The Changing American Race

Last Friday I was on the deck of the decommissioned USS Midway in San Diego bay to see about 90 sailors and marines take the oath of citizenship. The Navy Band Southwest performed and four sailors paraded the colors. The ceremony was rich in military tradition but it was also a picture of a changing America that lots of people find unsettling.

Yes, there were one or two immigrants from Europe who became Americans that day. One from Italy and one from Poland, as I recall. But the vast majority were Asian, African, Latin American or Caribbean. It was hard to find a white person among them.

There are still an awful lot of white people in this country and they still dominate positions of power and status. But that’s a reality that may not last long. So I wonder, what does it mean to be white and what will become of me and my fellow Caucasians?

If you watch Fox News you see white people acting pissed off as they spend great energy blasting the Obama administration. Barack Obama is a bit like those sailors on the Midway. He’s scary because he is a powerful symbol of our country’s future, which is non-white and culturally complex.

But the feelings of the angry conservative white man don’t tell the whole story. For instance, post-election polls show that if white people had been the only ones voting in California in 2008 we would have approved gay marriage. A Canadian comic and blogger named Christian Lander wrote a book called “Stuff White People Like.” His list of stuff includes Barack Obama, coffee, The New Yorker Magazine, bike shops and recycling. Clearly, he’s talking about highly educated white people living in blue states or large urban areas.

The American notion of being “white” is a strange one, though it’s not unheard of outside our borders. I assume our national whiteness was created to define who was a free person back in the days of American slavery. There were white and black people and not much in between.

The burgeoning ethnic variations now living together inside the U.S. have made it harder and harder to determine who or what is really white. Speaking of the old world, if white people begin in Europe where do they end? An Iranian acquaintance once told me that the Persian people where white but everyone to the south or east were not. He imagined a kind of Persian line of demarcation. Compare that worldview to the small town in the Midwest, where I grew up, which was so ethnically northern European that Italians were people of color.

The great white race will become something quite different, worldwide, as birth rates in Europe decline and the developing world industrializes. We’ll become fewer and less powerful. Ultimately, this could mean Fox News gets fewer viewers or it could mean countries like the Netherlands become more religious and more conservative.

Race is one in a long list of things humans have used to decide who are members of their tribe. Once it was family, then it was language, then religion, then nation, then skin color. Sadly, in the U.S. today, social class may be the most powerful determinant of our caste. It largely determines where you live, what car you drive and how you vote.

As long as I live, I’m sure skin color will continue to determine a part of what we are. That will change with time. But tribal instincts are too strongly ingrained in us to ever let us look at every human being and conclude that person is just “one of us.”

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4 Comments on “The Changing American Race”

  1. John Kissane Says:

    Tom,

    Having grown up in the same small Midwestern town as you, and having moved to the deep South where at my children’s high school white kids compose less than a quarter of the total enrollment, I share your interest in this subject. (I would say the only significant regret I have about my childhood is that it was so homogeneous… that and the fact that not even one time did I best you on the tennis court!) There are big problems, of all varieties, down here in Georgia, and I don’t believe I’ll ever adjust to viewpoints held by many Southern whites. But nevertheless, the experiences my children are having in the public schools lift my spirits. As just one example, this spring my 9th grade son played varsity soccer on a team composed of ten Hispanics, two African-Americans, one Bangladeshi, a Spanish exchange student and six whites. I loved looking over the roster and seeing all the different names, and more than that I loved the way the 20 kids became a unified team and developed good friendships with seemingly no regard for skin color or economic status. Most of the non-white families in this town are poor and the high school drop-out rate is alarming, and I can’t say I’ve see much improvement in these areas since I came here 23 years ago. But it’s really true that, when parents don’t get in the way, our children can teach us a lot. That at least is something hopeful for the future.

    (P.S. I’m really glad I stumbled across your blog and look forward to reading more.)

  2. Greg Duch Says:

    Tom,

    The composers of the US Constitution created one of the greatest compacts in history among a people governed and those who would do the governing.

    The very concept of a Bill of Rights was a great leap forward in the concept of self-government.

    Yet, as marvelously eloquent and LIBERAL as the words of the Constitution and subsequent amending Bill of Rights appear, we cannot forget how far reality has diverged from those ideals committed to parchment in 1787.

    BUILDING SOCIETY ON THE BACKS OF BLACKS
    The overwhelming majority of today’s African-Americans would not be here; were it not for the very active and profitable slave trade which first brought Africans to the colonies in 1619.*

    *(with the notable exception of a person like Barack Obama, whose family history is unique).

    It seems that immigrant labor was greeted warmly in the Americas, as slave ships ripped hundreds of thousands of West Africans from their families in their homelands. They were packed up, chained and shipped in cargo holds to North America to pick tobacco and cotton.

    Africans were mere property, bought and sold as any other commodity is bought and sold.

    Once the slave became the property of the slaveholder, the slave’s existence depended upon the master entirely. To attempt escape could mean several bullets in the back.

    Even after slavery was formally outlawed, citizen soldiers formed well-regulated armed militias to protect the endangered white southerner from the ex-slaves. I believe they called their militia the Ku Klux Klan. Can’t underestimate that right to bear arms, in protecting those at risk of attack.

    This abominable situation of human enslavement was given constitutional legitimacy by our enlightened founding fathers. Enslavement of the African has left a legacy of tragedy, which has passed from generation to generation.

    RED-BLED, FLED, OR DEAD
    The redman who once roamed the Americas from sea to shining sea unfettered, have ultimately been gathered up and penned into micro-colonies, we call reservations. It took the introduction of the horse and firearm into North America by the Spanish and English to accomplish this task over the centuries.

    Today, the redman exists in near total obscurity and irrelevance in US society.
    (The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1987 gave at least one means of economic autonomy to the Redman). The eradication and segregation of the Redman in North America was as effective a process of ethnic cleansing as has been seen anywhere in the world.

    YELLOW
    World War II gave that great American liberal president FDR reason to imprison hundreds of thousands of yellow-skinned folks inside internment camps.

    The Nisei Japanese were deemed a threat to national security during WWII. They were imprisoned for the duration of the war with Japan, based upon “probable cause”.

    BROWN-
    It is now time for people of Mexican heritage to become society’s great existential threat to the SUPREMACY OF THE WHITE MAN.

    The irrational and obsessive rhetoric towards the Mexican give damning evidence to the hatred and the fear that has always been just below the skin of the white race in America.

    Black, Red, Yellow, and Brown, each in their time, have been forced into flight.
    Cause in this country, only white has been the color that’s always maintained the might,
    enabling him
    to claim that he always has been right.

    The words of the Declaration of Independence and the precepts of the Constitution are enlightened, humane, democratic, pluralistic, and awe-inspiring.

    Yet as always, actions speak louder than words. The words of our founding documents have been eradicated or muted when necessary to preserve the power of the ruling class.

  3. GEorge Drake Says:

    Tom,

    I am quite impressed with your comments, which are more nuanced than many of this subject. The days of the dominant white man indeed are numbered, but “he” will continue to make important contributions to our society as you point out.

  4. linda henry Says:

    Since Tom left These Days (With Tom Fudge) on KPBS, I’ve been harassing the KPBS staff to bring Tom back. These Days has lost everything he created on that valuable program.

    BUT now I have the great privilege to read Tom’s thoughts. And they are rich and complex. The ability and desire to put “pen to paper” on such deep issues is an exhilarating and rewarding experience for both the writer and the reader. Tom does it with rare compassion, intelligence and broad-mindedness — something this world desperately needs.

    So, maybe I will be harassing KPBS less often, and reading Tom’s brilliant written pieces instead. I miss the voice, but I’m coming to realize the alternative may fulfill my need for his intelligent outlook on life.

    I’ll be sharing his blog site with like-minded friends and family who will also benefit from reading his pieces.

    (ps: forgive my typos and misspelling, please!)


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