The Trayvon Martin shooting was hardly in the national consciousness before fault lines emerged around the case. Was Martin as innocent as he seemed? Did Zimmerman fear for his life? Did Martin provoke the incident? Was Zimmerman a racist?
Perhaps most controversial among all of these was the question of identity. Yes, Trayvon Martin was black, but is Zimmerman white? For Martin’s sympathizers, the answer was yes. For Zimmerman’s, the answers ranged from “it doesn’t matter” to he “is actually a Hispanic nonracist person who acted in self-defense.”
In their early reports on the case, both CNN and the New York Times labeled him “white Hispanic,” sparking thunderous condemnation from right-wing critics. At Fox News, contributor Bernard Goldberg accused the Times of race-baiting. “I guarantee you that if George Zimmerman did something good—if he finished first in his high school graduating class when he was younger—they wouldn’t refer to him as a white Hispanic, he’d just be a Hispanic,” he wrote. Likewise, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg blasted several news outlets for “playing the race card” with the term. And in typical paranoid style, Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro accused CNN of “labeling Zimmerman a ‘white Hispanic’ in order to maintain the false narrative that the killing was race-based.”
For good reason, this debate—whether the half-Peruvian Zimmerman was “Hispanic” or “white”—was quickly overshadowed by the activism and acrimony around Martin’s killing. But it’s not unimportant, as it reflects the tension and confusion over race in a changing America and offers a 21st-century spin on one of the oldest questions in American life: Who is white? This debate is useful to keep in mind as we sift through the information in the Pew Research Center’s new—and massive—look at America’s shifting demographics.
According to Pew—and echoing the results in the last census—the United States is just a few decades away from its demographic inflection point. Come 2050, only 47 percent of Americans will call themselves white, while the majority will belong to a minority group. Blacks will remain steady at 13 percent of the population, while Asians will grow to 8 percent. Hispanics, on the other hand, will explode to 28 percent of all U.S. population, up from 19 percent in 2010. Immigration is driving this “demographic makeover,” specifically the “40 million immigrants who have arrived since 1965, about half of them Hispanics and nearly three-in-ten Asians.”
But the thing to remember about the Hispanic category, for instance, is that it contains a wide range of colors and ethnicities. In the United States, Hispanics (or more broadly Latinos) include Afro-Brazilians, dark-skinned Puerto Ricans, indigenous Mexicans, Venezuelan mestizos, and European Argentinians, among others.
To say that America will become a majority-minority country is to erase these distinctions and assume that, for now and forever, Latinos will remain a third race, situated next to “non-Hispanic blacks” and “non-Hispanic whites.” But, as the Zimmerman controversy illustrates, it’s not that simple.
American racial categories are far from fixed, and who counts as white is extremely fluid. “A hundred years ago,” writes Ian Haney López in Dog Whistle Politics, “firm racial lines elevated Anglo-Saxons over the supposedly degenerate races from southern and eastern Europe.” For a large chunk of the 19th century—and a good deal of the 20th—America’s intellectual energy was devoted to policing the boundaries of “whiteness.” Race “scientists” like William Z. Ripley measured human skulls and examined living standards to delineate the “races” of Europe, linking head shape to supposedly racial qualities like beauty and intelligence. Others used these supposedly objective factors to exclude a variety of different groups—Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans—from the American racial category, envisioned as a white person of British or German stock. “White race taxonomy,” writes Nell Irvin Painter in The History of White People, “was evolving into notions of immigration restriction and eugenics.”