On Becoming a White Minority in America

I couldn’t help but pause and wonder the day after Election Day. There was the stark reminder of the challenge before us, an American nation of unparalleled human diversity, staring at me from CNN on the flat-screen television: Among white voters – Romney, 59% and Obama, 39%.

The rising generation in American society will experience a demographic change of profound significance in their lifetime. The long-standing and controlling majority of white Caucasians will become a less-powerful minority subpopulation. Pause to consider the magnitude of this change and its ripple effects on each of us as individuals, identity groups, American society as a whole and our place in the global family of humanity.

In the sweep of Western world history, this transformation in the make-up of the U.S. population will have occurred in a relative nanosecond. It is happening so quickly that most people block it out of their consciousness, caught up in the day-to-day, year-to-year experiences that add up to a fleeting lifetime before we know it.

And so it is, that dramatic social change may be difficult to recognize and grasp within one’s own generation, let alone that which happens within the span of three or four generations. For example, it would have been unimaginable to my parents that a man born of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother would be elected President of the United States. Now that President Barack Obama has been reelected for a second term by what LA Times columnist Ron Brownstein has dubbed “the coalition of the ascendant,” it is not just the old guard of the Republican Party who need to wake up, smell the coffee, see the change around them, adjust their thinking and attitudes, and embrace the change for all the potential good it can bring.

Great social change is often most recognized within personal families. I was raised on a grain and livestock farm in east-central Illinois (a.k.a. the Land of Lincoln, Reagan and Obama now). There was one African-American family and one Jewish family in the little town of 3,700 nearby where I attended public school through high school. Latinos, Latinas and their families arrived in Livingston County, Illinois in the mid-1960s, as migrant farm-workers up from Texas and Mexico to handpick the crop, when my dad joined a handful of other corn-bean-and-wheat farmers who decided to experiment with growing 40 acres of tomatoes for the Campbell Soup Company.

Fast-forward 40 years. I remember asking my older daughter whether she was excited at the age of 25 to have the choice of whether to vote for the first non-white majority party presidential candidate in 2008. She gave me a very matter-of-fact look and said, “ Dad, I am going to vote for Barack Obama because he is the smartest, most inspiring and most well-rounded person for the job.” It wasn’t about electing the first black President for her. It was about electing who she was convinced would be the best leader for America at that point in time and, oh yeah, he just happened to be black.

Rapidly changing demographics became very personal to me again three years later when my younger daughter chose to marry a young Guatemalan man of Indigenous Mayan heritage. She simply told me, “He is a very good man and I love him.” What more could a caring father want? They have embarked on a very challenging life together, planning to divide time among the U.S., Guatemala City and the very mountainous Western Highlands of Guatemala, which has just suffered another calamitous earthquake.

Viewed in a slightly longer lens of time just 70 years ago, my uncle served for four years in a racially segregated U.S. Navy from the Normandy beaches to the South Pacific. I came of age and political activism amidst the civil rights, student protest, women’s movements and the Vietnam War of the 1960s. I was moved by Dr. Martin Luther King when he spoke of a time in America when his children would be judged by the content of their color and not the color of their skin. I still remember, at the same time, the haughty looks and disparaging comments directed at my friend, Homer Gonzalez, and me, when he first showed up for public school classes in rural, relatively insulated Livingston County, Ill. — just 100 miles southwest of Chicago.

We, the American people, are swimming in a sea of demographic change. Little more than lip service has long been paid by many politicians and their supporters about America as a melting pot, a nation of immigrants and unbounded freedom and opportunity for those who are willing to work hard and sacrifice to get ahead. In one respect, that may have been easier for my white, Euro-American ancestors and eight generations of their descendants, especially as long as they/we constituted a numeric majority of the U.S. population and securely wielded voting control of the levers of power and government. That unchallenged power is fast subsiding and the salad bowl that is multiracial America is upon us. What will the demographic passage bring?