|Oct/Nov 2008 Salon|
We are being told that by the year 2042 America will no longer be a white-majority nation. The only a real news in this announcement is that the big day will occur ten years earlier than was previously expected. Demographics and birthrates being what they are, the change itself was inevitable. What is remarkable and worth looking at more closely are the underlying assumptions about what this tipping point means, assumptions which in turn give rise to the fear and/or self-congratulation that have greeted the announcement.
There's nothing new about Americans predicting the demise of the Republic because of an influx of non-white or at best suspiciously-ancestored peoples. It happened when the Irish arrived en masse in the early and mid-19th century and when the Germans came in the 1850s (the America-for-Americans Know Nothings called the Germans "non-whites") and then when the Italians and Eastern Europeans followed. The national fiber had been so weakened and its northern European bloodlines so polluted by the 1920s that Congress had to pass legislation severely limiting immigration by the lesser breeds of humanity. American Indians, Chinese, Latinos, and of course Americans of African descent were already and by common agreement beyond the pale.
Now we are approaching a major watershed, the day when even those who have fought so hard to be included with their British-descended betters in the whites-only club are about to become themselves a demographic minority. But apart from the hand-wringing and less demonstrative reactions in anticipation of the big day, what makes this angst so remarkable is that it will occur long after our knowledge about what makes one group of people physically different from another has blown apart the fallacy that lies at the very heart of the idea of "race."
It's said it takes about 50 years for a scientific revolution to become part of the general consciousness. In the 1950s it was still common to hear that only half a dozen people in the world understood the theory of relativity, and quantum theory was still well below our common radar screens. The series of transforming discoveries about DNA that started with Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix half a century ago are only now beginning to filter down into popular consciousness. The implications of this knowledge have obviously not penetrated the minds of even our more intelligent politicians and other public figures. If it had, the announcement about the big color shift of 2042 wouldn't be news at all.
Of course, it isn't just skin color that's causing anxiety about so-called whites becoming a minority "in their own country." There's also the fear of what comes with that darker pigmentation: a reduced general intelligence, at least in the cultural sense—the knowledge, attributes and values that get passed down from one generation of freedom-loving whites to the next. Even discounting the un-American values that immigrants bring to the mix, there is the embarrassing but persistently substandard capacity of our own homegrown non-whites to fully understand and make intelligent use of the democratic system. Even if we regret the social conditions and other reasons for this backwardness, the fact remains that these Americans, most of them, are just not ready for prime time. So the argument goes, more in the unspoken and probably not fully conscious mind rather than in the acknowledged thoughts of those who are uneasy about 2042.
But what does the new biology actually tell us? What is this new knowledge it has uncovered, knowledge the more perceptive of our species have always intuited but which now has the authority of hard science, along with some surprises that nobody could have guessed?
Not all that long ago as such things are counted, perhaps 100,000 years, our species—only one of several like us, including the Neanderthals who survived until a mere 40,000 to 50,000 years ago—for one reason or another, possibly disease, had dwindled down to about 2,000 women of child-bearing age in eastern Africa, the continent that apparently was our original birthplace. From these few thousand people, scarcely the size of a neighborhood in one of our mid-size cities, all of us have descended.
The first consequence of this datum is that we are all, all six billion of us, very closely related. In fact, the most distant relationship that any one of today's humanity can claim to any other is 50th cousin.
A second consequence, one that follows indirectly from our generally close relationship to one another, is that no matter what we may look like on the surface, we are related to one another as individuals in ways that are startling and contradictory to our most basic assumptions about such matters. Because all of us who are descendants of the emigrants who left Africa and eventually ended up in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere had no one but each other to reproduce with, the folk we left behind, back then the majority of humanity, kept a wider gene pool than did those who left the homeland. The result is that I, a descendant of Europeans, can have DNA that is more similar to someone in a small African village than that African is to someone living in a village a couple miles away.
Appearances such as skin color or the shapes of noses or the kind of hair we have are thus no essential indication of consanguinity. A slave owner in the old South could share genes with his African slaves that he did not share with his slaveholding neighbors, even if he had no African ancestry since the migration out of Africa millennia before.
Nothing could be more counterintuitive. Human beings have spent those millennia slaughtering each other using the excuse, if not the real reason, that the people on the other side of the mountain or in the next town were not really human. We probably used the same argument to exterminate the humanlike species that competed with us along the evolutionary trail. As little as 70 years ago, a world war was fought with the world's most developed country, whose leaders insisted that most of the human race was subhuman. Even today more people than not still believe there are significant differences between what we still insist on calling "races." And it's not only the so-called ordinary person who believes this or, as one might expect, the least educated. Presidents of the United States, whatever their intellectual acumen, still refer to the same discredited categories as if they had some basis many years after they have been shown to be groundless.
Most of us accept that, however much the idea of "white" and all the categories that indicate non-white are biologically empty, the social reality of black and white cannot be denied and refers to something that is real, if not scientifically valid. But how much does the assumption that there is an unavoidable social and historical basis for the distinction between "white" and "black," from which all other distinctions derive, still rest on the underlying belief that there is a biological difference, even if it is only "skin deep"? We still define "black" or "African American"—just another term to distinguish them from "white"—as having a single ancestor of African descent. That is a definition narrow enough to give even an ardent Nazi pause. Yet we hold to it, essentially unchanged from the days when the Ku Klux Klan espoused it.
Why? Is it really just because we must be practical and not try to deny the facts that so-called blacks or "people of color" are at a disadvantage and will be discriminated against if we do not maintain this special social/"racial" status? Or is it only an excuse for not accepting them and their collateral non-whites as being in no way different from us so-called whites? We can argue that society is what it is and to pretend that we are all in fact equal as well as in theory is dangerous idealism. That may well be true. But how does that justify our not educating our children to the reality that my next door neighbor who is brown-skinned could be more closely related to me that is my so-called white spouse? As long as we maintain the terms "white" and "black," we endorse the invalid assumption that there is a real distinction to be made. We simply have no choice: we must throw away the terminology if we want to change the social reality.
If we accept the new narrative contemporary biology has presented us with (and even if we don't), the year 2042 is meaningless. Unless you prize a pale complexion more highly than you do the ideals on which the nation is grounded, what color Americans are and what language their last names derive from is also meaningless. The new "majority" will be as thoroughly American as any Scots-Irish descendant of the Mayflower, if not more so. Immigration and so-called minorities have always invigorated our nation, not depleted it, though the new life we were given by them is so thoroughly a part of us that it is impossible to distinguish what they contributed from what was here before them. Can anyone imagine, much less want, an America to which Africans had never come, however unwillingly, or that had successfully kept out Latinos, Irish, Germans, eastern Europeans, Chinese, Indians and all the others? And if we ever took the time to take a fair look at the contributions of the peoples who were here before the first Europeans arrived (Jack Weatherford does in his excellent book, Indian Givers) we would realize that the way we conduct our political business, the medicines we take, the food we consume, and even the women's movement are all derived from them.
2042 is as much a fiction as was the millennialists' fears that the world would come to an end in the year 1000 or, for that matter, 2000. We created a way of counting based on the number of fingers on our hands and then made the assumption that the universe must use the same calculus. In a similar way, we imagine deep differences based on physical appearances or cultural variations unique to ourselves and then assume that any change from that standard must be objectively significant. It isn't. And the sooner we start educating ourselves and our children to the realities of our common, close human kinship, the sooner we will cure ourselves of the virus of "racial" prejudice.