Tag Archives: color line

Afraid of the Dark

15 Oct

Reports of rapid demographic change in favor of people of color in the U.S. seem to have caused a reaction among many whites bordering on panic. Explosive increases in participation in white nationalist groups, the proliferation of vigilante border patrols, and the return of overt racism in mainstream politics all smell like fear to me. This reaction got me to thinking, why? Why are they so afraid of the possibility of becoming a minority?

Here’s my take. But first, a reality check. White fears are of becoming a minority are over-blown. As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, whiteness has shifted to envelope those formerly deemed non-white many times throughout history. The Irish weren’t always considered white, nor were Jews. They were included among whites in order to maintain white advantage.

As racial demographics shift, so-called white Hispanics and certain Asian American ethnic minorities are likely to be enveloped by whiteness. Whether we think of ourselves as white or not, accepting the privileges already being extended to us – being cast as the “good immigrants” or buying into the idea that Asians are a “model minority” relative to so-called “problem minorities,” for instance – will put us on the wrong side of the color line. And when the stakes are so high, we can hope folks won’t take the bribe, but I wouldn’t advise betting on it.

So white folks can rest easy. Armageddon is probably still a way off.

What’s more, even if census projections play out such that whites do become a minority in the U.S., they will still be the largest minority, and they’ll have most of the wealth. It’s one thing to be a numerical minority and another to also be a power minority. Unless the role of money in determining political outcomes is drastically limited by dramatic reforms of our political system, whites will maintain political control. And having the most wealth also means maintaining economic control.

I know most of you have heard the chatter concerning middle class consumers being the real drivers of our economy, but that’s just not true. The disposable income of middle class folk isn’t what drives our economy. It’s just the fuel. Those with great concentrations of wealth are the drivers. As long as the ride remains relatively smooth for the middle class, I don’t expect to see them withholding that fuel anytime soon.

Yet whites are afraid. Why? Because they aren’t just afraid of seeing their political and economic power eroded. They fear losing their cultural advantage. They fear losing their monopoly of control over everything from “pretty” to “innocent,” and from “moral” to “merit.” These assumptions of whiteness are the foundation of white culture and tradition.

I’m not talking about Irish tradition or French tradition. I know too little of those things to speak to that history. When I refer to whiteness, I mean that which was born in slavery and Native genocide along with the very idea of a white race. Cultural traditions help us deal with fear because they define a place where we matter to history and in community. They make us greater than our mortality.

But that’s not all whites fear. Whites also fear that if they lose control, they will be exposed as being undeserving of some of the advantages they enjoy. Americans have deluded themselves into the belief that this country is a meritocracy. If the meritocracy is corrupt, then what? And, when you believe so strongly in a meritocracy that is so full of corruption, what price will those who have been labeled losers and made to pay such a high price for it extract from you if they are able?

For decades now, white elites have expanded social relief to include us in order to avoid programs that attempt to overcome the corruption from which they’ve benefited. But in the ultimate bait and switch, they accuse those who take relief of being moochers. What will happen if those against whom the game has been rigged are able to correct the narrative of history such that it becomes known that the mooching and worse has really been on the white side of the color line?

And why does that scare them? Because racism, while effective for what whites wanted it to do, nonetheless contains a seed of irrationality. It makes them believe we are the monsters they’ve made us out to be. But we know our liberation relies upon us never letting that happen.

Where I Stand on the Color Line

23 May

Throughout my adult life, I have struggled over the color line. I’ve never doubted it exists. Rather, my struggle has been over which side of that line I’m on.

This struggle has been on my mind since my 20s, when a Japanese American woman many years my senior told me this story:

She recalled being a young college student in the South in the 1950s. She was 12 years from being released from an internment camp where she and her family were detained during WWII.

She went to school determined to make something of herself. She wanted nothing more than to quietly toil to prove herself as a “good” American. Success would be her way of thumbing her nose at white supremacy.

But in the South she was faced with segregation. One day she found herself in a park wanting a drink of water. There were two drinking fountains – one for whites, and one for Blacks.

She intuitively walked toward the “black” drinking fountain. But just as she was about to take a drink, a police officer stopped her and ushered her to the whites only fountain. Confused and scared, she did as she was told and drank at the fountain for whites. She realized with shock that the police officer considered her white.

Years later, her life was profoundly changed by witnessing the Civil Rights Movement. Here were people who weren’t quietly enduring. They were standing up, making demands, marching. And as she learned about the issues at stake, she came to understand that the principle of the color line. Being pushed onto the white side of the line on that day at the fountains was not an endorsement of her. It was an act meant to stigmatize and isolate Black people.

She told me the story as a lesson in not being too cocky. I heard her and try to live the lesson. But what really stuck was the idea of the color line.

Whether intentionally or not, we reinforce the power of race to define us unless we commit to see life through the lens of race – not just my race, but of race writ large.

Through that lens, the disadvantages built into the menu of choices we are given are obvious to some of us, but less so to others. It depends on which side of that line you live on, and whether or not you are allowed to cross over now and then.

In this age of racist drug wars, roll backs in voting rights, Stand Your Ground laws, and legal licenses to racially profile African Americans as criminals, Latinos as “illegal,” and presumed Arabs as “terrorists,” the color line can be hard to discern. Rather than being colorblind, we are blinded by the absolute ubiquity of racism.

But if you look hard enough, there it is, written in the tears of those who wait for the return of the nearly 900,000 Black men in U.S. prisons. It is drawn with the stories of those pushed off the welfare rolls when assistance turned to punishment. And it is plain in the persecution of undocumented immigrants and Muslims, and the resentment and bullying of Asian school children because of the lie of the model minority.

The color line is as vivid as ever if we only have the eyes to see it. Erasing it will require us to first ask the question, on which side do we stand?

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