The Non-White Elephant in the Room

One of the main undercurrents in this coming presidential election is surely the escalating discomfort among a certain segment of white Americans regarding their coming minority status in America:

After years of speculation, estimates and projections, the Census Bureau has made it official: White births are no longer a majority in the United States.

Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 49.6 percent of all births in the 12-month period that ended last July, according to Census Bureau data made public on Thursday, while minorities — including Hispanics, blacks, Asians and those of mixed race — reached 50.4 percent, representing a majority for the first time in the country’s history.

Such a turn has been long expected, but no one was certain when the moment would arrive — signaling a milestone for a nation whose government was founded by white Europeans and has wrestled mightily with issues of race, from the days of slavery, through a civil war, bitter civil rights battles and, most recently, highly charged debates over efforts to restrict immigration.

While over all, whites will remain a majority for some time, the fact that a younger generation is being born in which minorities are the majority has broad implications for the country’s economy, its political life and its identity. “This is an important tipping point,” said William H. Frey, the senior demographer at the Brookings Institution, describing the shift as a “transformation from a mostly white baby boomer culture to the more globalized multiethnic country that we are becoming.”

It’s in part what’s prompting so much unfounded noise regarding whether President Obama is actually an American and whether he believes in American exceptionalism.  It’s what is prompting anti-immigration initiatives in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere, even though illegal immigration is already in a precipitious decline.  It’s in part why we’re seeing a nation-wide push by Republicans to pass voter voter-ID laws that will disparately impact minority voting (if you can’t beat ‘em, make sure they can’t play the game). 

In short, there are still a whole lot of white people in this country who will not acknowledge that there’s such a thing as discrimination against minorities, yet sure don’t like the idea of becoming a minority themselves.   Obama, to them, represents the dangerous culmination of this change, and nothing that Obama does or says will convince them otherwise:

To ignore this cultural turmoil is to miss the forest for the trees in this election. No one represents the new and future America more clearly than Obama: a mixed-race, pro-immigrant, pro-gay pragmatist. And Romney’s great strength in this election is that he looks and speaks and acts like a generic American president from the 1950s. His Mormon faith adds heft to his American brand (Mormonism is more purely American than any other branch of Christianity and until recently, was rooted in white, racial superiority.) His style is comforting, even as his policies (so far as we can glean them at all) are more radical than any Republican in decades. (He is, for example, far to Reagan’s right on entitlements, taxes and spending, as well as on immigration.) His slogan is: “Believe in America.” Not too subtle, is it?

Update:  A reader of the blog pointed me to this on-point cartoon

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5 Responses to The Non-White Elephant in the Room

  1. Historically, what happens here is that whiteness is redefined more inclusively, just as it happened with the Irish and the Italians and the Jews.

    I would expect (more) Hispanics and (more) biracial Americans and possibly even some Asians to self-identify as white in a generation.

    • dedc79 says:

      Will be interesting to see how that plays out. I”m not sure the comparison to jews/irish is on point given that many were virtually indistinguishable from non-jew/irish whites.

    • FWIW, I think you’re both right. Historically, Americans redefine what it means to be “normal”, which has generally involved being declared “white”.

      I think dedc is right that there are more obvious physical differences between the new “normal” folks and those of the past (I honestly can’t pick out Jews and Irishmen from a crowd; but that’s probably because I grew up somewhere where there were enough folks of Jewish & Irish descent that whatever physical differences there are weren’t any more culturally salient than, say, lefthandedness).

      Given that, plus the fact that we no longer have an official story that “America = white = normal”, I think your larger point about assimilation is correct, but that dedc is right about the narrower matter of self-conception. I’d expect it to have a different spin than folks of Asian descent identifying as white.

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