Over time, however, as new immigrants entered the country and old ones gained access to levers of power and influence, the boundaries grew to include them. As Painter explains, “In their penury and apparent strangeness, the new [Southern and Eastern European] immigrants after 1880 made Irish and Germans immigrants and … their more prosperous, better-educated descendants seem acceptably American.”
It’s hard to say history is repeating itself—the circumstances of the early 21st century are vastly different from those of the late 19th—but the current period does seem to rhyme with the past. Over the last 50 years of large-scale Latino and Asian immigration, we’ve seen waves of anti-immigrant hysteria (Proposition 187 in California and the minutemen along the Mexican border), attempts to keep high-achieving immigrants and their children out of elite institutions, and intermarriage leading to assimilation—one of the most famous comedians in the world, Louis C.K., is half-Mexican, but to most Americans, he’s just a white guy.
Which is to say that, before we begin to say anything about our majority-minority future, we have to consider the ways in which our existing social dynamics and racial boundaries will change in response to the demographic shift.
Going forward, will white Hispanics see themselves as part of a different race—light-skinned but distinct from whites—or will they see themselves as another kind of white? Will the government treat them as white in its forms and surveys, and will so-called traditional white Americans understand them as such? What about the children of mixed marriages? As Pew points out, we live in an age of intermarriage. More than 15 percent of new marriages are between partners of different races, and the large majority of them are Hispanic and Asian “out marriage” to whites. Will these children retain a racial identity, or will they join the vast tapestry of American whiteness?
These are critical questions, since—in a country where white Hispanics are just white, and Asians intermarry at high rates—the white population of the United States could stay steady or actually grow.
Of course, not all Hispanics and Asians will enter the white mainstream. We don’t see them in popular culture, but there are sharp racial and class divisions in both groups. Low-income, dark-skinned Latinos and Pacific Islanders, for instance, face prejudice, racism, and a huge array of socio-economic challenges. And going forward, that might stay the same, as their fair-skinned, more affluent counterparts “become” white. Or, put another way, now might be the last time we have a public debate over the whiteness of a figure like George Zimmerman. To Americans of 2050, the answer would be obvious: “Of course he is.”
Pew ends its description of our changing demographics with a small rhetorical flourish: “We were once a black and white country. Now, we’re a rainbow.”
Or are we? After all, while we see the 19th century as a world of blacks and whites, that wasn’t true for Americans at the time. They saw their United States as diverse as we see ours—a hodgepodge of races and ethnicities, with blacks as the insoluble element. The difference was their construction of race, which placed various Europeans on a convoluted hierarchy of racial difference.
Our hierarchies are a little flatter, and—in public life, at least—we aren’t as obsessed with racial boundaries. But both still exist, and they take a familiar form: whites at the top, blacks at the bottom. The future could make a collection of minorities the majority in America, or it could broaden our definition of white, leaving us with a remix of the black-and-white binary. A country where some white people are Asian, some are Hispanic, and the dark-skinned citizens of America—and blacks especially—is still a world apart.
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