Not only are we nearing the end of the year but also the end of the first decade of the new millennium. I recently posted about the best and worst news events of 2010. In this post, I would like to take an even broader look at news events and other political, economic, cultural, and demographic trends of the last 10 years to identify what I consider the most important and significant issue that has affected racial/ethnic relations in the U.S. so far in the 21st century.

There are certainly many potential issues, trends, and events from which to choose. An obvious one are the 9/11 Attacks and the resultant War on Terrorism. As I’ve detailed since that fateful day in 2001, lives of Americans from all racial/ethnic backgrounds were literally changed overnight, not the least of whom were and are Arab and Muslim Americans, who have to balance their dual identities of being both Americans while also frequently being seen as “enemies in our own backyards.”

Another clear choice would have been the election of Barack Obama as the U.S.’s first non-White President. His campaign and eventual victory were certainly very historical moments in the racial/ethnic landscape of American society. For good and for bad, they further brought many underlying racial issues to the surface of American society and resulted in both more cohesion and divisions across racial/ethnic lines.

Further, a third good choice could be the emergence of Unauthorized Immigration as a divisive, hot button issue within American society. As the need for cheap labor increased, so did the numbers of immigrants from all over the world but particularly from Mexico and Central America arriving in the U.S. to fill that need. In the process, their presence led to numerous and ongoing debates and conflicts over whether their presence is good and bad for the country.

But in the end, I believe that one racial/ethnic issue in particular is even more significant than the others. This issue has become a underlying political, economic, and cultural dynamic that has exacerbated, intensified, and reinforced the effects of the other three that I mentioned above. In many ways, this issue has become a fundamental factor upon which many contemporary forms of racial/ethnic inequality and controversy are now based. That issue — the most significant racial/ethnic issue of the decade — is Globalization.

Globalization: Its Forms & Effects

Of course, there are different definitions of globalization. For my purposes, I define it as the contemporary and ongoing institutional process involving increasingly frequent and complex political, economic, and cultural interconnections and competition between countries and groups of citizens around the world.

Globalization © Wojtek Kozak & Images.com/Corbis

Globalization can also take many specific forms. As I detail below, those that have had significant effects on racial/ethnic relations in the U.S. this first decade of the 21st century include demographic change, outsourcing and postindustrial occupational shifts, increased economic competition in the global marketplace, and decreased economic stability on the institutional and individual levels.

In taking each form one at a time, the first significant effect of globalization on American society and racial/ethnic relations is demographic change. For some time now, due to the continuation of high levels of immigration from non-European countries and the relatively high birth rates of non-White racial/ethnic groups, the U.S.’s population is gradually shifting from overwhelmingly White to more racially diverse and multicultural. In fact, the Census Bureau projects that if current trends are sustained, Whites will cease to be the majority population somewhere around 2050. Whites will still be the largest racial/ethnic group by far but for the first time in several centuries, non-Whites will comprise more than 50% of the U.S.’s population.

These demographic changes have already transformed the racial/ethnic composition of numerous cities, metropolitan areas, and states around the country. Further, such shifts have inevitably led to political and cultural transformations as well in these locations as well, such as the creation of new ethnic enclaves and communities where the majority of the population are Asian American, as one example. As social disorganization theory describes, such demographic changes have inevitably led to some resentment and tension between more established residents (predominantly White) and “newcomer” groups (who are predominantly non-White).

Globalization has also resulted in accelerating postindustrial trends in the occupational structure of the U.S. While the U.S.’s economy has been gradually shifting from one dominated by manufacturing to one focused more on services, in the past two decades, globalization seems to institutionalized a segmented labor market in which almost all new jobs that are created are located either near the top of the occupational structure (involving knowledge management and information technology, requiring high levels of education and job skills, and resultant high pay) or near the bottom (manual labor service sector jobs that require little education or job skills and involving low pay and job security). New middle-level (for example, “blue collar” skilled manufacturing) jobs are much less common these days.

The New Normal: Economic Instability

What this means for racial/ethnic relations is that there is more economic competition for jobs that offer some opportunity for social mobility. In the past, White workers were able to count on these mid- and high-level jobs that would propel them and their families into the middle and upper classes through succeeding generations. But today, due to globalization (and other factors), Whites face more frequent and more intense competition for such jobs from immigrants and non-Whites.

This is important because one of the most consistent sociological patterns through the years has been that whenever you have economic competition, almost always it will eventually lead to racial/ethnic hostility. Taken together, this increased economic competition seems poised to become the norm in the near future due to the ongoing effects of globalization and related forces.

However, because many White Americans have grown accustomed (perhaps even feeling entitled) to economic security and a middle class standard of living, these fundamental institutional changes and feelings of economic insecurity are likely to be the biggest shock to them. Feeling destabilized themselves and perceiving that others (particularly immigrants, American non-Whites, and international non-Whites) to be benefiting at their expense, it is not surprising that many Whites would ultimately feel threatened, angry, and engage in some form of backlash or scapegoating.

Therefore, it is within this context that I feel that globalization is the most significant racial/ethnic issue of this past decade. The demographic shifts and economic instability brought on by globalization and felt by many Americans, but particularly White Americans, forms the foundation upon which much of the anti-immigrant and anti-minority tensions, hostility, and backlash of the past 10 years is based, along with magnifying its political, economic, and cultural effects.

The war on terrorism and much of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim suspicions involve the conscious or unconscious fear of America’s majority White and Christian cultural dominance being threatened. In many ways, Barack Obama’s election as our first non-White President also symbolizes a loss of power for the majority White establishment. And much of the vehement opposition to unauthorized immigration again is based on the direct and indirect fear that non-Whites are “taking over” or “invading” the U.S., determined to “overthrow” its majority White culture.

So while there have been many notable and important news events in this past decade that have affected racial/ethnic relations, from a sociological point of view, one significant common thread among them all is that, to a large extent, they are based on the demographic, political, economic, and cultural effects of globalization and how such effects are perceived to be a threat to the institutional power and hegemony of the U.S. White majority population.

As we near the end of 2009, it’s fitting to review the major events, developments, and trends in U.S. racial/ethnic relations in 2009. Therefore, below is my look back at some of the positive highlights as well as the setbacks in terms of achieving racial/ethnic equality, with a particular focus on Asian Americans (my area of expertise). This list is not meant to be an exhaustive review of all racial/ethnic news in 2009, but rather the ones that I covered in this blog and ones that I believe have the most sociological significance.

The Best

The Worst

As we turn the page on 2009 and the entire decade (one that many Americans would like to forget), let’s hope that 2010 and the new decade will lead to more prosperity, equality, and harmony for Americans from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

While the focus of this blog is on race issue inside the U.S., I think it’s important to (1) recognize how such issues have globalized and transnational connections and (2) understand the state of race relations in other countries. With that second point in mind, the BBC News has an article about a new report on racial attitudes in Australia:

The study, titled “Challenging Racism: The Anti-Racism Research Project”, interviewed 12,500 people over almost a decade. A key finding was that while Australians in general are welcoming of diversity, the view of national identity remains narrow.

The group most often singled out as “not belonging” in Australia was Muslims or people from the Middle East, Professor Dunn told reporters on the weekend. . . . Professor Dunn said indigenous Australians were the next group on the “not belonging” list.

He added there was evidence of an emerging antipathy towards black Africans after higher immigration from countries such as Sudan and Somalia. About one in 10 people said they did not approve of intercultural marriages – about the same number who said they believed that not all races were equal. . . . .

“It’s better than in many other parts of the world, certainly in parts of western Europe where three in 10 people would hold those views,” he said. . . . However, more than 80% of people see cultural diversity as a benefit “and that’s a good thing for Australian society,” the professor said.

His findings also suggested that New South Wales is the country’s most racist state. This was explained by Mr Dunn as due to Sydney’s role as the largest recipient of immigrants.

My first reaction is, I find it rather ironic and actually, pretty outrageous that indigenous Australians can be seen as “not belonging” in Australia when in fact, they were the first ones there and it was the European colonizers who basically took over the country and oppressed the Aborigines. That is about as arrogant as you can get.

Beyond that, it’s probably difficult to understand these numbers in isolation. That is, while a significant portion (80%) of Australians see diversity as a benefit for their country, 10% still believe that some races are superior to others. So the question is, if we use a very simplified interpretation and say that 10% of Australians are “racist,” is that 10% a big number, or a small number?

In other words, is the glass half empty or half full? Should we focus on the 80% who think diversity is good, or the 10% who apparently hold blatantly racist opinions?

To try to give you some perspective and a point for comparison, back in January 2008, I posted about two repots on racial attitudes in the U.S.. One of the results was that of all American adults surveyed in one study, 75% believed that Whites and Blacks got along “very well” or “pretty well, while 20% believed it was more like “not too well” or “not well at all.”

Results from the other study that I posted about indicate that around 40% of Latinos and Asian Americans hold stereotyped beliefs about African Americans. Nonetheless, other results from the same study showed that 86% of Asians, 89% of African Americans, and 92% of Latinos agreed with the statement, “African Americans, Latinos, and Asians have many similar problems. They should put aside their differences and work together on issues that affect their communities.”

So in other words, there seems to be some ways in which race relations in the U.S. may look somewhat negative or discouraging while at the same time, other ways in which they look positive and encouraging. What that tells us is, race relations is a very complicated issue and not one that can be easily reduced to a single question or even a single survey.

Sociologists like me make it our career to examine and analyze race relations, and judging by the hundreds of posts I’ve written on this subject on this blog, you should get the idea that there is a wide variety of points, angles, and interpretations for any particular issue related to race relations.

With that in mind and going back to my original question, it does not look like the data on racial attitudes in Australia is that much different than that in the U.S. Both countries are westernized, industrialized, and majority White, so there are many historical, demographic, and cultural similarities.

For my readers who have been to Australia, or any other “western” country, have you noticed any notable differences in terms of race relations/racial attitudes between there and here in the U.S.?