The news is going around breathlessly that 50.4% of births in the US in the past 12 months were to families categorized as ethnic minorities, presaging the time when ‘whites will be a minority’ in the US.
The unselfconscious deployment of these categories just takes your breath away. Who gets to decide which ones are ‘white’ and which ones ‘ethnic minorities?’
As historians such as David Roediger have shown, the idea of ‘whiteness’ is a relatively new racial category, and it has changed enormously over time.
Whiteness as it was constructed in the nineteenth century was not about skin color but about being Protestant and propertied. There were even distinctions within the group. WASP or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant did not refer to all Protestants of English heritage, but rather to a northeast elite that tended to marry within themselves and to have a disproportionate hold on political and business office. The Scottish-American elite was another subgroup (Presbyterian as opposed to Episcopalian).
So not all whites were equally white. Moreover, Catholic immigrants such as the Irish, the Poles and the Italians were either not considered white when they first came or were denoted as a lesser category of white. Jews, Arabs, Japanese and Chinese were also not considered white. Indeed, a special law was made to keep Chinese in particular out of the country.
Over time, the Catholic minorities who immigrated into the US in the big 1880-1924 wave, before racist immigration laws were implemented, became accepted as ‘white.’ In the past 30 years, Jews have been accepted as white. It is even possible, I think, to argue that middle class Blacks on the model of Bill Cosby’s the Huxtables have become ‘white.’ You’ll note that Harry Reid said of Obama the candidate that he ‘had no dialect,’ so for older ‘whites,’ blackness was in part cultural, wrought up with an imagined African-American speech pattern. Thus, the Obamas are in some sense ‘white,’ producing that odd argument about whether Obama is ‘black enough,’ which non-Americans must have found baffling.
In 1965 the US was finally too embarrassed to go on with the racist immigration laws and put a ceiling of 25,000 for each country in the world. That change kick-started a whole new big wave of immigration, which may now be ending. About a million a year had been coming, half of them from Latin America.
The Latinos have for the moment been categorized as non-white, but surely everyone can see how arbitrary that is. Many Latinos in Argentina and Brazil are of Italian ancestry. If they come to the US now, they are a ‘minority’ or ‘brown.’ But their cousins who just came straight to Rhode Island are ‘white.’ For that matter, why is there a difference among people who speak Romance languages and practice Catholicism, such that a Colombian is a ‘minority’ but a Calabrian is not? And consider that if a Sephardic Jewish family of Spanish ancestry immigrates from Israel, they are ‘white,’ but Spanish Catholic families who settled in Mexico and then came to the US recently are not (that’s an interesting reversal!)
Arabs are an interesting case. I’d argue that Lebanese Christians became ‘white.’ Arab Muslims were on the verge of becoming white before 9/11 but may have been at least temporarily demoted. (They are white in the census categories, but social acceptance has fallen). My guess is that demotion is a temporary blip, since they are typically well educated and well off, and over time economic eliteness tends to produce racial eliteness in the US.
And, the old prejudices against the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ‘Slavs’ has completely collapsed, so no one thinks Poles or other Eastern Europeans are not ‘white.’
So given the history of ‘whiteness,’ likely the new wave of Latinos will be awarded the category over time. My guess is that Asians will be, as well. Remember, it isn’t about ‘race,’ it is about a weird kind of social status. By the way, Apartheid South Africa declared Japanese to be ‘white.’
Ultimately, the whole idea of whiteness can only be kept going through a set of racial and class exclusions. Working-class African-Americans eternally get the short end of the stick. Recent immigrant groups are often excluded along with them.
The better outcome would be to just stop using the word ‘white.’ As should be clear from the above, it doesn’t actually mean anything. If you really had to categorize citizens of the US by ancestry (why?), use geographical terms. We have African-Americans. Why not have European-Americans or Euros? Since there may not be a currency called that much longer, we can repurpose the term.
We should also stop using the phrase ‘ethnic minority’ to refer to post-1965 immigrant groups if we are not going to apply it to the post-1880 wave. Just be specific. If you mean Latinos, say that. If you mean Asian-Americans, say that. And, you may need a term for the new wave of African immigrants other than “African-American,” since they aren’t exactly the same (Africans have complained to me about this issue).
Me, I don’t want to be called ‘white’ and I hope we can get rid of the whole idea of whiteness. You go back a thousand years and all of us have diverse ancestries. Most Europeans are part Arab and many are part Jewish. In the US, a lot of people have Native and African ancestors that they don’t know about anymore.
Best of all if we can just say that in the US, we are all Americans and stop categorizing people with regard to their adaptation to ultraviolet waves. It is anyway a temporary adaptation. If you took Swedes and left them in the Congo for 13,000 years, the mothers that could shield their embryos from harsh ultraviolet rays better would be selected for, and they would be darker, and eventually the group would be ‘black.’ If you took Congolese to Sweden, the mothers that could provide their embryos vitamin D more reliably in a low UV environment would be selected for, and over time the group would get ‘white.’ (In fact, we’re all from Africa, so that is exactly what happened historically). It is a minor epidermal health issue, not a matter of character or essence. Get rid of it.