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The Boundaries of Whiteness

Gene Healy writes:

Yet, here’s an interesting fact: Recent Census Bureau figures predict that the working-age population will be 55 percent minority by midcentury. It may be hard to imagine the Tea Party movement becoming a Rainbow Coalition. But it’s even harder to believe that minority voters will enjoy paying for the (mostly white) baby boomers’ retirement and health care while they’re working to support their own families.

Adam Serwer responds:

Healy’s problem is he’s looking into the future with a mind-set that the eroding tribal rivalries of the present will resemble today. We won’t be in a post-racial utopia by 2050 either, but think about the leaps made toward a more racially integrated and equitable society from 1960 to 2010, or for that matter from 1910 to 1960. […] We won’t be colorblind, but our understanding of who represents a racial “other” will be very different, and I think it’s likely that it will be more tied to class than ever before. As a result, I don’t think a browner America will have a problem with “paying for the mostly white baby boomers’ retirement and health care” because there won’t be as many cultural barriers to identifying with those retiring baby boomers as Healy seems to think there are today.

Three points to add to this. One is that among white voters higher levels of ethnocentrism are associated with higher levels of support for Social Security and Medicare. So if race wanes as an issue, we should expect that to actually lead to reductions in white support for these programs. Second is that I don’t think there’s any documented evidence that views on race have anything to do with black or Hispanic views on Social Security and Medicare.

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Third, it’s probably mistaken to see white/non-white as the primary axis of race in the United States rather than black/non-black. At various points in time in American history, Irish people and southern and eastern europeans have been defined as non-white. My guess is that in the future the vast majority of people descended from immigrants from Asia or Latin America will be seen as white. In part that will be because of high intermarriage rates, and in part it will simply reflect the fact that the boundaries of whiteness have always been porous in America.