Rice University logo

Creating Spaces of Belonging and Distance

Unlike at other points in American history, racism in the post-racial twenty-first century is marked by subtlety. Racism is a multi-sited system of legal, economic, and social practices that promotes inequalities and that is built on a history of institutional and individual actions. At the individual level, racism is a discriminatory attitude based on racial and cultural assumptions and employed to place as much social and psychological distance between one’s own group and perceived inferior groups. Although overt racism has decreased since the 1960s, it has been supplemented (some say, supplanted) by “colorblind racism,” which refers to “contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics” (Bonilla-Silva, 2010, p. 2). Racism is difficult or even impossible to track since the ways in which people articulate racial ideologies are indirect and somewhat obscure (Essed, 1990). The lower socioeconomic status of racialized minority groups is explained not through biological racial difference but by way of cultural inferiority (e.g. “they just don’t like to work hard,” or “they don’t have the same family values as us”).

Far more destructive and fundamental, however, is the structural framework of racism which serves to distribute wealth and advantage to some but not to others. Unequal access to education, housing, employment, and health care are among the many manifestations of structural racism. A 2005 article in the Washington Post cites three separate studies detailing persistent health care disparities between whites and blacks.[1] Advantaged groups hold that we should collectively move beyond race by disallowing preferential treatment to minority groups (e.g. “opportunity is available to all who work hard enough”) rather than recognizing the prevalence of structural discrimination such as targeted arrests in African American neighborhoods (Alexander, 2010), unbalanced political representation for minority neighborhoods (Bonilla-Silva, 2010), and the redlining of African American businesses and home mortgages (Oliver and Shapiro, 1995).

As an historian, I examine immigrants’ perceptions of racialized groups in the southernUnited States in the post-Civil Rights era. My work investigates the ways in which immigrants migrating fromSouth Asia (in particular,India andPakistan) toHouston,Texasbetween 1965 and 1980 positioned themselves in increasingly obscured racial hierarchies. As a result of passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, large numbers of immigrants from all overAsiaandLatin Americabegan to settle in theUS. A relatively select group of Indians and Pakistanis applied for admission to theUSeither as university students or under the 1965 act’s third or sixth preference—that of professionals or skilled labor currently in short supply. Many of these students remained in the country to fill the demands of the labor market. Unlike recent South Asian immigrants, this group was highly professional and highly educated or seeking advanced degrees, allowing these “elite” communities to achieve socioeconomic success with unanticipated speed.

My research uncovers how immigrants became racialized citizens and how this experience evolved over time. It is important to note that for the immigrants I examine, race entailed more than just attitude or ideology; it was the strategic choices made as a result of those attitudes. In particular, race informed major life decisions including location of residence, marital partners, and schooling for children. Upwardly mobile immigrants eventually settled in affluent, largely white suburbs and enrolled their children in majority white schools. In accordance with the theory of segmented assimilation, the “sector of American society [into which] a particular immigrant group assimilates,” determines an ethnic group’s adaptation (Portes and Zhou, 1993, p. 82). Newcomers to American society construct a racial system predicated on their socio-economic status. Several other immigrant groups during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Irish and Koreans, have similarly used racial hierarchies to advance their own group interests.

Although South Asian immigrants were perceived as racial Others, foreigners, and immigrants, their class standing enabled them to imagine themselves as part of the dominant group, those with power, those who accrued the most benefits from an economic system. In fact, immigrants used their own success to demonstrate that anyone could overcome the strictures of race but that African Americans did not share the same values of education and hard work that South Asian immigrants espoused. This construction of dichotomous value systems bolstered immigrant social status by placing greater social distance between themselves and those historically held at the bottom of the American racial hierarchies.

Seemingly neutral decisions such schooling and housing for immigrants were mitigated by race, whether or not they intended to promote segregation and inequality. South Asian immigrants aimed to enhance their children’s life chances, economically and socially through the accumulation of forms of capital such as status based on education and professionalization or power derived from wealth. Yet, acceptance as full, unhyphenated Americans was not possible for South Asian immigrants—or their children, for that matter—due to a process that racialized them as foreigners while it obliged them to racialize others. Through residential self-segregation and school choice, materially privileged Americans strategized to ensure optimal positioning in class and race hierarchies. Thus, the dismantling of legal racist structures through Brown v Board in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act in 1964 among other legislation necessitated not the wholesale reconceptualization of racial ideology but the reframing of its articulation.


  • Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
  • Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and Racial Inequality in Contemporary America.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Essed, Philomena. 1990.  Everyday Racism: Reports from Women of Two Cultures. Translation by Cynthia Jaffe.Alameda, CA: Hunter House.
  • Oliver, Melvin L.and Thomas M. Shapiro. 1995. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality.New York: Routledge.
  • Portes, Alejandro and Min Zhou. 1993. “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and its Variants.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 530: 74-96.
  • Sullivan, Shannon. 2006. Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Privilege. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Bio: Uzma Quraishi is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Rice University. She studies the construction of race by South Asian immigrants migrating to the US between 1965 and 1980.


Comments are closed.