Whites will soon be a minority in the U.S., but the power structure won’t change as quickly.
The United States is about to undergo a major makeover. By 2050 – though some demographers predict it will be by 2042 – the U.S. will have a non-white majority population for the first time in its history. No tightening of immigration laws can hold this off: The biggest jump in the 2010 census, for example, came not from Latino immigration but from the Latino birth rate. In fact, except for European-Americans, every ethnic and racial group – African-Americans, Asian-Americans, even American Indians and Alaska natives – is growing by double-digit percentages. The hardening of political battle lines we have witnessed since the election of U.S. President Barack Obama is just a foretaste of what will probably be a rocky transition to a new United States. Will it be less united than ever?
In reality, even after 2050, whites will remain the group with the largest plurality. More importantly, liberal inheritance laws have produced a cross-generational payoff for the legacy of white economic advantage. This means that the distribution of economic resources will not change as quickly as the demographics because, as Andrew Hacker revealed in his study “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” the way race affects economics is not measured in wages but in real estate (most households’ primary source of wealth). For every dollar that white families have, African-American families have only 10 cents, and Latino families have only 12 cents. Furthermore, the recent subprime mortgage crisis hit the newest and poorest homeowners the hardest – groups that are disproportionately made up of people of color.
Moreover, multiracial and multiethnic societies can easily be deeply racist ones, as the example of Latin America has proved. Many major cities in the U.S., like New York City, have had a white minority for decades without a noticeable shift in their entrenched white power structure. New York has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country at 23 per cent, and it’s growing.
Thus, there is reason to reject the idea that demographic change will automatically bring with it a new, progressive domestic policy or less imperial foreign policy, or an immediate transformation in how power is distributed. The Republicans have proved to be brilliant at mangling public debate and sabotaging reforms even from a minority position.
Yet the changing persona of American racial identity may create an opening for a changed public discussion concerning, for example, the actual history of the nation and its relation to slavery, genocide, and colonization. Many non-white Americans have different ideas and assessments about these parts of U.S. history and their continued relevance to current income differentials, prison rates, and policies toward other countries. Revising the romanticized portrait of the nation along more accurate lines could go a long way toward revising its sense of its place in the world and in its hemisphere, and its obligations to its own poorest communities.
White identity is in high ferment. Millions of urban whites have been experiencing minority status for decades. New York, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Tampa, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., are all major cities with a white minority, and there are more cities on the way. White expectations of having a whites-only home, school, or neighbourhood bar are decreasing, and the numbers of exogamous unions are steadily rising. Public-opinion polls indicate an almost even split among whites on race-related matters, from integration to the ongoing impact of racism.
Age is of course a central factor here, but that bodes well for the future. Younger whites have grown up with more everyday interactions with non-whites in which both parties are on an equal footing. Gone are the days when whites’ only interaction with non-whites was to speak to them as servants or underlings. Young whites also gravitate toward strongly assertive forms of African-American expressive culture, from music to comedy. The limitations of this support have been well-documented and analyzed, as when the preference for esthetic style stops short of actual support for economic reparations. But the fact remains that the point of view of non-whites is visible – even in the mainstream, even in the suburbs. The subsequent change in whites’ outlook and experiences may mean real change is on the horizon.
The bottom line is that around half of the white population shares many of the political views of the overwhelming majority of people of colour in the United States. And this percentage is likely to increase. The hysterical tone of the tea party movement, with its Muslim conspiracy theories and wilful refusal to face the truth of Obama’s birthplace, certainly seems like an unconscious response to these inevitable shifts on the horizon.
This picture of a coherent evolutionary shift in U.S. political culture, however, needs to be tempered by the acknowledgement that racial and ethnic identities and political allegiances are undergoing an increasing fragmentation. The huge pan-Latino category has never represented a united bloc, and African-American communities are becoming more divided by ethnic, national, and class differences.
Some believe that the promulgation of all the new racial categories may well have a diminishing effect on the power of race. The ability to check more than one box in the 2010 census means that 63 racial types are now recognized. The singular significance of race may lose its punch when it gets diluted to this degree.
Yet racism and race-based disparities of political and economic power persist, and, perhaps more importantly, we retain the impact of our identities even in new configurations of interaction, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor bravely asserted when she declared that a “wise Latina” person would judge differently than a white man on the bench, at least some of the time. We still come to integrated work sites and classrooms, and to coalitions and labour unions, with a particular history of experience. Mounting evidence in social psychology shows that our (racial and ethnic) identities retain their influence over how we interact with one another, how relaxed we are and with whom, what general background knowledge we bring to our interactions, and how we emotionally respond to new information and new events.
Changing demographics and increasing fragmentation do not establish that we are anywhere near a post-racial utopia. The presumption that it does will just hold us back from the difficult and necessary work of learning to see each other, and ourselves, with more accuracy, more complexity, and more compassion.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.