Is the Tanning of America Only Skin Deep?

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...full text also found on The Huffington Post

It’s official: The United States is “tan.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s first population estimate by age, race, ethnicity, and sex since the 2010 Census, “50.4 percent of our nation's population younger than age 1 were minorities as of July 1, 2011. This is up from 49.5 percent from the 2010 Census taken April 1, 2010. The population younger than age 5 was 49.7 percent minority in 2011, up from 49.0 percent in 2010.”

As expected, media flurry ensued. The Associated Press was among the first outlets to pick up the story reporting, “For the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half the children born in the U.S.” USA Today noted the nation’s changing complexion and described the Census Bureau’s report as “a sign of how swiftly the USA is becoming a nation of younger minorities and older whites.” And according to the New York Times, “such a turn has been long expected, but no one was certain when the moment would arrive.”

Now that the moment is here we must reckon with it. Today’s Census statement marks a social milestone for a nation that has struggled with issues of diversity, privilege, and power. But, as I suggest in my forthcoming book Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, the tanning of America might be only skin deep. Or, putting it differently: Is the U.S. passing as “tan”?

Some say no. Among them is entertainment marketing icon Steve Stoute. Stoute writes that “tanning” is more than a change of complexion for our nation. “Tanning” is a change of mind that can lead to increased participation in media, culture, politics, technology, and economics for our nation’s youth. The LA Times, for one, hopes that Stoute is right: “The new numbers indicate that the upcoming generations will be more diverse and could have an increasingly broader view of issues -- such as immigration reform -- that are based on race and ethnicity. There will also be cultural changes -- as there have been in recent years, with foods, music and ideas from Latino cultures, for example, spreading into the mainstream.”

But a quick Facebook poll shows that many people are doubtful that the effects “tanning” has had in the worlds of culture and marketing will be seen in the worlds of politics and privilege. Take the focus on language: “the irony of the phrase ‘majority minority’” or “minorities, really? New terms needed badly” or “Yep. Oxymoron somewhat.” Responses like these show that we don’t even have the proper language to have a full color conversation about our nation’s changing demographics. Then there’s the political angle: “This does not mean that white supremacy disappears, one can look at places such as South Africa where even though whites may be in the ‘minority’ they hold the most power;” or “it appears that the more the numbers change, the more the white establishment digs in;” or “What is the hard work we do now to make that a new reflection of representative democracy?” Responses like these show that looking at demographics without also looking at political representation and effects of legal and social histories does not imply social justice.

Here’s why you should care. Because looking at tomorrow’s “tanning” generation in demographic terms only subtly promotes them as the chosen ones who can and will dismantle racism that took centuries to build. When we take this perspective we are shifting the responsibility of solving institutional and structural racism off those of us who were born before July 1, 2011 and off our legal and social histories. This is not only unfair—it’s unrealistic. Predicting the demise of racism by the rising number of nonwhite births is probably not the best way to fulfill our desire for a more just society. Wouldn’t the present-day elimination of disparities in income, employment, health care, education, crime, punishment and family structure for this new generation (as well as their parents) be more accurate measures?

Before we rush to judgment on whether a “tanning” or “majority-minority” nation is finally doing away with its troubled racial past, we would be wise to remember that having the conversation in demographic terms only forces us to isolate the concepts of race, ethnicity, and racism from the legal, political, and social customs that got us into this mess in the first place. A demographics-only conversation also makes ending racism and ethnocentrism by legal, political, and cultural means all the more difficult to imagine.