Racial Identity’s Gray Area
The Wall Street Journal
The Definition of Whiteness Continues to Shift
When Barack Obama, whose mother was white, identifies himself as black, and when Bill Richardson, whose father was white, identifies himself as Hispanic, who is white?
The U.S. Census Bureau says the country will be majority-minority in 2050—that is, the combined number of blacks, Asians, American Indians and Hispanics will put whites in the minority. Texas and California are already there.
But the definition of white keeps shifting. Groups have been welcomed in or booted out; people opt out, sue to get in or change their minds and jump back and forth.
The deepest racial divide, between blacks and nonblacks, endures. But there also are identity shifts among African-Americans, as Sen. Obama’s success suggests. Some make it into the middle class, where education and social mobility may help shape their identities as much as race does. Others are left behind in increasingly segregated schools and neighborhoods.
The U.S. has never found it easy to assign race, although it certainly has tried. A century ago, the people who did the counting—demographers, sociologists, policy thinkers—divided whites into three strata. They considered Nordic whites, from England, Scandinavia and Germany, the most ethnically desirable and elite, followed by the Alpine whites, from eastern and central Europe, and finally the Mediterraneans. Everyone else was identified as black, red, yellow or brown, which included South Asians.
Whiteness and the privileges that came with it were so closely guarded that in 1912, a House committee held hearings on whether Italians were really Caucasian, says Thomas Guglielmo, a historian at George Washington University. The idea was picked up from Italy, where northern, lighter-skinned Italians, were asking the same questions about the southern, darker-skinned Italians, he says. No one argued seriously that Jews and Greeks, or Irish and Poles—light-skinned but poor—weren’t white, but whether they were ethnically Caucasian was up for debate, he adds…
…”Who’s white [won’t] mean that much, but when someone is partly black, that will still be noticed by a large part of society,” says Bill Butz of the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington research group. He sees today’s black-white divide becoming a “black/nonblack” gulf…
…Opting Out of Whiteness
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there was “some sentiment” among non-Arabs for counting Arab-Americans as nonwhite, says David Roediger, a University of Illinois race historian. Since then, the Arab-American Institute in Washington has unsuccessfully lobbied the government for a separate “Middle East and North African” category on the census. The institute puts the Arab-American population at three times larger than the Census estimates, which limits its political power and claims on government programs…
…The Melting-Pot Effect
That doesn’t mean race won’t matter, even as it becomes harder to define. Blacks still cannot jump back and forth across those shifting racial lines, which explains why Sen. Obama calls himself black even while he singled out his white grandmother in his speech claiming the Democratic nomination.
That’s not likely to change soon. Some demographers predict that within a century, there will be as many Americans who are mixed-race as there will be those whose parents are both of the same race, further blurring color lines. But that “hybridity,” as demographers call it, will be concentrated among Hispanics and Asians who marry whites and each other, not among blacks…
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