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

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?

And now, in Minnesota, we’ve started talking in terms of “traditional African Americans,” and what we mean is, those people whose ancestors were brought from West Africa and made to work for free for a few centuries in the South, and then their families immigrated to the North — or didn’t.

One of the things that will decline over time is the demand that the society or the government bring forth a particularized racial remedy based on a history of deprivation. That will be even more difficult to do in the future.

Now, I’m not saying that I advocate that. Like I told you, I believe in affirmative action. But I believe it will become more difficult. That’s why it will become more important to propose economic solutions that will benefit a broad cross section of American working- and middle-class people and the poor, but to make sure in the implementation that these benefits are shared.

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

KE: Honestly, it won’t affect anything I do. My district is, like, 10 or 11 percent African American now. After redistricting, it will probably go up to about 13 percent. My district right now is [nearly] 75 percent white, and guess what? Steve Cohen [D-Tenn.], who’s white, represents a district that’s [60] percent black, and there have been African Americans who have run race-specific campaigns against him, and he beats them because he serves his constituents, and they’re smart enough to know they need real outcomes, not just symbolic leadership.

You won’t be able to win elections anymore by making race-based appeals. The dog-whistle stuff that the Romney campaign is doing — it’s not going to make sense. People are going to start calling it out.

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

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