Why White Supremacy will be alive and well in the new “brown” America:
The Browning of America,” demographers’ projection that by the year 2050, America will be “Majority-Minority,” haunts the political and social landscape, ever present yet out of sight, a gas leak awaiting the spark. Its is the awful charisma of Armageddon, the certainty that the old order is soon to fall. Depending on who you ask, this fall will either be into a swirling horror of Spanish speaking, Hip Hop blasting, chaos with a healthy dose of miscegenation and White genocide. Or, it will be a racial wonderland in which White supremacy will have been dealt its death-blow, not in the streets, but in the maternity ward. No one who isn’t a skin head or Nazi wannabe believes that 2050 will mark the year that White genocide becomes a national priority. At the other end: behind all the present’s high-pitched political theater, there is the sense that we are all just getting ready for a major scene change. Though the “browning” is no longer a regular news story, this just signals that it has largely fallen below the reach of critical engagement. Children of color outnumber non-Hispanic White children in our nation’s schools. White birth rates are the lowest of any group and they are projected to be a “mere” 47% of the population within a few decades. The conversation around this change has been largely positive, even breathless, self congratulatory and indulgent, as though the end of White supremacy in America were as irresistible as a change of season. This is dangerous and sets us up as people of color, especially Black Americans, for a disappointment of epic proportions. The promise of the browning is going to be an empty one, and so we must prepare. Because, though the promise is empty, the threat of a (not really) realigning racial landscape is fully loaded.
I say so because as idiotic as White supremacy is when viewed from a broadly humanistic perspective; Whiteness is a brilliant piece of political machinery. In preserving the power and material benefits of ideological Whiteness, it has shown itself remarkably tenacious and adaptable over the past 400 years. Therefore, I see no reason to suspect, given history, that it won’t be able to dodge a death blow telegraphed from a half-century away. When one examines the history of “Whiteness” in America, it becomes clear that it is above all a strategic, rather than an “ethnic” reality. Despite the desperation of White nationalists who have tried to turn Whiteness into an autonomous identity, it has almost always functioned more as a political status than a deeply cultural one. In truth, Whiteness offers very little which cannot be gotten at higher quality for a lower price from any preexisting identity (Irish, Jewish, Italian etc.) in fact, these groups have largely been persuaded to give up their ethnicity in exchange for Whiteness (as political realities autonomous from Whiteness if not culturally) in the same way that poor Whites have been persuaded to ignore what binds them to the oppressed of all backgrounds in exchange for racial privilege. And as much as we criticize poor Whites for being duped by their privilege, in many ways, this has paid off very well for them, they have, in a sense, not really been duped. This is the key to the durability of Whiteness: Whiteness pays. This is why it came into existence, and this is why it continues to exist. Whiteness, like all social identities, is a social construct, we know this. Why, then, do we insist on speaking of social change in terms of immutable social categories which are helplessly blown about by the winds of fertility?
In the beginning, there were no Whites. There were Spaniards, Englishmen, Germans, Portuguese etc. There were also no Blacks. We were Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Bakongo, Akan and a plethora of other nationalities. Forged together in a crucible fired by unspeakable brutality, we became gloriously Black. Opposite us, were Europeans and their peasants. Irish prisoners and indentured servants, desperate men who sold themselves into temporary bondage to earn their passage to the new world. The first un-free Africans in America were indentured, (the first Africans came voluntarily as free men and explorers) though they may not have entered voluntarily into their indenture, they, like their White counterparts were freed after a term of years and given a freedom bonus. The textbook story tells us that the system of indentured servitude became troublesome for various reasons, primarily because their bondage was temporary. The racialized elements of this shift are routinely left out. As Michelle Alexander reminds us in “The New Jim Crow,” underlying the shift from indentured servitude to slavery, as the primary means of producing unfree labor for the colonial enterprise, was the ideological complex we would come to call White supremacy. Specifically, she references Bacon’s rebellion, a seminal moment wherein the Virginia underclass, Black and White, united to oppose the rule of an exploitative colonial elite. The revolt was put down by a massive show of force. But mere victory wasn’t enough. In order to ensure that their servant class would never again rise up as one voice, the Virginia elites established a regime of racialization, designed to bind Europeans of all classes into a sense of power and privilege.
Anyone who has read Michelle Alexander’s era defining work is aware of this account of the origin of American racism. What it shows, is the instrumentality of Whiteness. First the peasants became White, then the Irish, then the Germans, Jews, Italians, Russians Ukrainians, Armenians etc. When we realize how meaningless the White skin of the Irish had been to expansionist, land hungry, England and how meaningless the White skin of the Jews had been to Christian Europe for centuries before the rise of White supremacy and its material inducements, it is clear, that Whiteness is a construct in a way that “Blackness”” is not. People of all racial and political persuasions love the cliche “Race is construct.” True it is, but as used by we who are anti-racist, it brings attention to the ultimate malleability of the conceptual framework in which “race relations” occur. This malleability is important to keep in mind because it portends the end of racism, not just as a power structure, but as a feature of human life. It seems to promise a world where we can partake of the grand diversity of the human experience, without succumbing to the absurd, archaic idea that we can categorize people like animals, the menagerie of races replaced with a great salon of human experiences.
That said, we must realize that not all malleabilities are created equal. When I say Blackness is not a construct in the same way that Whiteness is, I mean that while we as a Black people in America constructed ourselves out of many nationalities, we did so for survival, in spontaneous response to circumstances then existing, not a desire to hold power. What this means is that while Blackness responds to Whiteness, Whiteness responds to itself; by which I mean, Whiteness is first and foremost a strategy of elites, which is how it originates and how it has morphed. Immigrant groups ascended by being granted the right to send members into the White elite. The right, granted by the existing White elite; of Irish, Jewish and Italian, tradesmen, laborers and gangsters to send their children to any university and set them up in trades, allowed even the most “backward” of these strange foreigners to sire a line of all-American Whites. An entree further bolstered by rapidly expanding numbers, an expansion which was itself encouraged by racial privileges enshrined in immigration law, which did not fully disappear until 1965.
Therefore, while Blackness functions as an internalized identity adopted by people on the ground in response to their experience in society, Whiteness is defined and dominated from above, by elite interests, not by any internalized identity which the average White person may hold. (Which isn’t to deny that Blackness responds to Whiteness as I said above, only that if White elites had had there way, Blackness would never have come into being we would have either remained separate nations or devoted all our energies to trying to enter Whiteness.) We should therefore assume that what it means to be “White” in America, will morph into whatever it needs to be in order to protect a version of the interests of people now called “White.”
How will it morph this time? To answer this, we must look objectively at Hispanic and Latin@ America instead of simply assuming that we can intuitively know how it relates to the traditional Black-White dichotomy. To begin with, 52% of Hispanic/Latin@s identify racially as White. Realizing this, the term “non-Hispanic White” suddenly takes on much greater significance. If the majority of Hispanics consider themselves to be racially White, what does it really mean to say that “White people” will no longer be the national majority? Well, according to Pew research, by 2050, if current trends continue, Hispanics will constitute 29% of the population. If 52% of this population continues to identify racially as “White” then 15% of the total population will be made up of White Hispanics. When added to the non-Hispanic White 47% of the population, we get a White majority of 62%, which happens to perfectly match the current 62% non-Hispanic White majority. (Stifle thy gasps)
Self-identification is not destiny, it may be that White Hispanics transform what it means to be White, maybe they will defy the standard Black-White dynamic and the history of “Whitening” which has defined the American immigrant experience. Or, maybe non-Hispanic Whites will hold stubbornly to their unique sense of identity and become a minority. I find this second course highly unlikely. Why? For one thing, Whiteness has nothing to offer but power and since majority status is essential to White power as it has existed, it must morph and frankly, we must not forget that the addition of Hispanics to Whiteness is not a thing being conjured out of thin air. Many if not most Hispanics/Latin@s have significant European ancestry and many are descendants of the Spanish/Portuguese settler colonial class. So, in talking about “White Hispanics/Latin@s” we are not only talking about a group which identifies as White, but a group which has an actionable claim to it.
The claim is actionable, but will it be pursued? (Admitting that considering Hispanics/Latin@s as a “group” is a flawed but necessary statistical construct). When we talk about Hispanics/Latin@s as “White” it may seem as though we are talking about a contradiction only because of the way we are accustomed to talking about “identity.” We speak as though Hispanic/Latin@ were racial identities, when in fact, they are ethnicities, and ethnicities are cultural. While the notion of being “Black” is a social construct woven around the objective fact that I am of Sub-Saharan African descent, ethnicity is defined by one’s actual culture. Filipinos became Hispanic as a result of having been colonized by the Spanish, in the same way as Africans brought to South America and people of American indigenous descent etc. While ethnicity is not nearly as simple as the language one speaks, many a child of immigrants will never hear the language of their ancestors escape their lips, they may yet identify with the identity that language betokens. But, considering that Spanish and a relationship with Spanish seems to be a, if not the, defining feature of Hispanic/Latin@ identity, this is a logical place to begin. (Forgive me for simplifying, demography is an incredibly blunt tool.)
According to Pew Hispanic, only 47% of third generation children of Hispanic immigrants report being able to speak Spanish “pretty well,” 29% consider themselves bilingual while 69% identify as “English dominant.” Of course, it is not my place to assign identity to others based on lack of linguistic fluency. as someone who identifies himself as African, having never stepped foot on the African continent, I can appreciate that people are entitled to define their own identities, but, it is important to reflect that the Spanish language does seem to be what draws groups of people from places as diverse as Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, Argentina and The Dominican Republic together into a “new” American social category, Hispanic/Latin@.
It is logical to suggest that individuals who would identify as White racially, who do not speak Spanish, would function socially as non-Hispanic Whites function, in fact, one might argue, that such persons would in fact be non-Hispanic Whites. It is, of course, possible, that there would remain a strong group cohesion which transcends language, and, speaking English by no means indicates in any ironclad way that the descendants of today’s Hispanic immigrants will assimilate into American Whiteness. Beyond the language indicator lies the romantic one. Hispanics have the second highest level of intermarriage, after Asians, and as of the last census, 43% of Hispanic newlyweds were married to non Hispanic Whites, approximately 80% of third generation Hispanics are the product of unions between a Hispanic parent and a non-Hispanic parent.
All these factors combine to indicate that Hispanics/Latin@s are far more analogous to the European immigrants of old than to any advancing third world hoard or vanguard of the world’s non-White peoples. Furthermore, we neglect at our own peril the fact that Latin America joins the American ethnic mix bearing its own racist nightmare. Of the 12+ million Africans brought to the Americas via the middle passage, only 400,000 came to what would become the United States of America, the vast majority went to South America and the Caribbean to the Spanish and Portuguese empires, where they labored under the White men from Iberia, who, having obliterated almost 95% of the Amerindian peoples, fed their insatiable thirst for labor by committing another massive destruction of human life. Their children are every bit as present as the children of North America’s slaveowners. Which means that among the Hispanic diaspora can be found, socio-historically, the very Whitest of Whites, Spanish speaking and foreign as they may seem to the xenophobe. The ideology which they bring with them from the vast, nation-sized slave labor camps of the Southwestern hemisphere would dovetail very lovingly with America’s.
I must say, that I am not attributing any malice or unique, evil imperfection to my Hispanic/Latin@ brothers and sisters. Most of them, like most of us, live their lives blindly and individualistically. Immigrants do not generally leave home and travel to new lands to throw their lots in with the wretched, the outsiders, the hated, the murdered. They leave to find a better home than the one they left, to advance in the world. This is a fully understandable sentiment, but what concerns me is how this should condition our understanding of the evolution of racialized power in America. Here, if I’m honest, I know that I’m trying to predict the future which is a thoroughly hazardous undertaken for anyone who enjoys being right. I’ve decided not to let that stop me. In this foolhardy venture I find good company, Slate’s national political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie observed some of the same indicators I have a noticed and concluded that there were two likely outcomes, either Hispanics/Latin@s will largely disappear as an identity or the racism and exclusion of the right will help to solidify them into a people as it did for the various African nations which made up America’s great captive labor force. Based on my analysis above, I foresee the former.
What does this then mean? That 2050 won’t be so different from 2005? Not quite, it is not simply a matter of not gaining ground; ground may in fact be lost. We need only look at the descendants of America’s last immigrant wave. The descendants of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants who never tire of waxing superior over being yanked into their privilege by ancestral, if mythical, bootstraps; to see what use assimilated immigrants can be put to in the theater of White supremacy. Imagine people, by all appearances White, with hyphenated surnames combining the Anglo with the Hispanic, lecturing the still bedeviled colored masses on the necessary merits of their social inferiority. You need not struggle to imagine that in an especially American feat of historical blindness, the children of Latino immigrants will, in order to cross the final Rubicon into Whiteness, use their formal and former minority status to forswear any connection to and therefore blame for, America’s history of racial injustice. In fact, they’ll cite their ancestors own hardscrabble stories as evidence that whatever binds the permanent underclass must be internal. (Once again ignoring the privileged contexts in which ascents to Whiteness occur)
And worse yet, from the perspective of Black America, we will be a second string minority, behind the 14% of the population made of up of non-White Hispanics/Latin@s, which portends an even lesser ability to demand a seat at the table. Even this gloomy forecast assumes that the 48% of Hispanics who do not identify as White hold the line, which we can by no means take for granted, considering that 36% of Hispanics identify as “some other race.” Insofar as this group represents those who identify so strongly with Hispanic/Latino-ness that they refuse America’s racial schema, we can count them as the core of minority Latin@/Hispanic identity; insofar as they represent a group with no strong commitments but which resists slotting, particularly considering the afore-cited intermarriage numbers, they represent a likely source of expanded Whitening. I suspect, this unaffiliated group will represent a combination of the two.
It should be understood, that I by no means want to posit the American racial schema as being objectively accurate, and I cannot account for all of the ways Hispanic/Latino communities may defy and transform this schema and far outpace my capacity to prognosticate. In all likelihood, the community will split, there is not one Hispanic/Latino community, but many. To see this, we need only to contrast the Democratic party’s Castro brothers with the Republican party’s two dearly departed Latino would-be frontrunners, Rubio and Cruz. Rather than imagining that the community will slot firmly into “minority” status and thereby give us the power to overcome White supremacy by sheer force of numbers; or supposing, as I have never done, that they will simply offer unqualified reinforcement to the White power structure: It is probably better to imagine a world where the demographic shift represents something more like a tie than a victory for one side or the other. Of course, in the dynamics of power and identity, ties go to the status quo.
If you’ve connected with this work, your donation can help me create more of it.