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Some political myths refuse to die despite all evidence the contrary. Here’s another:
When White people are no longer a majority, racism will fade and the US “will never be a White country again.”
This myth was reinforced recently when the US Census’ 2020 report revealed that people who identify as White alone declined for the first time since the Census began in 1790. The majority of Americans under 18 are now people of color, and people who identity as multiracial increased by 276% over the last decade.
These Census figures seemed to validate a common assumption: The US is barreling toward becoming a rainbow nation around 2045, when White people are projected to become a minority.
That year has been depicted as “a countdown to the White apocalypse,” and “dreadful” news for White supremacists.” Two commentators even predicted the US “White majority will soon disappear forever.” It’s now taken as a given that the “Browning of America” will lead to the erosion of White supremacy.
I used to believe those predictions. Now I have a different conclusion:
Don’t ever underestimate White supremacy’s ability to adapt.
The assumption that more racial diversity equals more racial equality is a dangerous myth. Racial diversity can function as a cloaking device, concealing the most powerful forms of White supremacy while giving the appearance of racial progress.
Racism will likely be just as entrenched in a browner America as it is now. It will still be White supremacy, with a tan.
My personal stake in a multiracial America
I don’t like raising such a pessimistic scenario, in part for personal reasons. I want to believe my country is on the verge of this Brown New World where there will be such a rich gumbo of skin hues, hair textures and racially ambiguous people that racism will lose its sting.
My family is a symbol of these demographic changes.
My mother is Irish; my father was Black. My wife is an immigrant from Central America with a biracial mother and a White “Ladino” father who was Jewish and Castilian. My stepmother is Chilean, and half of my siblings are Afro-Latino.
I have one relative with blonde hair and blue eyes who moves through the world as a young White man, but he’s really Afro-Latino. And I have another Black relative who went to court to argue that he was White (he lost). The 2020 Census could have used my family portrait for a poster.
There is a yearning embedded in my DNA that a demographic tide will overtake White supremacy — the belief that White people are superior and they should maintain political, social and economic power over other races.
This yearning is not driven by some wish that people of color will someday rule over Whites. It’s a hope for a more just America, a hope that we can somehow escape the tribalism that tore other countries apart.
That hope was captured by one of the savviest commentators on race in America, in a passage I can’t seem to forget. After President Obama was re-elected in 2012, David Simon, creator of the HBO series “The Wire,” wrote:
“America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions.”
Simon added that “this may be the last [presidential] election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear…”
We know what happened next: Donald Trump was elected president. White supremacists marched in Charlottesville. Rioters waved Confederate flags during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. The list goes on.
It turns out that the reports of White supremacy’s demise were exaggerated.
Whiteness is elastic
White supremacy isn’t just more resilient than many assume. It’s also elastic.
Consider how Whiteness has been defined. It’s a prime example of how White supremacy adapts.
The census suggests that White Americans will be a minority by 2045, but as several commentators have already noted, that date can easily be postponed. Whiteness isn’t a fixed identity; it’s like taffy — it expands to accommodate new members, if they have the right look.
In books like “How The Irish Became White” and “Working Toward Whiteness,” scholars have argued that the definition of Whiteness has expanded to include Irish, Italian and Jewish people — groups that once weren’t considered fully White in the US.
The US has broadened its definition of White people throughout history enough to maintain power over Black, Asian and Latino people, writes political scientist Justin Gest in a recent essay, “What the ‘Majority Minority’ Shift Really Means for America.”
“Through a historical lens, being white in America today is like belonging to a once-exclusive social club that had to loosen its membership criteria to stay afloat,” Gest writes.
Why do so many racial groups gravitate toward Whiteness? The answer is both pragmatic and psychological.
It’s due to a racial hierarchy that places Whiter-looking people at the top and darker-skinned people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
“Sometimes looking White puts money directly into your pockets,” says Tanya K. Hernandez, author of the forthcoming book “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and The Struggle for Equality.”
“You get access to jobs, opportunities and being viewed as competent. But there’s also a psychological benefit, that feeling of having enhanced status, of being part of Whiteness.”
This racial hierarchy is the foundation of White supremacy. Europeans created it around 500 years ago to justify slavery and colonialism. This hierarchy is where we get the modern conception of race — how a person’s inherent worth, intelligence or attractiveness can be determined by the pigmentation of their skin.
For those who fret about the “disappearing White majority,” I say look at history:
The numbers and types of people who are defined as White may change, but the status and power that comes with being White has remained the same.
The future of Whiteness could rest with Latinos
It’s a hard truth for me to accept, because I see that racial hierarchy at work within my family.
I have young male relatives who appear to the world as Black, and one who appears as White. They might as well live in different universes.
One is an artistic teenager with curly blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin who is already more physically imposing than most men. I call him an “Undercover Brother.”
When a classmate tried unsuccessfully to get him suspended by accusing him of bullying her, I surprised myself by telling my wife: “Thank God he looks White.”
If the same accusation had been made against a darker relative of mine, the outcome may have been different.
My relative is a proud Afro-Latino. His mother teaches him about his heritage. But I wonder when he becomes an adult — and competes for jobs and deals with the police — whether will he come to the same conclusion I did: “Thank God I look White.”
Someday he may even mark “White” on his census forms. Other Latino Americans have already made that same choice. This is another way that Whiteness preserves its dominance.
In the 2010 Census, for example, researchers discovered that some 1.2 million Americans who had identified as “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” a decade earlier had changed their race from “some other race” to “white.”
“The data also call into question whether America is destined to become a so-called minority-majority nation, where whites represent a minority of the nation’s population,” said the The New York Times. “Those projections assume that Hispanics aren’t white, but if Hispanics ultimately identify as white Americans, then whites will remain the majority for the foreseeable future.”
That number, however, plunged in the 2020 census. It revealed a drastic drop in the number of Latinos or Hispanics who identify as White. That drop may be due to Black Lives Matter protests and former President Trump’s well-documented hostility to non-White immigrants and his administration’s unsuccessful attempt to reduce the count of Latinos by manipulating the 2020 Census.
The future of Whiteness in America may rest with Latino people.
It could go either way. A study suggests that Latino identity fades across successive generations as immigrant connections fade away. If large numbers of Latino people identify as White in the future, Whiteness will expand. The enhanced status and socio-economic benefits that come from identifying as White will be too tempting for many to ignore.
Racism in unexpected places
The link between Whiteness and status is already a reality in some Latin American countries.
In places like Brazil and Cuba, mixed-race people and interracial marriages are common. Latin Americans tend to think of themselves not in terms of race, but nationality.
Yet discrimination against darker-skinned and indigenous people is common there and many other Latin American countries. There’s still a widespread belief that the Whiter a person looks, the better it is for them.
These countries offer proof that a country can have a large and expanding population of Black, brown and multiracial people — and still be governed by the same racial hierarchy that gave us slavery and colonialism.
Consider Brazil. It is home to more people of African heritage than any country outside Africa, and roughly 40% of Brazilians identify as mixed race.
But many Brazilians’ economic and educational prospects are still shaped by colorism — the notion that a person’s inherent worth is determined by their skin color, according to an article in Foreign Policy that looked at the country’s racial landscape. Some 80% of the country’s one-percenters are white, the article said.
“Today, Brazilians see themselves as falling across a spectrum of skin colors with a dizzying assortment of names: burnt white, brown, dark nut, light nut, black, and copper,” Cleuci De Oliveira wrote in the article. “What ultimately binds these definitions together is an awareness that the less ‘black’ a person looks, the better.”
In a recent twist, the percentage of Brazilians who identify as Black or mixed race has risen slightly because of affirmative action policies and because they identify with the racial protests in the US that followed the murder of George Floyd.
Cuba also has a complex history with race. Racism is often described as a relic of capitalism in the communist country. Hernandez, the author, says the country’s late ruler, Fidel Castro, outlawed racial discrimination and political parties built along racial lines.
But while racism is banned by law in Cuba, it is “alive on the streets.” The country’s Afro-Cuban population is still locked out of most elite circles, which are dominated by Anglo-looking Cubans.
“What you have is a very highly educated Afro-Cuban population and yet there’s a glass ceiling,” says Hernandez, who is also a professor at the Fordham University School of Law in New York City. “There’s still a penalty for Blackness where it can only reach so high.”
What’s happened in some Latin American countries can easily happen in the United States. There will be cosmetic changes in our racial makeup — more Black, brown and multiracial people. But the dominant group will remain White people, however they may be defined by 2045.
We will have arrived at one what one sociologist calls the “Latin-Americanization of race” in the US. There will be more, not less, racial inequality in the US because people will cite the nation’s growing diversity to “drown out” those voices of darker-skinned people still fighting for racial justice, says
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, author of “Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America.”
“The apparent blessing of ‘not seeing race’ will become a curse for those struggling for racial justice in years to come, Bonilla-Silva wrote.
You can no longer fight racism if everyone believes their country has moved past race.
Multiracial people will not save America
Some people pin their hopes for a more racially tolerant future on multiracial people. That issue hits even closer to home for me.
I’m old enough to remember when biracial children were treated as objects of pity — confused “mixed nuts,” accepted by neither Black nor White people. That belief is where we get the “tragic mulatto” myth reflected in Hollywood movies like “Imitation of Life.”
The tragic mulatto, however, has been transformed into what I call the “magic mulatto.” Being biracial is now cool. People like Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, golfer Tiger Woods and director Jordan Peele are now seen as inspirational figures.
We’re often described as the vanguard of a new racial order in which interracial couples and their children will chip away at White supremacy until it collapses.
Sheryll Cashin, author of “Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy,” once said that people who pursue interracial relationships “are our greatest hope for racial understanding” because they encourage white Americans to empathize with other races.
“Eventually, a critical mass of white people will accept the loss of the centrality of whiteness,” Cashin wrote in a New York Times essay. “When enough whites can accept being one voice among many in a robust democracy, politics in America could finally become functional.”
But the explosive growth of Americans who now identify as multiracial could also be used to reinforce racial inequality.
How? It depends on how we check the box.
During his first term in office, President Obama made headlines when he marked his race as “African-American” on the 2010 Census.
He could have checked “some other race” because his mother was White, but there are political ramifications for marking “Black” on Census and other forms.
Racial classification numbers are a great tool for uncovering the hidden hand of White supremacy: systemic racism.
These numbers are used to enforce civil rights laws, track discrimination and protect voting rights.
The US Justice Department, for example, relied on racial classification statistics in its 2015 report to detail how the city government in Ferguson, Missouri, systematically violated the constitutional rights of its Black residents. Police subjected Black citizens in Ferguson to a disproportionate share of unwarranted traffic stops, arrests and “use of force” incidents, the report found.
This pattern of racial discrimination would not have been uncovered, though, if federal officials didn’t have records for the number of Blacks in Ferguson.
“The Census is not an invitation to express yourself,” Hernandez says. “That race data is central to enforcing our civil rights laws.”
There has long been a debate in the multiracial community, though, about how we express ourselves. Some say we shouldn’t confine our choice to the Black box but should instead select “some other race” — or even White.
That debate erupted at the dinner table with my father one day. When I told him that I define myself as Black, he dropped his fork in anger and raised his voice.
“When you say you’re Black, you deny your mother,” he said.
I didn’t know how to explain to my father that if more multiracial people with a Black parent checked the “some other race” box, it could make it easier for institutions to conceal racism.
It’s a tricky subject, because some multiracial people feel torn between their loyalty to a parent and to a race.
How we check the box, though, can shield White supremacy instead of dismantling its power.
What real racial progress would look like
Here’s the hard truth we must face about the future: We may live someday in an America where there are no racial majorities, but Whiteness can still reign supreme.
Nothing will change, though, unless we go after the racial hierarchy that makes Whiteness such an exclusive club.
That requires radical change. It would involve uprooting systemic racism embedded in our public schools, neighborhoods and justice system. It would involve a more equitable sharing of power and resources — not out of White guilt or compulsion but out of the knowledge that “We all do better when we all do better.”
It will ultimately require that we discard the modern notion of race, the biological fiction that there is something called a “Black person” or a “White person” or an “Asian person.”
The modern concept of race has been used too long to enslave and exploit. As Audre Lorde, the poet and activist, once said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
We can’t get there, though, if we continue to underestimate the resilience of White supremacy. It is a shapeshifter that can adapt to any environment.
It survived a revolution whose leaders declared “all men are created equal,” a Civil War, the civil rights movement, several “racial reckonings,” and the nation’s first Black president. It keeps on keeping on.
The US may indeed become a majority minority country around 2045. We may become a rainbow nation of varying racial identities, skin tones and interracial unions.
But if we don’t dismantle the racial hierarchy that gives status and power to Whiteness, this new version of America won’t really be new.
It’ll be just another updated version of White supremacy — with a tan.