Red, Brown, and Blue

Article excerpt

Byline: Ellis Cose

America's color lines are shifting.

Would America be so different if blacks, Latinos, and people of Asian descent collectively became the new majority? It's not an idle question. According to the most recent U.S. Census projections, that's precisely where the United States is likely headed--by 2050 or thereabouts. It's important to distinguish this from concerns around the decennial Census scheduled for this year. Communities of color have a history of being undercounted, so advocates are mobilizing to make sure the new count is as accurate as possible. Those numbers, after all, confer power--via allocation of federal dollars and reapportionment of political representation. The Census projections have no power at all. And, truth be told, the future they imagine is unlikely to ever come to pass. For while the projections say much about our current racial assumptions, they are a poor measure for what lies ahead.

In America's early days, it was virtually impossible to conceive of a citizen as being other than white. The first U.S. naturalization act made whiteness a condition of gaining citizenship. So courts heard case after case from would-be white people who appeared to be something else. In 1922, a Japanese national who had lived in the United States for 20 years told the Supreme Court that most Japanese hailed from Caucasian "root stocks." The high court disagreed. Next year, a high-caste Hindu claimed he too was white. The justices found him no more persuasive.

This was during a time when even Europeans were divided into lesser and better grades of white. Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Jews were, in many quarters, deemed to be of altogether different (and inferior) stock. Such ideas, though preposterous, defined debate and shaped immigration laws.

In an essay titled "How Did Jews Become White Folks?" anthropologist Karen Brodkin Sacks asks: "Did Jews and other Euroethnics become white because they became middle class? E Or did being incorporated in an expanded version of whiteness open up the economic doors to middle-class status?" Both tendencies, she concluded, were at work. But her larger point is that nothing about race is static.

That's even more obvious today. A few generations back, racially mixed couples were an anomaly. …