When our current attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, was going through hearings there was an incident where he held his Eurasian granddaughter in his lap, and some people in the media made some off-color remarks. This was to be expected since Jeff Sessions is a white southern male of a certain age. And his middle name is Beauregard.
But, what bothered me is the critiques were so 1968, not 2018. The reality is that 2018 is a year when many young men and women who grew up white segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s happen to have mixed-race grandchildren.
Which brings me to a new paper, What Majority-minority Society? A Critical Analysis of the Census Bureau’s Projections of America’s Demographic Future. In the author explicitly models the likely impact of interracial/ethnic marriage on projections of a “majority-minority” America.
Here are the essential bits:
What the example of infants demonstrates is the powerful growth of the mixed-white population in the projections. The size of this group (of all ages) rises threefold during the projections. By the 2050s, one of every three babies with white ancestry also has Hispanic or racially nonwhite ancestry; and these mixed infants are almost a fifth of all infants, of any ethnoracial background. Consequently, assumptions about the ethnoracial assignment of mixed minority-white individuals have a large impact on the projections. The Census Bureau’s assumption that they are not to be counted with whites determines the outcome of the majority-minority society by the mid-2040s.
The final point to bear in mind therefore is this: the critical role in the projections of individuals with mixed white-minority backgrounds means that our demographic future will not be exclusively determined by the usual demographic components: fertility, mortality, migration. It will also be shaped by sociological forces that influence the social locations of individuals who are situated by family background in between the major ethnoracial blocs of American society.
The paper highlights two critical, if not exhaustive, parameters: legal and social definitions of whiteness. Though connected, they are not identical.
It is now fashionable today to assert that white ethnic groups such as Irish, Italians, and Jews “became white” through assimilation. There is some clear truth in this. But, to the American government, they were always considered white, because they were allowed to be naturalized. The 1790 Naturalization Act limited the acquisition of citizenship to free whites. This was later expanded to people of African descent after the Civil War. But Asians were excluded.
In the early 20th century on the whole, though not exclusively, Arabs, mostly Christian, were allowed to be naturalized as white. But they were clearly a liminal case, and they were not always given citizenship. People from the Indian subcontinent were just on the other side of the line between white and nonwhite. Usually, they were not given citizenship, and when they were given citizenship, that was sometimes taken away due to the fact that the authorities determined they were Asian nonwhites.
As a contrast people from the south and east of Europe, and European Jews, were naturalized as white people. But, they were given citizenship somewhat begrudgingly and triggered a racial panic which helped to lead to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924.
Which brings me to the social aspect of whiteness. By using the term “white” I think we’re eliding and masking the complexity of the dynamic at work. At different points in history the white American mainstream has had different perceptions of those white Americans who deviated from “typicality.” The migration of Irish and German Catholics in the decades before the 1850s triggered a very strong reaction. Similarly, the massive migrations around the turn of the 20th century also triggered a wave of nativism. At other points and periods deviation from “typicality” didn’t matter as much. For example, in the 19th century before the major wave of Jewish migration from the Russian Empire, there were three Senators of Jewish background, all from the South.
Though physically Irish, German and Polish Catholics were no more swarthy than Old Stock white Americans, their Catholicism was a major deviation from American norms. The early American Catholic Church in the 19th century was dominated by French priests and was relatively well integrated into the denominational landscape. The arrival of Irish Catholics, and the reformist Irish hierarchy, in the 1830s, transformed the demographics and cultural assertiveness of Roman Catholics. As a large religious minority in a normatively Protestant country, many leaders of the nascent Catholic community demanded some measure of corporate recognition, as had occurred in European lands. This triggered a massive backlash, leading to violent religious conflicts. Among the Catholics themselves, the Germans were leaders in an attempt to resist Anglicization, and maintain a separate German-speaking school system (the English-speaking Irish hierarchy quashed this separatism to mixed success).
Over the 20th century, the religious trajectory of both Jews and Roman Catholics was to adhere to Protestant norms. Ethnographic research on late 20th century Roman Catholics shows that many of them have internalized a “Protestant” conception of Christian identity and affiliation, being confessional, congregational, and individual in their beliefs. The social assimilation into the mainstream whiteness of “white ethnics” was to a great extent due to their accommodation to the broad outlines of American public religion.
But what has been made can be unmade. Though American Jews are predominantly secular, there been a level of exoteric de-Christianization of the Reform movement, as well as an ideological reaffirmation of Jewish nationhood. In American Catholicism, the consensus of the mid-20th century has flung apart, with wholesale secularization and quasi-Protestantization on one hand, the emergence of highly sectarian counter-cultural traditionalists and integralists on the other hand.
Ironically, with the collapse of a narrow set of cultural mores defining typical white Americans, white American identity has become more racialized. Ethnic and historical differences between various Old Stock groups, such as Southerners and Yankees, become collapsed and bracketed into the catchall of “white privilege.” Clear class differences between rural Appalachian whites and Yankee Brahmins get papered over due to the overwhelming presence of systemic white supremacy. The aristocracy of skin which began to emerge in the early 19th century as a siren call of white racial democratic populism ironically reemerges in the rhetoric of 21st century, as all non-whites, of all class and ethnic backgrounds, are a subject people crushed underneath the behemoth of white supremacy.
But let’s take a step back. Earlier I alluded to the distinction between legal and social norms. Today we need to also acknowledge that social and ideological norms differ, and are diverse. The ideological framework is that systemic white supremacy oppresses marginalized “people of color.” The latter category is highly inclusive, ranging from well educated Asian Americans to working-class Latino immigrants, as well as highly assimilated “white presenting” people of various ethnicities who “identify” as “people of color.” The ideological framework treats them as interchangeable elements in the algebra of oppression, but socially and culturally this is bullshit and totally unrealistic.
One of the reasons that certain quarters of academia have made it their job to debunk the “Asian American model minority myth” is that Asian Americans in various ways are not oppressed and marginalized by systemic white supremacy. The emphasis on a catchall Latino/Hispanic identity in the United States runs up against the fact that this group runs the gamut from people who are no different physically from Africans Americans to those who look totally white, and others who have various degrees of indigenous ancestry. Like the African American/black category there’s a logic to inclusion, capturing all possible individuals that might fit into the class to maximize numbers. But the Latino/Hispanic category is arguably much more culturally diverse than that which encompasses American blacks. The same is obviously true in a more clear way for “Asian Americans,” which includes people from Pakistan to Japan. But the logic of political, social, and cultural mobilization requires the creation of these meta-ethnic identities which bind people together.
But when you leave the political and ideological realm, social realities are very different. A dark-skinned Latino is treated very different than a white Latino in many situations. Though South and East Asians are both “Asian American,” socially and culturally they are very distinct, and South Asians are perceived in the American context to be atypical Asian Americans. There is a high level of social and cultural segregation among various Asian ethnicities, though some level of sub-regional pan-Asian identity does emerge among American born Asian Americans (e.g., East Asians and South Asians may create broader social communities where traditional ethnic boundaries break down).
And the way these various ethnicities relate to the mainstream, that is, white America, differs. The paper above asserts that one of the major issues is the binary framework of white vs. non-white in social, political, and legal discussions is not realistic. For the purposes of the Census people of mixed background, racial and ethnic (Hispanic/non-Hispanic) are coded as “minority.” For all practical purposes, this is a legal fiction. The fact is that people of non-Hispanic white background, and part Asian or Latino/Hispanic background, do not unambiguously identify as minorities, nor does society treat them as such. That being said, they are still somewhat atypical, as evidenced in the literature review in the paper above.
The main exception to the ambiguity is the case of black Americans and people with black ancestry. In the United States today individuals with visible African ancestry tend to be coded as black, irrespective of blood quantum, in accordance with the rule of hypodescent. Originally a way to maintain racial hierarchy and purity, hypodescent has been tacitly accepted as a method by which black Americans maintain their demographic numbers in the face of possible erosion. This is not an abstract matter. In much of Latin America, some African ancestry does not entail a black identity necessarily.
A growing proportion of mixed-race Americans should transform our understanding of racial dynamics that might emerge in the middle of the 21st century. As it is, many of the frameworks operational in both a legal and ideological sense derive from a mid-20th-century milieu, when the United States was a biracial nation. The black American struggle for legal equality in the 1960s was relatively successful, and ethnic activists in other minority groups saw in it a model to emulate.
But to not put too fine a point on it, 2018 is not 1968. About 30% of white Americans claim that a close relative is in a relationship with a person of another race of Latino/Hispanic ethnicity, while 8% of white Americans are in a relationship with a person of another race or of Latino/Hispanic ethnicity. A substantial number of “white presenting” mixed-race people have matured in a mostly white environment but have close relatives who are clearly non-white. To give an explicit example, a person who is 1/4th Chinese and has blonde hair and blue eyes can both identify and be seen as white, but also feel a very strong and visceral connection to their Asian ancestry and heritage. This is something new in the American context, as to become white in the past was to “pass” and disavow and disengage the contamination of non-white heritage.*
As the decades pass many more people will have complex and multi-valent identities. To some extent, this is tacitly understood. But elite ideological discourse and legal frameworks have not caught up. They probably should. Our conception of political and ideological alignments predicated on theories of demography-as-destiny may need to take into account details of demography which are not imagined in our current models….
* Perhaps with the exception of Native American ancestry. Neither Will Rogers nor Charles Curtis disavowed their native ancestry.