defined as a sense of peoplehood based on presumed common ancestry and history, and the use of shared elements of culture (e.g., language, food, etc.) to distinguish the group from other groups.  While the assertion or change of ethnic identities is shaped by group competition for valued social, political and economic resources (Nagel 1994), the power of ethnic ties comes from their ability to draw upon the powerful emotional bonds of history and culture as a basis for group solidarity.
 

White Americans:  Racial Awareness and Racial Privilege
         The best available sociological evidence indicates that white Americans have a lower degree of self-awareness than other racial/ethnic groups in the United States.  Interestingly, there is very little sociological research on the nature of white racial identity; that is, where subjects are asked "what does it mean to be white?" (Feagin and Vera 1995, p. 139).  In interviews with white subjects, both Terry (1981, p. 119) and Feagin and Vera (1995, p. 139) found that the most common answer to questions concerning the meaning of whiteness was "I never thought of it."  These findings--and the general lack of research on the subject--indicate a low level of group self-awareness among white Americans.  As Terry (1981, p. 120, emphasis in the original) puts it, "To be white in America is not to have to think about it."  This "invisibility" of whiteness leads to a general social tendency to assume that whites do not "have" a race and to focus analyses of race upon peoples of color (Roediger 1994, p. 12).
         What explains this lack of self-consciousness among white Americans?  Part of the explanation lies in the historical evolution of whiteness in the United States.  Historically, white identity emerged as European conquerors, colonizers, and settlers encountered peoples of color.  Racial differences (and claims of superiority) were used to justify conquest, colonization, and enslavement of "nonwhite" peoples (Gossett 1963; Fredrickson 1981).  As a mental experiment, we might ask:  what was the point of creating racial categories, other than to maintain boundaries between dominant and dominated groups?  In the United States, "whiteness" became a claim of privilege:  the Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that only white immigrants could apply for citizenship; white became synonymous with "free" or "independent" in terms of labor force status (Roediger 1991); and social, economic, and political institutions created and maintained advantages for whites in education, employment, property ownership, and basic civil rights (Takaki 1993; Harris 1993; Lipsitz 1995).  As W.E.B. Du Bois (1956, pp. 700-701) observed, even the poorest whites in American society enjoyed a "public and psychological wage" in terms of public treatment, rights, and privileges.  For white immigrants, even those such as Irish, Italians, Poles, and Jews who were originally viewed as "racially different" from the "Anglo-Saxon" dominant group, claims to "whiteness" enabled immigrants to differentiate themselves from peoples of color and to improve their position in American society (Roediger 1991).  In general, whites in the United States have historically enjoyed an array of privileges and have been less likely to have experienced prejudice, discrimination, or disadvantage due to race.  If, as a rule, persons are much less likely to perceive advantages--as opposed to obstacles--then it is not surprising that whites are often less aware of their racial identity.
         Another aspect of whiteness is that unlike members of dominated or minority groups, whites in the United States are much less likely to be reminded of social and cultural differences on a day-to-day basis.  In fact, group customs and practices are built into the "mainstream" culture and major institutions of American society.  Both the form and the content of educational institutions, the mass media, politics, and the judicial system--to give a few examples--generally reflect white, European-American, and especially English-American standards (see Feagin and Feagin 1996, pp. 81-92).  Given that what passes as the "norm" is often unnoticed, whites often feel a sense of culturelessness when compared with other groups.  White college students may notice the absence of a "white studies" program or a white student organization.  Discussions of "diversity" or "multiculturalism" are often thought by whites to pertain only to nonwhite, non-dominant groups.  This feeling was summarized by a white woman interviewed by Ruth Frankenberg (1993, p. 198) who said, "they are different, but I'm the same as everybody else."
         Dominant group status and the emphasis upon racial categories have also affected the ethnic identification of white Americans.  Ethnic divisions among whites played a significant historical role in intergroup relations in the United States; however, the boundaries of the dominant group have extended from English-Americans in colonial America and the nineteenth century to include all Americans of European ancestry (Doane 1993).  This in turn has reduced the strength of white ethnic identities.  For example, Alba (1990, pp. 50-51), in a study of ethnicity among whites in the capital region of New York, found that one-third of the whites born in the United States were unable to identify themselves in ethnic terms and one-quarter of those who did provide an ethnic affiliation subsequently said that it had little or no significance.  Other researchers (Farley 1991; Lieberson and Waters 1986; 1993; Waters 1994; Hout and Goldstein 1994) have found that half of white Americans name more than one country in response to ancestry questions, and that ancestry responses may vary from survey to survey or be influenced by the presence and order of sample answers.  These findings reinforce the notion that ethnic differences between English, German, Italian, Irish, and Polish-Americans (to name a few) play little or no role in everyday life.  For most white Americans, ethnicity has become an "optional" identity (Waters 1990), a vague awareness that one's ancestors came from a particular country or countries, and an identity to be asserted on special occasions (such as St. Patrick's Day) but kept hidden the remainder of the time.  This weakened sense of ethnic self-awareness among white Americans is significant in that it enhances the sense of culturelessness and the feeling that one is the same as everybody else.
         This sense of white "invisibility" constitutes a significant and generally taken-for-granted advantage for whites in their day-to-day existence.  McIntosh (1989) describes a broad range of hidden privileges enjoyed by whites, including:  not being asked to speak for one's race, not being outnumbered, not being viewed as the "white" teacher, lawyer, etc., not being judged on the basis of race, and seeing oneself broadly represented in the media and in school curriculum.  Another benefit is having one's trustworthiness taken as a given.  Unlike African-Americans (see Anderson 1990, pp. 163-206; Feagin and Sikes 1994), whites have generally not had the experiences--due to their race--of walking down the street and having a stranger clutch her purse, shopping and being followed by store personnel, or driving and being stopped by the police for no apparent reason.  As Ellis Cose (1993) demonstrates in The Rage of a Privileged Class, these experiences often impose a significant social and psychological cost upon people of color.  As a black respondent interviewed by Feagin (1991, p. 115) observed when commenting upon the cost of coping with racial discrimination, "you just don't have as much energy left to do as much as you know you really could if you were free."   The advantage of being white is not to have to absorb this cost--and not even to have to be aware of the benefit being received.
 

Whiteness as a Social Problem
         Following our discussion of the absence of racial self-awareness among whites and the often taken-for-granted privileges enjoyed by white Americans, I would like to suggest that it would be useful to analyze whiteness as a social problem.  While this may sound provocative, the notion of "whiteness as a social problem" is not designed as an attack upon white people or a suggestion that whites need to feel guilty about whom they are.  What I am proposing is that we need to examine how the nature of whiteness--the invisibility of identity and how this creates hidden privileges--has a negative effect on race relations in the United States.  Whiteness, as it is presently constituted, serves as a barrier to communication between whites and peoples of color, thereby making it difficult to resolve intergroup conflict.  Furthermore, the hidden nature of whiteness and white privilege enables whites to participate in white racism--a system of individual and institutional discrimination that permits whites as a group to maintain advantages in American society, and which explains the persistence of racial inequality.
         One problematic effect of the white sense of being at the social and cultural center is that it has encouraged white ownership of "American" national identity.  As Toni Morrison (1992, p. 47) has observed, "deep within the word `American' is its association with race . . . American means white."  Indeed, when we ask the question:  "who is an American?", we often find that whites tend to view themselves as Americans and others as "hyphenated-Americans."  Both Smith (1980) and Lieberson (1985) found that whites were the most likely of any group to answer only "American" in response to ethnicity and ancestry questions.  In a revealing vignette, Ronald Takaki (1993, p. 1) describes the experience of having a taxi driver ask him how long he had lived in the United States--assuming that he wasn't "American" despite the fact that his family had emigrated from Japan more than one hundred years ago.  This tendency among whites to view others as "not American" is neatly summarized by Frankenberg's respondent (1993, p. 198):  "The way I was brought up was to think that everybody who was the same as me were `Americans,' and the other people were of `such and such descent."  The assumption that persons of color are "from" somewhere or are "hyphenated" Americans has the effect of placing them outside the core of society--thus marginalizing the political and social status of peoples of color and making it easier for whites to advance their own political interests.
         Another effect of the hidden nature of whiteness is that it easily leads to the view that the identities and claims of peoples of color are not legitimate.  If whites tend to see themselves as at the cultural center of society--a view encouraged by the weak or "optional" nature of white ethnic identities--then the identities and cultural practices of others become something "different" which need to be changed in order to claim full membership in society.  For example, Harlon Daulton (1995, p. 72) describes a common comment made by whites to African-Americans:  "I really don't think of you as Black."  The implication of such a statement (often intended as a compliment) is to negate the identity of the other person--and to suggest that he or she has "progressed" by shedding their identity.
         Likewise, the white tendency not to think about race often results in strong negative reactions when issues of race are raised by peoples of color.  The attitude "I don't think about race, so why should others?" may lead whites to conclude that those who are conscious of race are "racist" because they are violating the ideal of a "colorblind" society (Blauner 1992, p. 57).  What is meant by the idea of a "colorblind" society?  While it could refer to a non-stratified society (at least on the basis of race) in which all groups have equal rights and opportunities and receive equal treatment, the picture of a colorblind society for many whites is one in which nobody is different (from the white norm) and race is not a topic of conversation.  From this perspective, peoples of color who seek to retain a distinctive identity, to have their experiences and cultural understandings included in the larger "American" culture (i.e., multiculturalism), or to make group claims for a reallocation of society's resources are viewed as divisive, "politically correct," or seeking special treatment.  In other words, the effect of white colorblindness is to make it difficult even to discuss race and to preclude change by creating a context where race-based claims are automatically defined as invalid.
         Another significant effect of whiteness is upon whites' explanations for the persistence of racial inequality in American society.  Despite American ideals of equality, the United States in the 1990s is marked by significant gaps between whites and peoples of color in terms of wealth, poverty, income, unemployment, control of positions of political and economic power, education, and virtually every other indicator of social and economic well-being.  The lack of awareness of white privileges outlined above produces a distorted view of American society in which whites view racism as a "thing of the past" (except for the "abnormal" racial incident--such as the Rodney King beating) and opportunities for all groups as equal (Jaret 1995, p. 180; Klugel and Smith 1982; Klugel 1990).  What is overlooked are the effects of more subtle forms of institutional racism in housing (see Massey and Denton 1993), the criminal justice system, education, and the workplace which serve to perpetuate racial inequality.  Similarly, many whites are unaware of how past and present discrimination is translated into inequalities in wealth (middle class blacks possess fifteen cents for every dollar of wealth owned by middle class whites--Oliver and Shapiro 1995, p. 7) which in turn limits future opportunities.  If whites perceive that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, then how do they explain the persistence of racial inequality in American society?  Because whites see neither their own advantages nor the obstacles facing peoples of color, one common explanation adopted by whites is the view that inequality is the result of the failure of people of color to adopt proper values and exert enough effort to succeed.  Indeed, opinion polls find that substantial numbers of whites are inclined to view blacks as unmotivated and preferring living on welfare to work (Feagin and Vera 1995, p. 137; Feagin and Feagin 1996, p. 243).  Consequently, whites may view people of color as "undeserving" and respond with anger to demands for changes in society, but favorably to racist appeals on such issues as welfare reform, school desegregation, and affirmative action.
         One final problematic aspect of the nature of whiteness involves the conditions under which white awareness does increase and white identity is asserted.  Given that the existence of whiteness has been grounded in dominance and privilege, group identity tends to be asserted defensively; that is, whiteness is used to exclude others and to maintain dominance.  Historically, this defensive assertion occurred when whites felt threatened by social changes, immigration, or the success of minority groups.  It took such forms as the Know-Nothing Movement, the Ku Klux Klan, the immigration restriction movement, and the Americanization Movement (Higham 1963; Horsman 1981).  While some past forms of this assertion emerged as English or Anglo-Saxon defensiveness against European immigrants as well as peoples of color (this was when non-English, non-Protestant groups were viewed as "racially" different), more recent group assertion has emphasized whiteness; for example, White Citizens' Councils, White Aryan Resistance, and the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

Changing Racial Awareness:  The "Crisis" of Whiteness
         During the past few decades, whiteness in the United States has been undergoing a period of crisis and transition.  Beginning in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement and related social movements succeeded in changing racial politics to achieve the elimination of state supported segregation and a decline in the acceptability of overt expressions of racism.  The mobilization of racial minorities also resulted in a series of challenges to white domination of American society, from increased protection of minority rights, to the assertion of group-based claims for the redress of racial inequality, to challenges to white domination of American culture and national identity.  Inasmuch as the historical roots of whiteness are grounded in domination and privilege, these events struck at the very foundation of what it means to be white in the United States.
         At the same time, other forces have increased the sense of pressure felt by white Americans.  A series of economic and political changes, including the decline of U.S. domination of the world economy, economic recessions, stagnant wages and greater job insecurity, increased inequality and a shrinking middle class, and economic pressures on federal, state, and local governments have all contributed to a perception of economic instability, fewer resources to divide, and an increasingly unattainable "American dream."  Racial diversity, fueled by increased immigration from Latin America and Asia, is changing the face of the United States amidst projections that whites will be a bare majority of the population by the middle of the next century.  Indeed, the perceived sense of insecurity and challenge may be even greater; for example, public opinion polls show most white Americans estimate that the white population proportion is smaller than it really is (average estimate is 50%, the actual proportion is 74%--Noel 1995, p. A9; Nadeau, Niemi and Levine 1993) and a majority of Americans believe that their children's lives will be worse than their own (Samuelson 1996, p. 26).
         One outcome of these changes has been a reassertion of whiteness as a defensive reaction to challenges to dominance and a perceived sense of threat.  For example, Gallagher (1994, p. 165) describes the increased racial awareness expressed by white students coming from residentially segregated communities to a diverse and racially politicized university.  As one of his respondents put it: "Like now I feel white.  I feel different.  I feel really different compared to other people."  Similarly, Saito (1995) observed white mobilization in a community as a reaction to an Asian-American and Latino majority with growing economic power.  On a national level, current forms of white assertion include immigration restriction and "English only" movements, as well as the increased activities of white supremacist groups.
         One important question is whether this new white self-awareness is merely another form of white defensiveness, or a qualitatively different phenomenon.  Gallagher (1994) argues that a new white identity is being constructed which blends both a defensive reaction to challenges with an attempt to create a new  positive identity to fill the void left by the decline of white ethnic identities.  He also suggests that this trend is particularly prevalent among young whites who have been raised in a racialized society where race matters and in educational institutions where an emphasis on multiculturalism and the contributions of all groups increases the sense of culturelessness of the invisible white center.  Alba (1990, pp. 212-16) envisions the emergence of a generalized European-American identity--a post settler, post immigrant identity which celebrates the struggle against hardship (including prejudice and discrimination) and the accomplishments of Europeans in the United States.  Such an identity would carry less historical baggage than "white"; however, it would still have to contend with the existence of whiteness and race-based privilege.  Nevertheless, this leads to the important point that whiteness must have some cultural content if it is to be more than the assertion of privilege and the defensive negation of peoples of color.  At the same time, I believe that it will be difficult for white identity to become simply a cultural affiliation.  The strong historical link between whiteness and privilege is a substantial obstacle.
         One new element in the crisis of whiteness is an emerging discourse in which whites portray themselves as victims in an attempt to defuse claims made by peoples of color.  If whites believe that racial barriers no longer exist for peoples of color and are creating a white identity where past struggles and sacrifices are seen as equal to those of peoples of color, then any challenge to the existing distribution of resources is viewed as an unfair attempt to take away what whites have "earned."  As one participant in a school desegregation debate said, "We are a hard working double income family . . . . Why are we being punished for choosing where we want to live and can afford to live?" (Doane 1996).  These perceptions lead to a world view where whiteness is a liability (Gallagher 1994, p. 176)--where whites are "victimized" by affirmative action, false accusations of racism, and attempts to hold whites accountable for the deeds of their ancestors.  This "white as victim" discourse is an attempt to establish "legitimate" reasons for the defense of white privilege; however, it appears to be becoming an important aspect of white identity.
         If the tumult of the present is any indication, whiteness is at a crossroads.  The discrediting of ideologies of white supremacy, the emergence of a discourse of equality, and ongoing demands by groups long excluded from political and economic power suggest little possibility of returning to the invisible, taken-for-granted and privileged white identity of the past (Wellman 1993, p. 246).  If so, then what form will whiteness take in the twenty-first century?  Several scenarios come to mind.  In one, the United States will experience increased racial conflict, as political challenges, economic instability, and changing demographics fuel the reactionary assertion of identity.  Whiteness would persist as a defensive identity predicated on the negation of others, with new ideologies of superiority/inferiority--perhaps based on alleged cultural and moral differences--used to support group claims.  In a second scenario, we see the increased "ethnicization" of whiteness as it is transformed from an identity grounded in claims of superiority to one of many identities in a pluralistic "multicultural" society.  Such a change would involve the shedding of white privilege, which would clearly be a slow process given the historical reluctance of privileged groups to relinquish advantages.  A final scenario involves an outcome which is somewhere in between.  Whiteness will always be less evident--perhaps this is a natural result of being a numerical majority and a privileged group--but it will undergo a gradual change.  White privilege will slowly decline in the face of demands for justice and inclusion, with cycles of defensive assertion occurring when the pace of change makes whites uncomfortable.  While the future remains uncertain, it is clear that the nature of whiteness must change if the United States is to become a racially just society.  The "abolition of whiteness" (whiteness as privilege)--to use Roediger's (1994) phrase--will be a lengthy process.  After all, its development has taken nearly four hundred years.
 

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