One of the most enduring factors in socioeconomic inequality in the U.S. has long been differences along racial lines, particularly between whites and African Americans. Due in large part to the successful presidential campaign of Barack Obama, the salience of these dynamics have come into question. If he could win over the nearly all-white populace of Iowa early on and go on to win the general election by a fairly substantial margin, does this mean that we as a society have gotten past the black-white divisions that have plagued us for so long?
More precisely, the most recent cover story of The Atlantic asks the provocative question of whether we are witnessing “The End of White America?” It is a timely question and something worth reflecting on. The thrust of this article is that culturally, “whiteness” (be it defined by the privileged class of The Great Gatsby or the rural working class of NASCAR) has lost out to a multiculturalism as expressed through hip-hop music, and that demographically, the U.S. is headed toward a future not dominated by whites.
So, what exactly do we mean by “white” in this context? The most obvious component is skin color, and those of us with exclusively, or mostly, European ancestry – and in my case pretty much limited to the British Isles as far as we know – are typically referred to as white today. This ignores, of course, the fact that at different parts of the history of our country, Jews, Italians and even the Irish were not considered white, although they are today. Generally, whiteness has signified privilege, at least socially if not economically (e.g. even poor whites enjoyed the right to vote or ride in the front of the bus at the expense of African Americans or other groups). As Sociologists tell us, race is socially constructed, meaning that its definitions change and adapt over time, something that is critical to remember in any discussion about race.
As to The Atlantic article’s second point that by sheer demographics, we are becoming less white, that is certainly true, but we still don’t know how this will change how we view race in the future. The dominant black-white paradigm is still very real because of the sad history of slavery and discrimination in our country, but this paradigm has been disrupted over recent decades by the rapid increase in the numbers of Latinos and Asians across the country. (By the way, when I use “race” here I include “ethnicity” which is what the U.S. Census Bureau uses for Hispanic or Latino groups. If you’re interested in more info, go here). In Los Angeles, for example, Latinos represent about half of the population, while whites are less than a third, while Asian Pacific Islanders are about 13% and African Americans about 9%. Whites are a majority in most of the country today, but demographic projections from the Census Bureau indicate that no group will be the majority by 2042.
Now that we’ve elected an African American President, should any of these distinctions matter? Well, no and yes. On the one hand, it would certainly be nice to realize Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a society where his children will “not be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and Obama’s election is hopefully a step in that direction. However, we clearly have a long way to go. When we analyze almost any socioeconomic condition by race, whites clearly tend to enjoy much better conditions than other racial groups. (Asians are in many cases on par with, or even, surpass whites, though that sometimes masks low socioeconomic conditions of some southeast Asian groups). Racial differences are very real and will not disappear over night, and those of us from the privileged group need to acknowledge that fact and work to rectify it.
Clearly, poverty and inequality don’t discriminate and can afflict anyone from any racial group. Our conceptions of race and identity are shifting and will continue to do so as our population becomes even more diverse and bi- or multi-racial. So, are we witnessing the end of White America? Perhaps demographically and even culturally, but unless we create a society truly based on equality we risk replacing “whiteness” with just another construct of privilege, with stark divisions between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”