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Thomas Ross

 

Abstracted from: Thomas Ross, Whiteness after 9/11, 18 Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 223- 243, 223-226 (2005)(52 Footnotes Omitted)

 


Race is not a natural, self-evident, or timeless idea. It exists as a social construction. Its primary work is to express two parallel and intertwined conceptions--the inferiority of the non-White and the always corresponding superiority of the White race. If Blacks are lazy, Whites are implicitly industrious. If Blacks are prone to criminality, Whites are law-abiding. If Blacks are not patriotic, Whites are, and so on. When Whites who hold these racist ideas exercise discretion and power--as judges, police officers, employers, and so on--the Whites in their world receive an illicit boost, a presumption of worthiness and belonging. While many White Americans reject this terrible, unwanted boost, many other Americans, consciously or unconsciously, presume that racial differences are real and that being White makes them inherently superior to those deemed not White. This is why, notwithstanding all their pleas for a "color-blind" society, many Whites would seek to sustain a color-conscious world.

Yet the cultural significance of race has seemingly eroded in the last half century. Through the mid-twentieth century, White Americans could find the very message of their racial superiority in the formal legal structures of apartheid. Fifty years ago, White Americans could look across the cultural spectrum of politics, business, the professions, academics, and even sports and see a nearly unbroken reflection of their own White faces. In political and social discourse, professions of White supremacy remained acceptable, even common in some settings.

Today, things are different. While race remains etched into the face of poverty, prison populations, and mass-media cultural stereotyping, White America has to confront a new world where state laws no longer convey the reassurance of racial supremacy, where the places of privilege and power are more colorful, and where talk of racial supremacy must be done more carefully and quietly by those in the public eye. While being White is still a source of enormous privilege and advantage, it may seem, from the White perspective, not what it once was.

As White Americans contemplate the erosion of the cultural markers of White supremacy, they must also confront another unsettling prospect--the contemporary demographic trends that show the end of White numerical dominance looming. The White majority in this country on a national level has gone from nearly 90% in 1940 to approximately 77% in 2000 and continues to drop. In particular regions and states, the effects are more dramatic. For example, California has gone from a 92% White majority in 1960 to 63.4% White majority in 2000. Demographic studies project that the state will become a White minority state by the middle part of this century. Yet, even these demographic numbers suggest that White Americans outside several specific states and regions have little reason to contemplate a racial minority status anytime soon. And, after all, these are mere population statistics. The more important numbers are those that reflect wealth, status, and real political power and, one would expect, these numbers would reflect a continuing White dominance.

Still, the very idea of a state or a region where Whites are a racial minority has great symbolic and political resonance within the White community. This is especially true in the context of the rising Latino population in the Southwest. Consider the recent attempted takeover of the Sierra Club by a group that campaigned on the idea that immigration, legal and illegal, was the most important environmental issue of our time. And whatever the actual demographics, studies show that Whites tend to overestimate the "Browning" of this country. Looking at the landscape of California politics over the past several years, for example, it is clear that "White minority politics" is a powerful force. Thus, we live in a time when many White Americans perceive themselves to be living in an increasingly "Brown" America in which they will soon be outnumbered and in which "being White" is given less overt cultural significance. For these White Americans, it is a time of racial anxiety.

In the midst of all this, all of America experienced the events of September 11, 2001. "9/11" changed everything, we are told. Undoubtedly, the wake of that fateful day has washed over this country, as well as the rest of the world. Much is different today. We have become almost used to the intrusive security measures at our airports and the concrete barricades surrounding our public buildings, while the most violent and radical transformations post-9/11 have occurred outside our borders as two nations, so far, have experienced the "shock and awe" of our military assault. The Bush administration, in the name of national security, continues to assault our civil liberties. We have shredded the Geneva Convention and, after Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib, any serious notion of rules for the treatment of the captured enemy seems lost, perhaps for all time and for all future conflicts. The horrific events of 9/11 triggered these and many more changes, here and abroad. And the ripples and reverberations still spread. Thus, it is surely sensible to speak of a "post 9/11 world."

In this essay, I explore a particular set of ripples outward from 9/11, namely, the effects on the racial identity we call "being White." I want to show that these contemporary ripples are part of a historical narrative about national identity that runs like a thread through our nation's history. This narrative about "America" expresses the notion of White supremacy through an amalgam of civic and racial nationalism and thus serves to assuage the racial anxiety of White Americans at a time when that reassurance is perhaps most needed.

This will be tricky business. Tracing threads from one historical event to another and then from those events to a cultural conception like "being White" is always a reductive and speculative enterprise. That is, the myriad variables always shroud both the past and the present and make our causal claims suspect. Nonetheless, as we struggle to better understand our contemporary circumstances, what better tools do we possess than to look back as best we can? Looking back at various historical moments, the idea of America as a White, Christian nation with a special destiny has taken center stage. We seem to live today in such a moment. In this essay, I seek to support that hypothesis and discuss its unsettling implications.



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