In the week since Election Day we’ve heard a lot about the waning of the white majority. Bill O’Reilly kicked it off even before the race had been called, declaring on Fox News that “the white establishment is now the minority.” Maureen Dowd argued a few days later that the “white male patriarchy” was in a “delusional death spiral.” Conservatives have been fretful about being painted into a demographic corner, and liberals gleeful about their diverse winning coalition.
On the face of it, reports of the white establishment’s demise seem quite premature. Most people of color remain acutely aware of the whiteness of privilege and the privilege of whiteness. Just look at Congress, the Fed, or the Joint Chiefs. Or think of the power brokers in your own town: the partners at the big law firms, the attending physicians at the best hospitals. You’ll see that the white establishment remains very much in the majority.
There is, of course, a big exception: the presidency of the United States. It’s not just that a president was elected against the express wishes of a majority of white Americans; after all, that happened twice with Bill Clinton. It’s that we chose to keep a black man in the Oval Office. And the “we” who did that included more nonwhites than ever recorded in an American electorate.
But the question now is what we do — and who “we” are. Whites in America, like Americans in the world, may still have more power in absolute terms than anyone else. But they have less power than they used to (like Americans in the world). This moment in history, and its accelerating demographic shift, could give us zero-sum politics fueled by white status anxiety. Or it could give us the opportunity to at last detach Americanness from whiteness. We need to accept that white doesn’t mean normal or right or Republican or American; it just means white. And we need to see this as progress.
At the same time, the emerging coalition of color needs to recommit to Americanness itself. There’s a civic creed at the heart of this country, a culture of democracy and inclusive self-government, that’s worthy of commitment. It’s time for people of every color to reclaim and redeem that universal, unifying creed: to identify first as Americans so that the full diversity of our identities can flourish.
There are stirrings of such a movement in the campaign that just re-elected President Obama. But this isn’t the work of just one party or one segment of the electorate. It’s everybody’s job now to ensure that the American idea outlives the white establishment.