Here we go again. The Census Bureau has released yet one more milestone data point that supposedly reveals the profundity of America’s ongoing demographic change. This time, it’s news that, as The New York Times put it last week, “Whites account for less than half of births in the U.S.”
It’s one of those front-page headlines that give you pause. You know it means something significant–why else would it be on the front page?!–but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
Don’t buy into the hype and all the overwrought commentary (of which there was plenty on cable TV following the demographic “breaking news”) on this supposed milestone. The Census Bureau’s drumbeat of racial change is nothing but empty, invidious data that says more about the uselessness of our current racial categories than it does about any transformation of American society.
For one, reports that “whites” account for less than half of births in the U.S. are not accurate. Since almost half of American Latinos identify themselves as white racially, you can rest assured that, strictly speaking, “white” babies are still securely in the majority of delivery room miracles. Sure, the body of the story specifies that what they’re talking about is “non-Hispanic whites”–a term no one but bureaucrats and wonks use–but the headline says it all. Real white babies or traditionally white babies or the babies we’ve come to consider white are lagging behind in the race to be born.
In the U.S., we’ve traditionally understood biology as being the fundamental difference between “ethnicity” and “race.” Race is seen as genetically predetermined and therefore unchangeable, while ethnicity–which encompasses language, religion, and culture–can change over time and place.
The Census makes clear that black, white, American Indian, Asian, and Native Hawaiian are racial categories, while Hispanic is an ethnic one. The term non-Hispanic white then, or “white Hispanic” for that matter (think George Zimmerman), combines the racial and the ethnic indicators. It is a jerry-rigged term with no clear objective meaning or predictive value.
Official government usage notwithstanding, whiteness is in the eye of the beholder. Last week, a political journalist friend of mine wondered aloud whether Mitt Romney was “too white” to be elected president. Last month, a flight attendant whose parents were born in Sicily told me she didn’t consider herself white because of her olive complexion. The first instance of whiteness here refers to the candidate’s behavior and mannerisms that might derive from a particular ethnic background; what my friend really meant was Yankee. The second instance was referring solely to skin color.
Plenty of other traits can confer whiteness on a person–class, economic, educational, or social status to name a few. Five years ago, I followed two friends of mine deep into the heart of the Mississippi Delta where they were studying the construction of whiteness, the process by which a variety of ethnic subgroups forged an uneasy and hierarchical alliance called “white people.” One remarkable interview with a retired sheriff in Sunflower County taught me more than any demographer, social scientist, or race theorist ever had.
After a winding chat about subtle class and ethnic distinctions among whites in the Delta, we decided to ask the sheriff where a variety of local groups stood in relation to whiteness.
“Are Lebanese white people?” we began.
“Yes,” he said, “although they’re real dark.”
“How about Italian Catholics; are they white?”
“What about the Chinese?”
“Yes,” he said, “they go to the white schools.”
“They’re becoming more white. More of them are getting an education.”
“Then what’s a white person?” we asked.
After some confusion over the meaning of the question, he concluded that it was probably anybody “who isn’t black.”
So, if whiteness is more a negative indicator than anything else, it makes sense that for most people the process of becoming white has also been one of negation.
Throughout history, new immigrants to these shores were obliged to fit themselves on one side or the other of the black or non-black (white) racial divide. Not surprisingly, most chose to identify themselves with the side that had full rights. In books such as How the Irish Became White, scholars have traced the path that immigrant subgroups took to become considered part of the “white race.”
It’s a poignant and peculiarly American journey.
That’s because the status of whiteness–and the protection it conferred–came with a significant cost. Over time, most distinct subgroups gradually lost their distinctiveness. Their members traded specific ethnic labels–Italian, Dutch, Swedish, French–for the generic racial label of “white.” They exchanged identities that told us something about their unique family histories for an elastic racial category that mostly tells us what they are not.
A decade or so ago, I had an epiphany while skulking around Milwaukee’s once German, now African American, West Side. In few places are the mechanics of becoming white so clear. Milwaukee had an ethnic German majority from 1860 until roughly the middle of the 20th century. This demographic clustering created an ecosystem of newspapers, bakeries, churches, and social groups that nurtured the city’s ethnic distinctiveness. (Even the city’s 1895 City Hall, built in German Renaissance Revival style, resembles Hamburg’s Rathaus.) But in the early and mid-20th century, as greater numbers of blacks moved north in search of industrial jobs, ethnic Germans began to move to the surrounding suburbs, thereby moving beyond the radius of the social organizations and businesses that had nurtured their Germanness several generations after the actual immigrant experience. That’s when they became white.
Not only did this jump into whiteness deprive post-ethnics of all sorts of traditional comforts and ethnic-based networks of affection and meaning, it also stripped them of ethnic identity itself, something that had long served as a source of cohesion and rootedness in the larger, peripatetic society.
In her 1990 book, Ethnic Options, Harvard political scientist Mary Waters argues that being American doesn’t give people that sense of belonging to one large family, “the way that being French does for people in France. In America, rather than conjuring up an image of nationhood to meet this desire, ethnic images are called forth.”
It therefore stands to reason that moving beyond ethnicity into whiteness can lead to a greater sense of individual isolation and loneliness. In her fieldwork, Waters found that many post-ethnic whites often long for the sense of “specialness” and intimacy that being “none of the above” can’t provide. That longing prompts many to grasp for new ways to connect. In 1972, historian and journalist Thomas C. Wheeler warned that, stripped of embracing ethnic identities, Americans reel off “endlessly on fads” and in “search of life-styles.”
More recently, however, the emptiness of whiteness is not only eroding the social contract but also encouraging people to embrace the abstract certainties of rigid ideologies. Like newly minted atheists who search for all-encompassing worldviews to replace the religions they’ve left behind, atomized post-ethnics substitute political causes for the bakery and social clubs their grandparents once enjoyed.
Recent headlines on infant demographics contained more than a hint of alarmism. Implicit in the story was the belief that changes in the racial makeup of the country would pose a challenge to the nation’s values, identity, and heritage. But race in America has always said more about what people are not than what they are. On some level, whiteness can only be understood as an anti-heritage, a privileged enclave whose price of entry has been checking one’s past at the gate. The end of whiteness as a majority category doesn’t mean the country is relinquishing something. Quite the contrary, we will literally be losing nothing.
Gregory Rodriguez is founding director of Zócalo Public Square and executive director of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University.
*Photo courtesy of Dean Terry.