However, both perspectives are grounded in a short-term understanding of how race has historically worked in the United States.
A long-term view demonstrates how race is a dynamic process, one that evolves and changes, in response to the political needs and questions of a given moment. As such, who is considered "white" for example, is a reflection of a given arrangement of social and political power: "Whiteness" and who is considered "white" are not fixed or immutable categories.
Truisms and common sense understandings of race do not make them empirically true. New research from the Pew Research Center on the changing racial identities of Hispanic-Americans would appear to upset the "majority-minority" narrative which has come to dominate the media (and the public's) understanding of the color line in the Age of Obama.
The New York Times reports:
An estimated net 1.2 million Americans of the 35 million Americans identified in 2000 as of “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin,” as the census form puts it, changed their race from “some other race” to “white” between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, according to research presented at an annual meeting of the Population Association of America and reported by Pew Research.
The researchers, who have not yet published their findings, compared individual census forms from the 2000 and 2010 censuses. They found that millions of Americans answered the census questions about race and ethnicity differently in 2000 and 2010. The largest shifts were among Americans of Hispanic origin, who are the nation’s fastest growing ethnic group by total numbers.The Times continue with:
The data provide new evidence consistent with the theory that Hispanics may assimilate as white Americans, like the Italians or Irish, who were not universally considered to be white. It is particularly significant that the shift toward white identification withstood a decade of debate over immigration and the country’s exploding Hispanic population, which might have been expected to inculcate or reinforce a sense of Hispanic identity, or draw attention to divisions that remain between Hispanics and non-Hispanic white Americans. Research suggests that Hispanics who have experienced discrimination are less likely to identify as white.
The data also call into question whether America is destined to become a so-called minority-majority nation, where whites represent a minority of the nation’s population. Those projections assume that Hispanics aren’t white, but if Hispanics ultimately identify as white Americans, then whites will remain the majority for the foreseeable future.
The ways in which Hispanics are crossing over into Whiteness demonstrates how race is a learned concept. Here, Hispanics are embracing whiteness as a social identity--and the privileges which come with it--while mating it with their own particular history of colorism.
Social scientists have introduced new concepts such as "elevated ethnics" (African immigrants; immigrants from South and East Asia) in order to complicate and enrich our understanding of how race in America is ostensibly no longer a simple matter of "black" and "white". But in seeking to complicate (and perhaps even depart from) the theoretical framework provided by the black-white binary--a set of rules and a hierarchy that has dominated American life for centuries--we must also proceed with caution.
Pew's new research is a reminder that Whiteness (and most importantly, being perceived as "white") is still viewed as the preferred and most social desirable racial identity in the United States.
This is a function of political socialization, habit, and training.
The yearning of those immigrants who can "pass over" into Whiteness is also fueled by realpolitik: given the disparate life chances between blacks and whites, and the historic power of white supremacy to make black folks' lives a living hell, if given the choice, who would "rationally" decide to become "black"?
Race still impacts measures of social closeness in the United States. Black Americans are also ranked lowest for desirability as potential marriage partners by whites, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans.
Brother Malcolm X brilliantly observed, with his uncommon grace and candor, that the first word an immigrant to the United States learns is "nigger".
The "majority-minority" fictive narrative is compelling, but it is not able to overcome a basic fact: blacks are the bottom rung of the racial hierarchy in the United States against which all others are judged, and that many groups, quite literally, stand upon in their ascension to Whiteness.
Whiteness is a fictive category based on how one group arbitrarily defined as "white" is positioned as dominant over those others who are marked as "non-white". By definition and nature, Whiteness evolves to induct new members in order to maintain its majority status.
Whiteness must maintain power in order to have meaning as a racial category.
Consequently, it is very difficult if not impossible for the United States to conquer the inequalities of the color line unless Whiteness is destroyed because the latter's existence as a lived experience and concept is wholly dependent on maintaining in-group status, privilege, and power over people of color.
In the spirit of the comedian David Chappelle, if there is a "racial draft" in the United States "white" Hispanics and Latinos will become the newest group of official "white" people. They will be joined by "mixed race" Asians and Pacific Islanders who will also be fully inducted into the family of Whiteness.
By definition, black Americans can never be white because they are the lynch pin and cornerstone of the American racial order. Thus, a paradox: everyone wants to be "black" if it involves music, culture, and perhaps even sex. But no one really wants to be Black if it involves our lived personhood.