Brown in America

Binocular | April 5th, 2010 - 4:46 am

I first heard of the “Browning of America” when it became Time Magazine’s cover story twenty years ago.   That was two census seasons ago.   In my intercultural communications class in college, we used terms like “melting pot” or “salad bowl” to describe this country’s cultural diversity, and to distinguish the difference between cultural assimilation and “separate but equal.”   This was before “multiculturalism” or “political correctness” joined the American vernacular.   

As an immigrant, I’m very chary of labels.  I have assimilated up to a certain point.   I don’t agree that becoming American means erasing one’s ethnic identity.  Unlike the previous generations of Euro-immigrants, I ‘m brown as burnt rice.  I’m lactose-intolerant, non-cheese eater. There’s no mistaking my Asian origins.   Right now, the number of people who look like me are still largely insignificant.  But in the future, about 40+ years, as mentioned in the article, the face of America will look like this:

By 2056, when someone born today will be 66 years old, the “average” U.S. resident, as defined by Census statistics, will trace his or her descent to Africa, Asia, the Hispanic world, the Pacific Islands, Arabia — almost anywhere but white Europe. (More here from Time Magazine).

Changes are said to begin this year.   According to the Associated Press, “minority” babies will outnumber “majority” babies in 2010 (read here).   In simple speak, children-of-color will outnumber white children this year.  What Time Magazine didn’t predict are the socio-cultural and economic changes sweeping the country right now:  the recent collapse of Wall Street, a recession worse than the Great Depression, and the election of America’s first President-of-color.   That’s enough to shake the grounds of Puritan America.  How will the current economic downturn impact the demographic changes in the future?

Truth Is

Good times always find a way of masking true innate feelings.  Economic prosperity turns a country with deep intercultural issues into a superficial festival of nations.  What’s there to be angry about?  We are all eating.  Shopping.   Then one day, the bottom lid falls out.   

The truth always shows its face when things are very, very wrong.    30 million people are unemployed.   People are losing their homes.  Xenophobia is reborn, and hate is its language.  People of similar origins band together.  Media gives way to propagandists.   All of this hate–mostly directed at people who are “different”– finds its way in good ole time American organizing.  And the Tea Party , overwhelmingly white male conservative, marches  through Washington (see picture).

What we are seeing in the U.S.  is the proliferation of blame in American language.   President Obama’s skin color has made his attempt for a united government impossible as his assumed alliances become a rallying cry for conservatives.   He has been called a “socialist” and a “Muslim,” words given negative connotations as America searches for blame.  With 40 million Americans living in poverty, there is every reason to be angry.   There are 5 million baby boomers who are currently unemployed.  The competition for jobs is stiff.   At this level, we sometimes forget our neighbors.  We especially forget our neighbors who don’t look like us.


The Nazis rose to power during a major economic crisis in Germany, the darkest time in recorded history.  However, given a mountain of evidence, some German communities are still in denial about concentration camps in their own towns.   Sadly, they all have benefitted from Hitler’s psychosis.   Because of short term memory, Europe once again is switching on its denial mode as it becomes a right-wing, anti-immigrant continent  (story here from NPR).  Never mind its long history of colonization of the brown world.  Never mind the death of millions of Jews.   Never mind that World War 2 was only 60 years ago.  The search for blame and hate rages on, taking on a new form:

Targeting Muslims is a common denominator that now unifies a great proportion of European political elites and media. The reasons are numerous and obvious. Some European countries are at war (which they have chosen) in various Muslim countries; desperate and failed politicians are in need for constant distractions from their own failures and mishaps; associating Islam with terrorism is more than an acceptable intellectual diatribe, a topic of discussion that has occupied more radio and television airtime than any other; also, pushing Muslims around seems to have few political repercussions – unlike the subjugation of targeting of other groups with political or economic clout.  (more here).

Eerily, what is happening in Europe parallels the rising levels of intolerance in the U.S.   Americans should know better.  The European continent does not have the immigration history of this country.   America is built on the backs of immigrants.   Also, Europe will probably not see the level of demographic changes that will sweep the U.S. in the next decades.   Yet, xenophobia is the staple of colonial histories.  America, after all, still traces much of its ancestry to Europe.   We have truly just begun dealing publicly with issues of race and equality.   What does this mean for the future?  Will changes in American demography mean a positive shift in the act of tolerance?  Or is xenophobia so deeply rooted in American culture that people-of-color will simply give it a new spin.

Case in point: Over easter lunch, my mother and I went to a Vietnamese restaurant in Jersey City (very POC, mind you).  A group of teenage Latinos walked in and took the table behind us.   A few were looking for “chicken wings,” and “beef and broccolli” from the menu.   After making very loud, ignorant, and biased comments about the names of food on the menu, they walked out.  

Blacks in America

While I probably won’t be around to witness the reversal of minority/majority in America, I will be here long enough to see it gradually happen.   Already, the election of the first black president has made many people resort to old anti-black sentiments as a way of public expression.   What once was private dinner conversation is now out in the open.  Interestingly enough, in my job interviews, I have been asked about my ethnic background, as if it has any bearing with the job.   As a former Human Rights Commission employee, I know that it is a red flag for discriminatory practices.    I must admit feeling extremely uncomfortable after being asked the “Where are you from?” question, but I went ahead with the interview feigning a smile.   Of course, as expected, I never heard from those people again.   What’s there to do if you’re a person of color looking for job in this economy?  Identity-erasure? Is the strategy of this unemployed black man necessary?

But after graduating from business school last year and not having much success garnering interviews, he decided to retool his résumé, scrubbing it of any details that might tip off his skin color. His membership, for instance, in the African-American business students association? Deleted. (More here from the NYTimes)

I don’t think so.  Should it surprise us that the unemployment rate among blacks is twice as much as whites? 

The Spirit Level

If the trend of intolerance continues in America, are we heading toward a system of Apartheid, where the majority is forcibly led by an oppressive  minority group?  Right now, the U.S.  has more inequality of income than any country in the world.  It also has more people (mostly Black men) in its penal system than any other country in the world.  

A new book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, offers a ray of hope.   First it tell us about us, as mentioned in a review of the book in The Guardian:

America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging. (More here from The Guardian).

Then, it goes on to analyze why the more equal a society, the healthier it is.  And in contrast, the more unequal, the more problems it has.   

Lessons for the Future

This downturn economy is teaching us much about ourselves, our level of tolerance, our history of racism.   It is not only a lesson for the white majority with a long tradition of imperialism and racism, but also for people of color who submit to such racist traditions.   As America diversifies, the face of the oppressor changes as well.   We all have bias in our blood. We all have a long tradition of protecting our own tribes.   But we are also more aware and more educated than our ancestors.   We understand diversity more.  We know what democracy can bring each of us.  

As these babies of 2010 grow up, what can we teach them about America of old and new?   How do we pass on the message that the fundamental richness of this country is its ability to live in harmony despite the differences that could potentially divide?

Related ReadingIn Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap, The Rage Is Not About Health Care, Whose Country Is It?, Institutional Racism in Employment and Unemployment, Again, The Spirit Level, Poll: Tea Party overwhelmingly white, male and conservative, In the Face of Racism, Distress Depends on One’s Coping Method.


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