The former editor of ColorsNW Magazine reports.

IE Contributor

Naomi Ishisaka is a Seattle-based writer, editor and designer.
She is currently the Communications Director for OneAmerica
and the former editor in chief of ColorsNW Magazine.

After the historic election of Barack Obama in November, the media was abuzz with debate over whether the event marked the beginning of a “post-racial” era, where people of all backgrounds and ethnicities would come together in inter-ethnic harmony.

Yet while Obama¹s success may have marked an end to the “Bradley effect” in voting ­ the phenomenon of voters saying they would vote for a Black candidate and then changing their mind under cover of the voting booth – the collective euphoria many felt after his win masked some darker realities. While rarely addressed openly, ethnic groups in the U.S. continue to harbor deep resentments toward one another and remain largely divided.

While too few social scientists bother to measure attitudes between ethnic minority groups, the ethnic media advocacy organization New America Media (NAM) last year released an extensive report on interethnic attitudes. In their multilingual poll of more than 1,100 African American, Latino and Asian Americans, the group found a pervasive amount of division ­ in arenas as divergent as business, crime and relationships.

Adding to the divisions were great disparities in socioeconomic privilege, with Asian Americans enjoying a disproportionate level of economic attainment, compared with Latinos and African Americans. Not surprisingly, African Americans had the least amount of confidence in the fairness and equity of the economic and social system with Asian Americans having the highest levels.

So what did respondents say under the protection of anonymity? Virtually across the board, viewpoints mirrored the racial biases most often attributed to Euro-Americans. Asked who they would feel more comfortable doing business with, 61 percent of Latinos said “whites.” About 50 percent of Latino and Asian-American respondents agreed with the statement that African Americans commit the majority of crimes.

How does this play out in interpersonal terms? Unsurprisingly, when asked about the diversity of their social network, the vast majority of Latinos and African Americans said the majority of their friends were of the same ethnic background. For Latinos, the number was close to 75 percent.

The numbers were just as segregated when it came to relationships. Nearly 75 percent of Latinos and Asian Americans reported they had never dated anyone from a different racial background.

So what does this matter? How do these attitudes impact race relations or reinforce racial inequality?  Sociologists have long observed that proximity brings a softening of racial attitudes between ingroup and outgroup. The more you can humanize or relate to the ³other² the more difficult it becomes to stereotype. Yet as the NAM poll showed, even people of color have a hard time breaking out of their comfort zone to bridge racial gaps. And tensions are not reserved to those with differing phenotypes. Ever since African immigrants began arriving in greater numbers in the 1970s, tensions between African immigrants and African Americans have been observed.

As one African American friend once said, there is no greater challenge as a black man than to get an African immigrant cab driver to pick you up on the street. In some cases, the tensions have bubbled over into violence, with the different groups perceiving the other as a threat ­ to social mobility or to scarce resources. In one Seattle incident in 2006, an Ethiopian man was shot and killed by an African American man, further straining relations.
Yet the incident sparked dialogue between the communities and led to forums and meetings to bridge the divides between the groups.

However as the NAM poll shows, more work is clearly needed. Even with Obama in the highest office on the planet, a May CNN poll reported 55 percent of blacks believed racial discrimination was a serious problem, up from 38 percent months earlier. All ethnic groups will need to confront and address the ways in which they experience privilege, harbor biases and perpetuate discrimination in order to foster greater unity.

“In many ways, Asian Americans are positioned on the in-between – on the cusp, at the interstice, in the buffer zone<of Asia and America, between black and white, between old-timer and newcomer, between mainstreamed and marginalized. Yet the in-between is a precarious and dangerous position to occupy if we are not fully cognizant of where we are and what our position means in the larger picture. Armed with that cognizance, we have the potential to participate creatively and courageously in the shaping of the social, political, and cultural environment.”
– Elaine Kim, “At Least You’re Not Black”.