THE SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHIC OF RACE
“When I was in sixth grade, I went to Tweetsie Railroad with a friend and his family. They were white. Back then, you got to dress up when you were there. We both wanted to be cowboys but the woman helping us looked at me and said, You’ll make a better Indian. And that’s what she gave me. The Indian costume.”
Luis Medina is mixed race. His father is Puerto Rican, his mother Korean. His partner, Jess, is white. They have a young daughter together.
The number of people who reported a mixed race background grew by 32% to 9 million between the 2000 and 2010 census. In comparison, the single race population increased by a little over 9% in that same period. Yet, even with the ever-increasing growth of the population, those of mixed lineage are rarely included in discussions of race in America.
“A lot of people can go back to their tribe,” Luis explains. He uses the word ‘tribe’ to designate a single-race identity. “But I don’t have that option. I don’t have that kind of community.”
Luis is 29 years old and works in food service. He has dark eyes that flash with interest as he talks. He talks fast. He’s always talked fast. In school, he was placed in a class for children with learning disabilities because of it, but he didn’t have a learning disability.
Looking at him, it’s impossible to know where he fits into the racial caste system we have in America. And that’s the point.
Luis gets a lot of questions like Where are you from?, which is another way of asking, What are you?
“I’ll tell you a story,” he begins, shifting forward in his chair. “I have a friend who’s white and his white father was ultra conservative but he loved me…thought I had all the qualifications of a conservative manly man.
And he’s drunk one evening and he’s saying: I don’t like niggers, I don’t like spics, etc. And he looks at me and says, You should be glad you’re white. And his son stood up for me and said, Luis isn’t white.
And the guy looked at me, and he looked at me, and you could tell he had no idea what I was. He’d always seen a white person. And finally he said, Well, you’re a credit to your people, son, whoever the hell they are.”
“The next half century marks key points in continuing trends,” reports Thomas L. Mesenbourg, Acting Director of the U.S. Census. “The U.S. will become a plurality nation, where the non-Hispanic white population remains the largest single group, but no group is in the majority.” This tipping point is projected well before 2060, when minorities will comprise 57% of the U.S. population.
“It’s difficult,” Luis continues. “I don’t want to talk about this. It makes me angry so I don’t like talking about it. I can be racist. When I say I’m racist, it isn’t a joke. Racism is born from anger. But it doesn’t work.
“Of course, there’s systemic racism. In all directions. It’s not that only white people can be racist. I have been racist. Black people have been racist. Is there a difference? Yes.
“I used to work at a cafeteria. I was the only non-Black person working there and that was a problem. A big problem.
“Mostly, I think, because they couldn’t figure out what I was.
“And that was more important to them than to any white person I’ve ever experienced.
“It was more about, Is he one of us or is he an enemy? And those were the only categories they seemed to have.
“It was set up the way those things are. White people were upper management. They were hardly ever in the place. Black people worked and ran the cafeteria. I was brought into the office one day for something and my supervisor, who was black, said, We’re all minorities here, meaning, in the cafeteria, and I said, No, we’re not. I’m the minority here.”
In 1924, with the purpose of making interracial marriage illegal, the State of Virginia attempted to define whiteness as part of its Racial Integrity Act. Interracial sex and marriage were outlawed in many states until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down those prohibitions in Loving v. Virginia. The language of the act defined whites as people “whose blood is entirely white, having no known, demonstrable or ascertainable admixture of the blood of another race.”
The only problem with that definition was that many of Virginia’s most prominent families proudly traced their lineage to Pocahontas.
So, the Virginia legislature revised the act. Virginians could be up to one-sixteenth Native American and still be white. People who were one-sixteenth Black, however, were still Black.
In 2013, a record high 12% of newlyweds married someone of a different race, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. Some 6.3% of all marriages were between spouses of different races in 2013, up from 1% in 1970.
Statistics like these, marking worldwide trends brought about through a multi-dimensional globalization rooted in economic, educational, and political forces feed the White Nationalist movement.
These trends are indicators for them of what they melodramatically call White Genocide. The purveyors of the White Genocide movement have been able to finesse the language of UN Genocide policies to cover their beliefs. In their minds, for instance, integration is a form of ‘forced assimilation.’
But it’s impossible to discount current trends and very complicated to tease out what these trends mean in the context of our continuing national dialogue about race.
The number of people of all ages who identified themselves as both white and black rose by 133% since 2000. Of those who chose mixed race in the 2010 census, 20.3% identified as black and white, 19.3% as white and ‘some other race’. The third most cited was white and Asian. In North Carolina, those who chose more than one race on the 2010 census, grew by 99% over 2000.
“I think this marks a truly profound shift in the way Americans, particularly African Americans, think about their race and their heritage,” said C. Matthew Snipp, professor of sociology at Stanford University.
“I don’t identify with the tribal disputes,” Luis tells me. “I don’t know what it means to be white. We seem to define whiteness only in opposition to blackness. I think we believe blackness is more defined, while no one knows what whiteness is.
“If we’re really going to take race seriously in the US—and we act like we want to—then I’m less white than Obama is. “But we’re not serious about it. We only do it by sight.”
This is borne out by the Pew Survey analysis, which found that 61% of the people it considered multiracial identified themselves by just one race. When asked why, they most often said it was based on how they looked, how they were raised, or that they only knew family members of one race.
“It was kind of an eye opener to us that multiracial identity, it’s more than just the people who make up the family tree, it’s also a product of experiences and attitudes,” said Kim Parker, Director of Social Trends Research at the Pew Center.
What does the increasingly racially mixed population of the United States mean for the future? And how do we discuss race in America when an ever-growing number of our citizens identify as mixed? Can those of mixed race join together as a political force or do we reach a place where discussion of race becomes simply a very relevant, yet historical, question?
Political action appears to require categorization and labeling. Any particular segment of society cannot be politically engaged until it has a definition. This means that, usually, groups who resist being labeled by others must adopt a label of their own in order to be politically expedient.
“Is my oppression not relevant enough to speak? Do I not have enough people behind me to speak?” Luis asks. “It’s possible that because someone doesn’t have ‘a people’ they’re more likely to sympathize with the more racist views of whites. I think we saw that in the election.”
Luis worked diligently for third party candidates last year because he believed in their message and their validity as a part of our political process, but when he stepped into the voting booth, he voted for Hillary Clinton.
“I had to. I thought of my mixed race daughter and the kind of world I want for her. This narrative of White Victimhood becoming White Nationalism needs to be stopped. I had to vote against that agenda.
“My partner, Jess, she’s white. She could vote third party. She had that privilege. But I couldn’t. That how I saw it.
“I voted my skin color. Is that how we want it to be?
“You hear that multi-ethnic democracy doesn’t work. And I guess, historically, that’s true. But in America, we’re going to have to make it work. We’re just going to have to.”
“Like race, racial identity can be fluid,” says Angel Onwuach-Willig, author of According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family. “How one perceives her racial identity can shift with experience and time, and not simply for those who are multiracial. These shifts in racial identity can end in categories that our society, which insists on the rigidity of race, has not even yet defined.”
The increasing number of people who identify as mixed race defy our easy categorization of what race actually means, or if it means anything at all. The struggle for new terms, new classifications, or, on the other side, for a gradual easing of racial identifiers is ongoing. All social constructs of race are challenged by the growing mixed race community.
“It hurts. The things that get me upset are when I realize my time is taken away,” Luis said. “That I have to take my time to think about these things, to deal with these things. Even though I’m racially fluid, ethnically fluid…”
Luis releases a quick, frustrated sigh, glancing around the room, searching for words.
“All I know is this…people don’t categorize me correctly, sometimes they do. And sometimes, based on the way they categorize me, I don’t get a choice. It’s not my choice.
“How could I expect you to understand what it means to be half Korean, half Puerto Rican? I don’t even understand, but it is mine. If I want to get along with you, I have to find a way to relate to you.
“I can’t understand a black man’s struggle. I have seen into it. I’ve looked at it. But I still, fundamentally, have privileges he doesn’t have. I know that if my skin was darker, I’d get pulled over by the police more often. I’ve seen it happen to other people. I know that if I’m wearing a hood the police might think I’m a thug. Unless I have my white baby in my arms.
“I don’t get a choice in those situations. And that’s what hurts.
“I’m made an Indian. I don’t get to be a cowboy.”