Will ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Lose Their Meaning?

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

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News
Mark Wilson/Getty Images News

(The Root) — Recent census data reveal that, for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half of all children born in the United States, with 50.4 percent of children under age 1 identified as Hispanic, black, Asian American or members of another ethnic minority group.

In terms of the overall population, African Americans are the second-largest minority group in the nation (after Hispanics), with a 1.6 percent increase between 2010 and 2011. Minorities now make up nearly 37 percent of the overall U.S. population, and it’s predicted that by 2042, a minority of Americans will be non-Hispanic whites.

What do all of these numbers mean for our understanding of race, for the issues that affect communities of color and for our very concept of who is a “minority” in this country? The Root has gathered a variety of perspectives on the significance of America’s becoming a browner nation for a series of interviews on whether, and why, we should pay attention to these demographic changes.

For the sixth in the series, we spoke to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim member of Congress, who has been an outspoken advocate against Islamophobia and has asserted that the GOP is “basically a bigoted party.”

The term “white,” he told The Root, is “an invention to suit the slaveocracy in America during [the] antebellum [period],” and the term “minority” “may just sort of become an anachronism.” He shared what he predicts the results of America’s demographic changes will be for race-specific policies, electoral politics and the very words we use to describe one another.

The Root: For the first time in U.S. history, most of the nation’s babies are members of minority groups, and the census has forecast that non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered in the United States by 2042. What might be the positive and negative effects of these changing demographics when it comes to issues affecting communities of color?

Keith Ellison: It all depends on whether we as a nation can overcome the legacy of disparate treatment based on race. If we can embrace all Americans without regard to race and color, it can be a great thing for the United States. I mean, the United States will be able to say to the world, “Hey, look — all the world’s people reside in the United States, and we’re ready to take advantage of their cultural, linguistic and national connections, to put the United States in the position to be the most flexible and versatile nation on the globe.”

I’m an optimistic person. The easy answer is always the cynical one … But the truth is, good things happen all the time. That’s the one thing the cynics never tell you. I have every reason to believe racial relations will continue to improve, because 170 years ago we had slavery based on race. Fifty years ago we had Jim Crow. I was born in 1963; the Voting Rights Act didn’t pass till 1965. Before that, they were legally excluding black people from the right to vote.