Seven years after the election of our nation’s first black president, the post-racial age that so many expected has turned out to be anything but. This year, a white teenager gunned down nine innocent black people in a church — and a black man retaliated by gunning down his white colleagues on live television.
This year, a black man who declared himself doomed to suffer plunder and violence at the hands of white America was promptly rewarded by white America with every conceivable prize, including a Genius award. This year, we couldn’t figure out which outraged us more: white privilege, or the likes of Rachel Dolezal, who have the nerve to try to renounce it.
Why has race resurfaced so prominently in public discourse? And if we’re not living in a post-racial era, what era exactly are we living in?
A few months ago, I asked readers this very question. Scores of people from across the country wrote back.
A black school administrator in California suggested that the hyper-racial mood stems from a backlash to Obama’s election.
“We should call this era Obama-Nation,” she wrote. “Honestly, I think Obama’s elections angered and scared the heck out of people who are unwilling to share power. . . . Thus, the dominant culture in America seems to have recommitted itself to putting people of color back in their places.”
Her theory explains how extraordinary racial progress — like the election of a black president — can go hand-in-hand with an uptick in racial strife. Backlash is nothing new in US history. Blacks won civil and political rights in the wake of the Civil War, only to watch them be stripped away during the era of Jim Crow. But has there really been an uptick in police shootings? Or do we simply hear about them now, in the age of dash-cam footage?
Jacob Karasch, a wind turbine design engineer in South Carolina, wrote me that much of what we view as racism today is really rooted in class.
“The incarceration rates, the graduation rates, the income statistics . . . all come back to the fact that poor families (regardless of race) tend to stay poor, while rich families tend to stay rich,” he wrote. We should call this the age of Perpetual Poverty, he said. That’s “by far the biggest factor in continued racism.”
There’s some truth to this. Blacks won widespread access to middle-class jobs for the first time in the 1960s and ’70s, just as middle-class wages began to stagnate and whole industries were shipped overseas. They were, in a sense, too late for the party. Since then, so many Americans have found themselves frozen in place, sparking the Occupy movement. It’s just that blacks, for the most part, found themselves frozen on the bottom rung.
But perhaps the most compelling explanation of the resurgence of racial strife in American life comes from William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, who suggests that America is on the verge of massive demographic changes that most people have yet to fully grasp. Indeed, he says we’ve already entered Post-White era.
“Most kids being born today are going to grow up in a country where the white population will be declining and rapidly aging,” said Frey, who documents the coming change in his book, “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America.’’ “The next several decades are going to be different than what we have ever experienced.
Among children attending public school in America, whites are already a minority. Among children under age five, non-whites outnumber whites nationwide. By 2040, one out of every three children in America will be Hispanic. Only about one in three will be white.
“Politicians are trying to fan this fear. The whole idea of race as a dividing line, it’s going to be fierce for awhile, but eventually it will be less important.”
When you look for it, demography can be detected under so much of the racial strife we’ve experienced this year. Fifteen years ago, Ferguson, Mo., was about 50 percent black and 50 percent white. Today, it is about two-thirds black. But the power structure in the city is only now catching up.
Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot Michael Brown, grew up in St. Charles County, Mo., a community that was just 2.7 percent African American in 2000, when he attended high school. Today, it’s 4.2 percent percent black.
Michael Slager, the South Carolina police officer who killed Walter Scott, grew up in Medford, N.J., a community that was less than .05 percent black. Today, it’s 1.5 percent black.
Those overwhelmingly white places in America are bound to change. People get angry at Frey when he talks about this inevitable future.
“They act as if I’m personally causing it,” he said. But eventually, they’ll realize that the high birth rate of Hispanics, Asians, and multiracial people are a boon to the country. Much of Europe and Japan are suffering from declining and aging populations — just like white America — but they don’t have a new supply of children, like America does.
“Between now and 2030, millions of white baby boomers will be retiring, and the gain to the labor force will be almost entirely minority,” Frey said. “The only real future that we have is the young minority population. Making sure they get a good education isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the best way to remain competitive as a country.”
So the real choice before us is: will this be an age when America fears and fights against a post-White future? Or will be it an age when we roll up our sleeves and figure out how to give all children a chance?