An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2011

Destabilizing the American Racial Order

Jennifer Lucy Hochschild, Vesla M. Weaver, and Traci Burch

Jennifer L. Hochschild, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1996, is the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government, Professor of African and African American Studies, and Harvard College Professor at Harvard University. She is author of The American Dream and the Public Schools (with Nathan Scovronick, 2003) and Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation (1995). Her current book project, coauthored with Vesla Weaver and Traci Burch, is tentatively titled “Transforming the American Racial Order: Immigration, Multiracialism, DNA, and Cohort Change.” At present, she is the John R. Kluge Chair of American Law and Governance at the Library of Congress.

Vesla M. Weaver is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. She has published articles in American Political Science Review, Perspectives on Politics, Political Behavior, Studies in American Political Development, and Social Forces. Her first book, Frontlash: Civil Rights, the Carceral State, and the Transformation of American Politics, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. Her current book project is “Political Consequences of the Carceral State” (with Amy Lerman).

Traci Burch is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and a Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation. Her publications have appeared in Political Behavior, Law and Society Review, and the Du Bois Review. Currently, she is completing a book manuscript, “Punishment and Participation: How Criminal Convictions Threaten American Democracy.”

Since America’s racial disparities remain as deep-rooted after Barack Obama’s election as they were before, it was only a matter of time until the myth of post-racism exploded in our collective national face.
–Peniel Joseph, The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 27, 2009)

In electing me, the voters picked the candidate of their choice, not their race, which foreshadowed the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008. We’ve come a long way in Memphis, and ours is a story of postracial politics.
–Congressman Steve Cohen, Letter to the Editor, The New York Times (September 18, 2009)

Race is not going to be quite as big a deal as it is now; in the America of tomorrow . . . race will not be synonymous with destiny.
–Ellis Cose, Newsweek (January 11, 2010)1

Are racial divisions and commitments in the United States just as deep-rooted as they were before the 2008 presidential election, largely eliminated, or persistent but on the decline? As the epigraphs show, one can easily find each of these pronouncements, among others, in the American public media. Believing any one of them–or any other, beyond the anodyne claim that this is “a time of transition”–is likely to be a mistake, since there will be almost as much evidence against as for it. Instead, it is more illuminating to try to sort out what is changing in the .  .  .


  • 1Peniel Joseph, “Our National Postracial Hangover,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 27, 2009; Steve Cohen, Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, September 18, 2009; Ellis Cose, “Red, Brown, and Blue,” Newsweek, January 11, 2010.
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