Diversity doesn't make racism magically disappear
Some hope that changing demographics make us destined to be post-racial. It isn’t so simple
‘Consider Brazil. There, white people are a minority – but are still dominant.’ Photograph: Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images
We can’t screw our way beyond racism. Many think mixed-race babies and browner demographics will automatically usher in a post-racial world. They interpret the projections of a “majority-minority” shift in our nation – now set to take place in 2044 – as a sign of guaranteed progress. Changing faces in the US are seen as anti-racist destiny. But don’t overestimate the power of this post-racial cocktail.
Jordan Peele’s brilliant film Get Out reminds me of the importance of questioning overly optimistic narratives of racial progress. Made by someone who has been open about being biracial and married to a white women, this film creatively uses the genre of horror to depict the persistence of racism through a story about an interracial couple. In many ways, it can be seen as a strident critique of a liberal brand of racism that has blossomed in the post-Obama era.
The perspective that multiracial demographics naturally erode bias and inequality tends to lack historical and global perspective. Consider Brazil. There, white people are a minority – but are still dominant. Despite being outnumbered, their incomes are more than double than that of Afro-descendants; white men are also vastly over-represented in Brazil’s new government.
If more mixed people guarantee greater tolerance, then Brazil – and most of Latin America – should be a racial paradise. Although a great degree of ‘mestizaje’ or racial mixing has taken place since the time of conquest, Indigenous and Afro-descendent people in Latin America remain disproportionately poor, discriminated against, and locked out from opportunity.
Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in his book Racism without Racists, has speculated whether the racial order in the US might eventually resemble that of Latin American and Caribbean nations. In this case, white supremacy and racial stratification will continue to operate in the US even as it becomes a “majority-minority” nation.
Even the idea of a “majority-minority” shift obscures the fact that the US will be better described as a racial plurality. It’s not as if non-whites constitute one homogenous group.
The legacy of blanqueamiento (“whitening”) in Latin America demonstrates that ideals of multiraciality can run alongside white supremacy. This theory, widely adopted and practiced by Latin American nations at the turn into the 20th century, encouraged racial mixing for the sake of moving entire populations towards whiteness. This is a reminder that desires for a mixed future can be, and have sometimes been, grounded in anti-blackness.
To be sure, all of this does not discredit the importance of diversity and the unique perspectives that people of multi-ethnic/racial backgrounds possess because of their social location. Speaking of the consciousness of the mestiza, Chicana thinker Gloria Anzaldúa writes: “In our very flesh, (r)evolution works out the clash of cultures.”
People with mixed backgrounds can disrupt notions of purity that undergird race and synthesize vast cultural traditions. People with mixed backgrounds can also internalize and carry out racism.
Instead of reducing mixed people to being inevitable harbingers of a post-racial future, there needs to be an acknowledgement of agency in how mixed people choose to relate to the problem of racism and how society, in turn, chooses to receive mixed people.
Merely looking optimistically into the future erases the past that the US has with multiraciality. The figure of the “Tragic Mulatto/a” arose in US literature and film precisely because our racial architecture is based upon a series of denials. Speaking to the West Indian Student Center in London in 1968, James Baldwin captured this incisively:
“What is really happening is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother. White men have lynched Negroes knowing them to be their sons. White women have had Negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers … the American people are unable to face the fact that I’m flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone.”
Baldwin exposes the naïve belief that racial intimacy and mixture are some inevitable bulwark against racism.
Demographics are not destiny. Having a multiracial background may no longer be necessarily tragic but it is not automatically heroic.
What is the racial future of this nation? As a social construct tied to political and economic power, racism has proven itself adept at employing difference to prolong its entrenchment. Notwithstanding
Trump’s efforts to engineer a white nationalist future, where we go from here is not determined. It’s up to us. It depends on what we all decide to do.