Yesterday a New York Times article ran under the headline Census Benchmark for White Americans: More Deaths Than Births. I’m guessing that story read something like Tornado Strikes Minutemen Border Patrol Headquarters: Millions in Guns and Ammunition Lost among America’s growing ranks of white nationalists.
But, before further panic ensues, the article also made it clear that demographic change is not exactly right around the corner, saying,
The disparity [between white births and deaths] was tiny — only about 12,000 — and was more than made up by a gain of 188,000 as a result of immigration from abroad. But the decrease for the year ending July 1, 2012, coupled with the fact that a majority of births in the United States are now to Hispanic, black and Asian mothers, is further evidence that white Americans will become a minority nationwide within about three decades.
Thirty years to stew in the fear of a brown planet is a pretty good long time. Most white baby boomers won’t feel the change at all, especially since changing demography does not equate to desegregation, nor does it mean that the racial income and wealth gaps will be eradicated. As an April 28, 2013 New York Times article reported,
As of 2010, white families, on average, earned about $2 for every $1 that black and Hispanic families earned, a ratio that has remained roughly constant for the last 30 years. But when it comes to wealth — as measured by assets, like cash savings, homes and retirement accounts, minus debts, like mortgages and credit card balances — white families have far outpaced black and Hispanic ones. Before the recession, non-Hispanic white families, on average, were about four times as wealthy as nonwhite families…By 2010, whites were about six times as wealthy.
The racial wealth gap is growing, not shrinking, even while the percentage of people of color within the population is increasing. And since your parents’ wealth is the strongest indicator of your financial success (and the biggest factor in determining wealth is inheritance) the real advantage of white skin privilege achieved as a result of historically prohibiting property ownership among people of color is increasing.
And, don’t get it twisted, reports that Asian American median household incomes are higher than for whites are deceptive. Median household incomes are only higher because Asian families tend to include more incomes that, measured per capita, are lower than white per capita incomes. And this situation is compounded by the fact that Asian Americans are concentrated in the most expensive cities on the coasts where wages tend to be higher to keep up with the high cost of living. This exaggerates Asian American buying power, creating the impression that we’re richer than we are.
As long as you have the wealth to influence political outcomes, you don’t need to be the numerical majority by race to control politics in the U.S. That’s why the 1% is able to lord it over the 99%, forcing us to cover the losses resulting from their reckless disregard for the majority of us in 2008, even as the majority grew poorer as a result of that same recklessness.
There are other reasons whites ought not fear demographic change. As The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith writes,
We’re told over and over again that race is a social construction. It is not a fixed category. If you simply allow more people to identify as white, problem solved.
In other words, whites have faced similar though less dramatic “crises” of political power before. Each time, whiteness expanded to include groups like the Irish, Jews, and Italians. Racism is flexible. It adapts in order to survive. Colorblind racism, the refusal to recognize the power of race in determining social outcomes that has become so popular in our post-Obama, post-racial era, is an example of racism adapting.
Many argue that in the age of colorblind racism, Asian Americans’ success relative to other communities of color will lead us to become “honorary whites,” enveloped by white privilege conditioned on supporting the agendas of white elites. The fact that most Asian Americans identify by ethnic groups and resist being grouped together as a race seems to give credence to this argument.
And what should be even more reassuring to whites is the fact that around 27 million Latinos, or slightly more than half of those who identified as Latino or Hispanic in the 2010 Census, also identified as white. So, if we count Latinos as they count themselves, the statistics concerning the growth of the non-white population are somewhat exaggerated.
So, maybe whites don’t have much to fear.
However, these arguments ignore a few important facts. First of all, there’s a big difference between Irish, Italian, and Jewish Americans and “non-white” Hispanics and Asians.
While the relatively small numbers of Asian Americans in the U.S. make us less of a threat to whites than, say, Latinos, Asia looms large as a perceived threat to (white) American political and economic interests on the global stage. That’s likely to stand in the way of many white people’s willingness to view Asian Americans as white, much less as Americans, and Asians are likely to take notice. For evidence of how global concerns can play out domestically, one need look no further than to the rabid Islamophobia faced by South Asian Americans.
Latinos have similarly been stigmatized and persecuted in ways that won’t be easy to take back, at least not in the next thirty or so years. Do you think this little Mexican American boy who was heckled and threatened for singing the National Anthem is ever going to forget that he’s not white? So the groups folk suggest are most vulnerable to being whitened might not be so easily incorporated by white America. In fact, efforts to whiten us may be the wedge that splits the white voting bloc.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, white Americans are no more a monolith than are any other group by race. Remember that race is a social construct that envelopes whiteness too. Most white people in the U.S. aren’t rich and powerful. That status is reserved for a privileged few. And more and more white people are entering the ranks of the impoverished every day.
In the post-recession economy, the majority of new jobs are temporary, part-time, and low wage. Being temporary and part-time means being without benefits for most, and it also means being exempted from certain labor protections. Viewed in a historic context, in terms of labor, working class whites are being blackened, as in subjected to the kind of labor conditions that have historically been reserved for people of color, especially black people.
And if history is any guide, the browner the ranks of ordinary wage earners become in the U.S., the more remote the humanity of those workers will be to white elites, even if working class whites are increasingly represented in the kinds of jobs normally reserved for brown people. So demographic change could just be the lever that finally gets working class whites to recognize that structural racism works to their disadvantage too. And if working class whites are able to see past race to their real economic interests, white elites may well have much to fear.