By Mark Cromer
August 20, 2008
San Francisco Chronicle
If Sen. Barack Obama’s candidacy has indeed placed race in the spotlight again this election season, then the Census Bureau’s new projections that white America is fading into minority status much faster than previously thought offers a glaring view of the fissures that continue to spider web our republic. The meteoric rise of Obama’s fortunes and the potential success – or failure – of his run for the White House has provoked much soul-searching about whether America "is ready" for a black president; the subtext of which is really whether a black president might be somehow intrinsically different than a white commander in chief beyond that extra helping of melanin.
But the increasingly rapid erosion of the white population in America raises the stakes considerably no matter who wins the White House. The question transcends what the occupant of the Oval Office looks like and becomes whether whites are ready for the accelerating changes that will result in an America that no longer looks like them, sounds like them or necessarily embraces their cultural tastes.
The answer, as it stands now, is almost certainly "no."
But not because the nation’s white majorityharbors some inner-bigot that recoils at the prospect of becoming a minority in a land they’ve always subconsciously considered their own. No, it’s not the end result that most white Americans probably find troubling today, but rather the factors that are fueling those projections, namely unrestrained immigration and the increasingly bitter sense that they’ve had little to no say about this matter.
White populations have dropped significantly in more than half the nation’s more than 3,100 counties since 2000. In just over 300 of them, ethnic minorities are now the majority population. The effect has often been the real-world elimination of hard-won racial balances, with traditional working and middle-class black and white communities effectively disappearing. In many places throughout Southern California, the white flight that marked the efforts at integration in the 1960s and early 1970s struck again in the 1990s, turning into a middle-class Anglo exodus from the state in the face of massive immigration from Mexico, helping create the first minority-majority state in the union. It’s a dynamic that continues to this day, as virtually all of California’s net population gain is directly attributable to immigration and births to immigrants, while the state’s native middle and working classes continue their outbound migration. This demographic upheaval has spawned another phenomena among the white middle class that has become iconic: the gated community. The leadership in both major political parties will proceed with immigration reform at their peril if a majority of whites feel the political class is continuing to address them in either a condescending or patronizing fashion.
A smart first step among Republicans and Democrats would be to begin any new round of negotiation on immigration reform with an understanding that any effort to legalize the status of millions of illegal immigrants will be matched with a commensurate reduction in legal immigration into the United States, spread out over years. This would go far in ameliorating the pervasive sense among whites that America is being overrun. Obama’s address on race in America, delivered in Philadelphia in March, was rightly hailed as a candid, intelligent multidimensional assessment of the complexities surrounding the issue. But for the vast majority of working and middle-class whites, Obama’s words resonated for the simple reason that he openly took into account their perspective and their fears; and he wasn’t dismissive in doing so.
That address was a great opening for a sustained national dialogue on a changing America.
Failure to seize the opportunity to build a real national consensus – one that can only be obtained through what surely will be a hard-fought compromise – is to risk further alienating a white majority that will ultimately insist on having its voice heard on these issues, one way or the other.