Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer


July 6, 1998


By the middle of the next century, a nation conceived by white people and for white people will be, according to the best estimates, less than half white.

As white skin or European ancestry flickers as a beacon of American identity, belief in the so-called American creed is left shining as the single generally agreed-upon expression of that identity.

But will a shared faith in freedom, justice and opportunity be enough to bind a nation no longer in the sway of its historic racial majority? And can that creed carry that nation beyond the shadow of race cast upon it since the birth of the nation?

These are questions of race and national identity that will be contested in both the public sphere – in battles over what holidays are celebrated and how history is taught – and in the individual hearts, minds and psyches of Americans and those becoming American, people like Marleny Rivera, Eric Liu, Lorrina Duffy, Helen Michler, Julio Contreras and Christopher Le Mon.

Growing up in Huntington Beach, Calif., Marleny Rivera, 22, simply wanted to be white, American – she uses the terms interchangeably – like virtually everyone else in that affluent Orange County community.

While both her birth parents are Colombian, Rivera was adopted there by a Colombian man and white American woman (of Scottish and Italian descent) who brought her to the United States when she was 5.

To achieve her objective, Rivera says, “I felt a need to be affiliated with my mother’s side of the family.”

She kept her father, with his thick accent and landscaping business, in the background. As Rivera, who graduated this spring from the University of California, Santa Cruz, explains: “If your dad’s a gardener, basically it’s not a fun way to grow up in Huntington Beach.”

She endeavored to look like a white American in the way she dressed (Banana Republic), wore her hair, composed her face (“You can do it, it’s easy, I’ve studied it”) and acted (student government, athletics).

“I was just very, very American and [the other students] wouldn’t consider me as anything but American, and that’s what I had worked so hard to do,” says Rivera. She was part of “white culture,” she says.

But, she says, “Finally, now that I’ve accomplished that, I have this real sick sensation in my stomach. What have I done? Now that I’m here, I don’t like myself for it.

“The funny thing is that when I look at myself, I don’t think in terms of American.” In fact, Rivera, who considers herself more of a world citizen, says “the term American makes me cringe.”

In his book “The Accidental Asian,” Eric Liu, the child of Chinese immigrants, found that because he worked toward upper-middle-class success in America, and achieved it, he was considered “white, by acclamation.”

But, he says, he believes the insinuation that someone who is not white is betraying his true identity for simply “moving toward the center of American life” is both unfair and dated.

“The meaning of `American’ has undergone a revolution in the 29 years I have been alive, a revolution of color, class and culture,” he writes. “Yet the vocabulary of `assimilation’ has remained fixed all this time: fixed in whiteness, which is still our metonym for power; and fixed in shame, which is what the colored are expected to feel for embracing the power.’

Likewise, novelist and essayist Bharati Mukherjee, who immigrated from Calcutta first to Iowa City, Iowa, in 1961 and eventually to San Francisco, wrote last year in Mother Jones magazine: “I am an American, not an Asian-American. My rejection of hyphenation has been called Race Treachery, but it is really a demand that America deliver the promise of its dream to all its citizens equally.”

The sorts of racial anxieties faced by Rivera, Liu and Mukherjee on their way to American success pale in comparison to America’s real racial dilemma, says Queens College sociologist Stephen Steinberg, author of The Ethnic Myth and other books on race. “In the end the color line between black and white is the most serious and unbridgeable division.”

For Asians and Hispanics, he says, “One of the lessons of history is that groups once considered pariahs and perceived as racially `other’ come to be accepted as white. Money bleaches. There is truth in that epigram. Many Asians are already functionally white.’

Even after a lifetime studying racial dynamics in America, William H. Grier, the black psychiatrist who co-authored the 1968 book “Black Rage,” says the length and reach of whiteness is hard to calculate.

“A well-educated, well-dressed man from southern India who strides over here, black as the ace of spades, expects to be treated well and is treated well and nobody bats an eye. Talk about a puzzlement,” says Grier. “Are Indian Hindus honorary whites? I’m not sure I know, and that’s my business.”

“You tell me who looks like an immigrant. It’s not someone who is white. It’s someone from Latin America or Asia,” says Lorrina Duffy, 21, who grew up in El Monte, a mostly Latino immigrant community just east of Los Angeles.

Duffy is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother and white father.

In America today, she says, a lot of people “think American equals white,” and many of her friends return the sentiment. “They don’t want to be American,” she says.

“I know who I am,” says Duffy, who, like Rivera, just graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz – in her case with a degree in both American and Latino studies. “I am a person of mixed heritage – white with blond hair and totally Mexican.”

And, she says, “I know the history of America. I know the atrocities it has committed.”

But, she adds, she cherishes the freedom and opportunity America offers. “There is no other country in the world I can say I want to be in,” says Duffy.

A story in The Aurora (Ill.) Daily Beacon of Aug. 10, 1910, announced that the city sanitary inspector would be visiting the various Romanian boardinghouses in town to personally inspect the “inmates,” to make sure they were abiding by the new health regulation requiring that foreigners take a weekly bath or face arrest.

Around the turn of the last century, during the last great wave of immigrants, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, Italians were lynched and the Ku Klux Klan held political sway not just in the South but in Indiana, Ohio and Oregon. Theodore Roosevelt warned in his inaugural address of race suicide (the race being Anglo-Saxon), and Calvin Coolidge wrote in Good Housekeeping in defense of “Nordic” nationalism in an article headlined “Whose Country Is This?”

When Coolidge signed legislation dramatically restricting immigration in 1924, the Los Angeles Times headline read, “Nordic Victory Is Seen in Drastic Reduction.”

Writer Lawrence Auster says the descendants of that last great wave of immigration have forgotten that the post-1924 cutback in immigration is what calmed American anger toward the newest arrivals, and gave them the time and space to become American.

But now, says Auster, anyone like himself, descended from that immigrant generation, is considered an ingrate and a racist for suggesting a similar pause in immigration today to absorb the record immigration of the last 30 years. (“When people accuse me of being a self-hating Jew, I say, `No, I’m the one I like.’)

Even less acceptable on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he lives, says Auster, is the argument he made in his 1990 pamphlet “The Path to National Suicide: An Essay on Immigration and Multiculturalism.” In it he argues that America is a “European-rooted civilization,” historically mostly inhabited by people of European ancestry, which, just like any other country, has the right to preserve that identity.

Gerald Early, director of the African and Afro-American studies program at Washington University in St. Louis, posed this question in a recent essay: “What does it mean to be an American in an age when white male supremacy – a political convenience that attempted to become an ideology and that held the nation together for so long and so successfully but at such incredible costs – is now being so thoroughly challenged and is now slowly but surely entering a kind of twilight?”

It is especially hard to say for those who have waited the longest for the sun to set on white supremacy.

According to the projections, as the white share of the population plummets in the next half-century, and the Hispanic and Asian shares soar, the proportion of Americans who are black remains almost the same.

And, if history is a guide, newcomers tend to stake their claim to American identity by establishing their distance from blacks, not their affinity for them.

And yet, Early notes, blacks are arguably more American than anybody else and more devoted to its ideals, because they hold the promise of liberation.

As described by Samuel Huntington, the eminent Harvard University political scientist, the American creed entails a belief in “liberty, democracy, individualism, equality before the law, constitutionalism, private property.”

But the creed, says Huntington, “was a product of a particular culture, a Northern European, largely British, Protestant culture, and I think the question is how viable and how vigorous will the creed remain if the underlying culture is changed and we do become, to a very considerable extent, a multicultural society. I guess I have a certain skepticism as to whether those political principles will be able to maintain their vitality.”

Without a cultural core, Huntington says, no country can long survive.

But political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza of the Tomas Rivera Center at the University of Texas says Latinos are changing America culturally while remaining as committed as any American to the democratic and constitutional values that constitute the creed.

As Bertha Manzos, a Mexican immigrant who works helping newer arrivals in Aurora sort out their lives, puts it: “I don’t think the Hispanic community is going to change the Constitution of the United States. Coming from Mexico, where they do not believe in the Constitution, they are grateful to be here.”

Helen Michler’s family came to America before there was a Constitution. One ancestor, Capt. John Long, was a Minuteman from Shelburne Falls, Mass. She wonders what the Founding Fathers would say if they were to survey the condition of their nation today.

“I worry about that,” says Michler, a member of Daughters of the American Revolution, just after marching in Aurora’s Memorial Day Parade. Aurora, due west of Chicago, is now close to 30 percent Hispanic.

“I worry about it because of the immigration, more and more, and I wonder if they will feel the same loyalty to the country as those from the families that created the country,” says Michler. “Are they going to be willing to do what those generations did to bring this country about?”

Today’s immigrants, Michler says, “come for the money and freedom they don’t have in their country, but are they going to lay down their life for this country?

“Would I die for my country? You bet I would.”

Michler has put her finger on a problem.

A nation is known by the enemies it keeps and the American Century has known some great ones, from fascism to communism, but right now the nation is between great enemies.

“You need an `other’ out there, and Saddam Hussein really doesn’t measure up,’ says Huntington, the political scientist from Harvard.

Julio Contreras, 22, grew up in Aurora the son of Mexican immigrants. A couple of years ago, he started to read Chicano history. “At first I felt a lot of hate. I hated America. I hated everything they’ve done to our people.”

But over time he took a more balanced view. His parents reminded him that “compared to a lot of nations, America really takes care of its people – welfare, Social Security, paved streets, public parks.”

Contreras, who just finished community college and will be starting work on his bachelor’s degree in the fall, worries about the negative stereotyping of Hispanics in his hometown – as gang members, as troublemakers – and he has made a concerted effort to present the white world around him a countervailing image.

When he got a security job at the Fox Valley Mall, friends said he was “selling out” his people, but he didn’t see it that way.

“The first day of work a little white boy got lost. I said to myself, `Please let me find him, please let me find him,’ and I did.’

His aim: to leave one white mother with the vivid image that “not all Mexicans are bad. `I remember that kid at the mall, he found my little Joey.’

The largest-ever study of the children of immigrants – in San Diego and Miami – has found that most of those young people reject a simply American identity and that the longer they are here, the less likely they are to want even a hyphenated American identity.

Instead, Michigan State University sociologist Ruben Rumbaut found that between 1992 and 1995 the Hispanic, black and Asian immigrant children, chastened by the experience of discrimination in America, increasingly chose to identify themselves by their race or nation of origin.

But, at the same time, Rumbaut found the percentage of those young people who believed that “there is no better country to live in than the United States” rose from 60 percent to 72 percent.

“I know a lot of white students feel they don’t have any identity,” says Christopher Le Mon, who just finished his sophomore year at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “For white immigrants, one generation of intermarriage and it’s over. All of a sudden you’re just a white man.”

“I have my pride in my Irish ancestry [there is French on his father’s side as well], but I’m a purebred American. I think I couldn’t pick a better country in the world,” says Le Mon.

But, he adds, “I don’t know if there is any one American identity anymore. We don’t just have one common history, we have so many stories to tell. That makes it very difficult sometimes, but it also makes it such a great place.”

Le Mon, a native of Washington, D.C., says he looks forward to America’s changing demographics, to the coming loss of majority.

“I’m hoping it will fundamentally change the country,” he says. “I’m crossing my fingers. I don’t think it’s going to erase racism overnight, but I think when all of a sudden there is no clear majority, people will have to turn around and think twice.”

Ultimately, he says, “I think the key to solving this problem is everyone should marry someone of another race.” Le Mon recently started dating a Cambodian immigrant.

His American dream: that people’s racial and ethnic identities grow so complicated that, if out of nothing more than fatigue, the cry goes up, “Let’s quit, give up and say, `I’m an American,’ and `I’m an American, too, that’s cool.’


In 2050, a majority of minorities?

July 5, 1998


Newhouse News Service | Page: A12 | Section: News

Demography, so the saying goes, is destiny.

But, when it comes to projecting population changes a half century into the future, it is more a matter of educated guesswork that may, as history unfolds, prove wrong in some respects. Nonetheless, for the time being it represents the best available guess.

The most recent and most sophisticated projection of the U.S. population was provided last year by a special panel of the National Research Council that had been asked by the federal Commission on Immigration Reform to examine the demographic, economic and fiscal consequences of immigration. Here, in brief, is what they concluded with regard to America’s changing population:

The non-Hispanic white population _ those people popularly known as ”whites” _ will shrink from 74 percent of the population in 1995 to 51 percent in 2050. That is as far as they project, but the trend would seem to mark the end of white majority sometime not too long after that.

In raw numbers, the U.S. population will grow by 124 million to an estimated 387 million in 2050, but the white population will have grown by less than 8 million.

Over the same period, blacks’ share of the U.S. population would increase to 14 percent from 12 percent, the Asian population to 8 percent from 3 percent and the Hispanic population to 26 percent from 10 percent. (Native Americans are a separate category, but too small to affect these calculations and were not included in the study.)

Hispanics, however, are not technically a race. In the 1990 Census, a little better than half counted themselves as racially white, and 40 percent as racially ”other.” But in matters of public policy and popular culture, Hispanics are now treated as equivalents to the racial categories, and in all these calculations, Hispanics are not counted in the white category.

The biggest factor propelling population change is immigration and the 2050 projection is based on immigration, now mostly from Latin America and Asia, continuing at current levels. By contrast, if all immigration were to end tomorrow, whites would be 62 percent of the population in 2050 instead of the predicted 51 percent.

The NRC panel factored in different fertility rates by race and by generations in the United States. So whites have the lowest fertility rates (below replacement level), but the gap between whites and Hispanic birthrates narrows, and with Asians, closes by the third generation.

On the other end of the life cycle, Asians and Hispanics live a bit longer than whites, who live longer than blacks.

The biggest wild card in the projections may be intermarriage, and then how those children of intermarriage identify themselves racially.

Whites marry outside their race the least, followed by blacks, and in both cases it is immigrant whites and especially immigrant blacks who are the most likely to intermarry.

By contrast, Asian and Hispanic intermarriage rates soar after the first generation, and by the third and fourth generation more than half of both groups marry out.

When intermarried couples have children, the next question is how that child is identified. When blacks marry someone of another race, more than 60 percent of the children keep the black identity. The same is true for Hispanic. But when whites intermarry, only about 40 percent keep the white identity. The same is also true of Asians.

Altogether, the panel estimates that 21 percent of the U.S. population will be of mixed ancestry in 2050, compared with only 7 percent today.


Written by jonathantilove

July 24, 2022 at 4:43 am

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