The weather in Charlottesville is kind of gloomy today, which gives me a reason to stay inside and ample opportunity to comment on the “stack” of blog posts and articles I’ve accumulated over the past few days. One of those is Matt Yglesias’ recent post on the future of whiteness:
This, in turn, reminded me of another issue that also came to mind when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates casually refer to Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O as a “white girl.” In reality she is, as they say, “Half Korean, 100% Rock Star”. Nevertheless, I think there’s a clear sense in which it strikes people as more intuitive to refer to a half-white, half-Korean indie rock star born in Korea and raised by both parents in New Jersey as “white” than it is to refer to a half-white, half-Kenyan President born in Hawaii and raised by his white mom and grandparents as “white.”
All of which is to say that there’s a decent chance that we’re evolving in a direction where the salient divide isn’t between “white” and “non-white” but between “black” and “non-black.” [Emphasis mine]
Yglesias is correct here, but I’d add that it has always been the case that when it comes to race relations, the salient divide is between “black” and “non-black.” As Yglesias notes, for a good chunk of American history, the Irish, Italians and Jews weren’t considered “white” in the proper sense. Yes, they possessed fair skin, but to a sizeable majority of Americans they were seen as little more than cultural outsiders and treated as such. Of course, eventually those groups became white, and they did so by juxtaposing themselves with African-Americans and successfully defining themselves as not black. It’s always worth noting that in the United States , race operates on a sort of continuum, with “white” on one end and “black” at the other. Those racial groups closest to white (Jews, Irish, Italians) are eventually assimilated into America’s white majority, while those closest to “black” are kept on the margins (darker-skinned Mexicans are a good example of this). Yglesias is right to say that in the near-future, certain groups of Hispanics and (probably) Asians will enter the ranks of “white America.” But it’s critical to remember that the “expansion” of whiteness has been regular and consistent for most of American history.