Will 'White' and 'Black' Lose Their Meaning?

Browner America: Rep. Keith Ellison says the new focus will be on who is "structurally left behind."

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But you also asked about the negative side. We also know South Africa existed for a long time with a white minority. So just because people of color will be majority does not mean they'll be the power majority.

TR: The idea that America will be a "majority minority" nation gets a lot of attention. Is there anything you wish people would focus on instead of, or in addition to, the numbers?

KE: I believe the hard edge of racism has undeniably softened. It hasn't disappeared, but it's not like 1860. But one of the things that has gotten harder and more harsh is economic inequality. Over the past 30 years, what you've seen is the democratization of poverty and economic hardship.

Here's what I believe people need to work on: We need to identify pockets of Americans who remain structurally left behind. And what I mean is, the [difference in the] rate of incarceration between blacks and whites is still very high. The [difference in the] rate of unemployment is still very high. We need to find ways to deal with that.

And we might not need a race-specific remedy to solve that problem. For example, if we just invested in transit in my district in Minnesota, it would allow communities of color to access jobs in suburban areas. It would allow minority contractors to be in on constructing the transit.

You don't even necessarily need a race-specific thing, although I do believe in affirmative action. What we've got to do is make a case to all Americans that we really can't afford to just ignore whole factions. We have to make the case that our society writ large is going to suffer if we continue to allow these racial disparities to exist.

TR: As more Americans have nonwhite ancestry, will the definition of whiteness itself be affected, or will we need a new word for "minority"?

KE: Both of those things will be true. At the end of the day, I'm not sure we'll be using the word "minority" anymore. It may just sort of become an anachronism. There is a chance that white people might be able to reclaim their own heritage for the first time in many years.

What is it to be white? It does mean something to be Norwegian. It means something to be Polish or German or Spanish. But "white" is simply a catchall for "light-skinned person." It doesn't really mean anything. It's basically an invention to suit the slaveocracy in America during [the] antebellum [period], and it still works today because of that legacy of Jim Crow ... So yes, the idea of whiteness might decline in terms of its meaning as well.

And in my district, for example, it's difficult even to just say "black" people. We have the highest percentage of Somalis in the whole country. We're either first or second in the number of Liberians. The reality is, when you say "black" people, who are you talking about? The Somalis? The Liberians?

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