Anxiety Over Racial Changes: Nothing New

Browner America: But demographic shifts might not mean more black political power, Jelani Cobb says.

So people also focus on the number, but the nativist paranoia that some whites have — that society is going to change, that it won’t be the same America — is, not coincidentally, the same perspective that Anglo-Saxon whites had in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when they were being outnumbered not by people of color but by different types of white people from different parts of Europe. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said it was the duty of every Anglo-Saxon woman to have as many children as she could.

That was also one of the reasons why the initial opposition to abortion in the country took place, because people were concerned that the native-born white population would not increase fast enough and abortion would diminish the number of Anglo-Saxons in American society. So it’s the same kind of paranoia that occurred when people were confronted with the Italians, the Irish and other people who were coming to the United States in large numbers then that we see currently when we look at some of the nativist concerns about immigration, the Arizona bill and the immigration law that passed in Alabama. Those are echoes of things we’ve heard before. It’s the same group fear with the same pure numerical basis.

TR: As more Americans have nonwhite ancestry, will the definition of whiteness itself be affected?

JC: No. I think the definition of whiteness in this country has always been fluid. It’s always been subjective, and these dynamics won’t make it change any more than it already has. There’s never been a unified idea of whiteness. For example, a person who’s white anywhere else might not be white in New Orleans.

Even well into the 20th century, there were restrictive covenants that would prevent Jews from living in certain areas. There was residential segregation. Now, in America, people think of Jews as just one particular variety of white person — just like a person of Italian descent, Irish or Eastern European. The definition has always been fluid. It’s hard to predict how it will change in the future, but that it will continue to change is not that hard to see.

TR: Do you see the demographic trends continuing, and if they do, will that affect the work you do?

JC: Besides, of course, that there will be more people in the African-American-studies department, I honestly don’t know whether they will.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Roots staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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