Friday, May 25, 2012

Hmmmmm or Huh?

The Future of Whiteness

I concluded my column this weekend on Elizabeth Warren’s supposed Indian ancestry by noting that America’s emerging post-white future, in which “almost everyone will be 1/8 something-or-other,” will make certain forms of contemporary affirmative action and diversity promotion look increasingly ridiculous. I see that Matt Yglesias, himself 1/4 Cuban, has pivoted off his self-professed status as “just another white dude” to make the case that America will never actually become post-white:
It’s conceivable that 40 years from now nobody will care about race at all. But if they do still care, it will still be the case that—by definition—whiteness is the racial definition of the sociocultural majority. If the only way for that to happen is to recruit large swathes of the Hispanic and fractionally Asian population into whiteness, then surely it will happen. Indeed, while the Census Bureau has always been very clear that some people are white, others black, and yet others Native American or Indian, the federal government has frequently changed its mind about the rest. The first time an additional option showed up was in Census 1870’s addition of a “Chinese” race. By 1890 you were also allowed to be “Japanese,” and “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” categories were implemented for the fractionally black. These mixed-race categories vanished in 1900, but mulatto returned in 1910, and in 1920 “Hindu,” “Korean,” and “Filipino” became races. Mulatto vanished in 1930, and “Mexican” became a race, though people of Mexican ancestry had been living in large parts of the United States since those parts of the country actually belonged to Mexico. In 1940, Mexicans were granted white status—a measure backed up by a 1943 Texas law passed in part as an act of wartime solidarity, in appreciation of Latin American support for the anti-Nazi cause.
Hindu and Korean vanished in 1950, but Korean returned in 1970 along with an “Other” category. In 1980, “Vietnamese,” “Asian Indian,” and “Guamanian” became races, and the government started classifying people as Hispanic or not-Hispanic over and above their racial designation. Only in 1990 did the Census hit upon the idea of lumping a bunch of people together into a catchall “Asian” race. In 2000 they gave us the “two or more races” category.
The point of this long-winded recitation is simply that with the important exception of the black/white dichotomy, America has never operated with a stable conception of race. The factoid that 50 percent of our latest baby crop is other than non-Hispanic white is true only relative to the 2000 census scheme. There’s no reason to believe that this particular categorization will continue as bureaucratic practice or social reality.
Well, except for the fact that the incentives have shifted for minorities themselves. To be “granted” white status today means something very different (and something less obviously desirable) than it did in 1943. It means gaining a majoritarian identity, yes, but it also means giving up various privileges in hiring, admissions and so on — privileges that are defended by networks of activists and institutions that would themselves diminish or disappear if a category like “Hispanic” went the way of “mulatto” and “octoroon.” And the power of these incentives and interest groups means that even if the social reality changes in ways that make our current racial and ethnic classifications increasingly out-of-date (not that “Hispanic” is a particularly coherent category to begin with), it’s easy to imagine the bureaucratic practice simply grinding on, in government and the private sector alike — inviting people who might otherwise identify as “just another white guy” (or white woman, in Elizabeth Warren’s case) to identify as minorities instead, in order to claim the benefits to which their increasingly-distant ethnic patrimony entitles them (not to mention making their institutions look better on “federally-mandated diversity statistics”).

This is the irony of our situation: The same kind of affirmative-action programs that will look increasingly ridiculous in a majority-minority America are also what promise to usher that majority-minority America into existence in the first place. Maybe it will be otherwise, and the babies currently being identified by the Census as hyphenated Americans will drop the hyphens as they grow up, apply to schools, enter the workforce and so on. But even Yglesias himself acknowledges that when he filled out his 2010 census form, he identified as “of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin,” despite feeling like “a bit of a fraud.” Why he did so is his own business, but if affirmative action as we know it endures for another quarter century, I expect that many of the minority Americans currently being born will do exactly the same thing. They’ll feel a bit bogus identifying as anything other than generic Americans when they grow up, but they’ll do it anyway – because that’s what the system expects from them, and what all of its incentives are designed to reward.
Source: Ross Douthat, The New York Times

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