Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash
Reject arguments that whiteness and racism will naturally fade over time.
Take action alongside communities of color to dismantle racism in all forms.
Earlier this month, The Atlantic published “The Myth of a Majority-Minority America,” which critiqued the idea that most Americans will soon be people of color. According to the article, America will only become a majority-minority country if we count mixed-race individuals as exclusively non-white. This binary thinking draws on the legacy of the Jim Crow-era “one-drop rule,” say the authors, and is a repetition of historic fears about non-Anglo European immigration which, of course, proved to be unfounded.
“Speculating about whether America will have a white majority by the mid-21st century makes little sense, because the social meanings of white and nonwhite are rapidly shifting,” they write. “The sharp distinction between these categories will apply to many fewer Americans” (The Atlantic).
Coming from a biracial family, I think it’s really important to understand mixed-race people’s experiences. As the National Museum of African American History and Culture puts it, “creating one’s racial identity is a fluid and nonlinear process that varies for every person and group” (NMAAHC). But the Museum’s website correctly adds, “In a racialized society like the United States, everyone is assigned a racial identity whether they are aware of it or not.” We should question The Atlantic’s claim that mixed-race people will cause the categories of whiteness and non-whiteness to become less significant over time.
According to the one-drop rule, people were Black if they had any Black ancestry. This meant people whose ancestors were mostly white were still enslaved and, later, subject to Jim Crow discrimination. The legacy of the one-drop rule is why some people are Black despite being light-skinned enough to pass as white (PBS). Acknowledging that people with mixed ancestry can still be identified as white or as people of color doesn’t endorse this way of thinking, but rather acknowledges its continuing effect on contemporary views of race.
White Americans resisted Irish and Italian mass immigration on both racial and religious grounds. Irish and Italian people were at first thought of as non-white, racially inferior peoples. Mobs burned Catholic churches and immigrant neighborhoods because Catholics were thought to practice cannibalism and other barbarities (History). Sicilians were thought to be inherently criminal because of racial defects (NY Times). Of course, both Irish and Italian Americans are now easily identified as white people. What changed wasn’t their physical characteristics but their position within the construct of whiteness.
But this didn’t mean that the distinction between white and non-white was erased in the early twentieth century. On the contrary, the price of admission to whiteness was for Irish and Italian immigrant communities to join in the oppression of their Black neighbors. As Protestant mobs attacked Irish neighborhoods, Irish immigrants took part in attacking Black neighborhoods (Irish Times).
The borders of racial categories are malleable, contested, and change over time. But believing that demographic changes will inevitably cause the racial hierarchy to fade away ignores centuries of evidence to the contrary. It veers dangerously close to endorsing the view that all we need to do to combat racism is wait.
We need to understand the history and present of American racism to fight its devastating effects on communities of color. This doesn’t mean racism is inevitable or will persist forever, but we need to take action to interrogate anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and anti-Indigeneity and the beliefs, institutions, and practices that enable them instead of waiting for racism to disappear.
Some experts believe increasing numbers of mixed-race Americans will cause racial distinctions to fade away.
This ignores the fact that racial categories are evolving social constructs while racism is an enduring social structure.
Demographic changes won’t end racism, only concerted individual and collective action to increase the power of dispossessed people and communities of color.