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The Declining Significance of Whiteness

POSTED: November 08, 2012, 6:00 am

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As I watched the election returns on two computer screens on my desk, flipping web browser windows reading many of the nation’s newspapers, and simultaneously keeping an eye on television coverage, the historic magnitude of the moment came into full view. Glazing at an election map that resembled the Civil War alignment of the nation, it became clear that the 2012 presidential election was a watershed moment in American history. Four years ago the focus was on the election of the nation’s first African-American President, and the “moment” was one of cultural significance and, understandably, racial pride. There was something much more significant this time around; on Tuesday night we saw the first evidence of the real transformation of America. We witnessed the declining significance of whiteness in our nation.

If you were paying attention you would have noticed the shift over the last four years. Perhaps precipitated by the election of Obama, but more probably accelerated by demographics, our nation has been going through a subtle metamorphosis. My barometer is Madison Avenue and when I began to see the shift in how consumer products were being marketed it raised my antennae. Quietly but almost magically a different America was making its way into our homes through television commercials. There are now more African-Americans, Latinos and Asians featured in TV ads and biracial couples are increasingly projected as the “norm.” Such imagery would have been unthinkable just a decade ago but now we are being presented a picture of the new America. It is Black and brown, and gay and female, and is currently beyond the reach of the Republican Party.

That new nation was on display on the colorful election maps viewers saw on news networks on election night. Mitt Romney was the spirit of America’s past and his brief visit reminded us all that the days when whites dominated political discourse in our nation are coming to an abrupt end. The Republicans are hanging on in national elections with a declining electoral base of white, mostly male voters, and in coming years that pool of voters is going to evaporate. Having spent the better part of almost 50 years reinforcing racial divisions, and employing tactics bequeathed to the party by Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968, demographics have finally caught up to the GOP. Even in that solidly red south cracks will begin to show as the Latino presence in southern states increases and African-Americans continue their trek back “home,” reversing the effects of the Great Migration. Making matters even more complicated for the Republican Party is that the birthrate for whites is on a downward slide.

I am not suggesting that whites in America are an endangered species nor would I want that to be the case. What I am conveying is that as we creep toward the 250th anniversary of our nation we are now on the cusp of a new era in which policy debates will not be predicated by or for the convenience of a white majority. It will require a different way to do business in America. For centuries the rule of thumb has been to not do anything that might offend whites or threaten their emotional security. Even at the height of slavery and its inhumane treatment of African slaves and the brutality and wickedness of Jim Crow, African-Americans were almost apologetic in demanding their basic constitutional rights and advocating for reasonable policies to reaffirm their citizenship. Much in the same way many Latinos have been exceedingly patient in their response to attacks on their migration to America and have exhibited common courtesy while being insulted by some who privately function only as the result of immigrant labor support. Such submissive behavior is not finding comfort in a generation impatient with the pace of change and incredulous at being treated like a second-class citizen, or worse, an invader in the land their ancestors built. It is a part of our cultural narrative as hyphenated Americans: asking permission when none is needed and seeking validation from a white majority that serves up the leftovers of the policy meal after they have had their fill.

Tuesday night should be a wake-up call to Republicans and the nation for that matter. Election night should have been the shot heard round the country but the chatter on the airwaves was too focused on a “divided America” and not on the momentous transition the night represented. As African-Americans, Latinos and Asians assert their presence the red on the electoral map will become less so, and the new majority will take hold. This is the real story of the 2012 presidential election. America has always been divided. This is just the first time that whites have been so isolated and it has left Romney’s supporters bewildered as they just naturally assumed that they had carte blanche access to the Oval Office. In their eyes the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a fluke; a result of a weak ticket and a battered, departing incumbent. The Romney camp followed what they thought was the GOP script for success: demonize the President as a liberal and use race, this time more forcefully since the Democrat is an African-American, to inflame racial resentment among the white base.

Problem is that the Republican Party is running out of white people who subscribe to the racial caste of our nation’s founding. Yes, there are enclaves that are reflected in the white Bantustans of House congressional districts. However, even in predominantly white House districts new and younger voters will eventually challenge the old conventions. The Civil War on display on the electoral map is winding down. Virginia, with its cosmopolitan north and more diverse suburbs is the first to start the transformation. Florida is well on the way with a growing Latino population that will change the face of the state quickly. States like North Carolina and South Carolina are not that far behind. There will certainly be stubborn holdovers like Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, but it is only a matter of time. There will come a day in the not too distant future when many states that comprise the red, Republican southern bloc have flecks of blue and then undergo a total transformation.

The Republican Party has chosen its poison and it will either die or take the antidote.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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