The rise of Donald Trump — including the white reactionary response to the Obama era and the rise of white nationalist groups since Charlottesville — has created a space to examine the phenomenon of white supremacy. White supremacy is a system of exploiting nonwhite people for the purpose of maintaining wealth, power and privilege. Particularly when applied to the United States, white supremacy is an ideology, a notion that white people are superior and are doomed to extinction unless immediate action is taken to stem a rising tide of Black and Brown people. While white supremacy obviously requires the active participation of people of European descent, it also involves the assistance of nonwhite people.
America is becoming a more diverse nation and is poised to become a majority-nonwhite nation — a fact that motivates white Republican voters who fear the prospects of their inevitable white minority status. A white numerical minority in America does not necessarily translate into an end to white power, however. After all, there are a number of strategies and tactics to maintain white supremacy. Think apartheid-era South Africa. Better yet, think Trump administration policies enacted in perpetuity. These options include gerrymandering, voter ID and other voter suppression and disenfranchisement schemes, mass deportation and incarceration, and even the assimilation of certain groups such as Latinos and Asian-Americans into whiteness. The definition of whiteness is fluid and has shifted over time, as immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and elsewhere have come to the U.S. and have blended in. Whether some nonwhite Americans and so-called model minorities can divest themselves of their racial and ethnic identities and earn their white cards is an open question.
While the vast majority of Trump cabinet officials and appointees are white, especially white men, a few faces from outside that demographic stand out. One prime example is the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who was born Nimrata Randhawa to Sikh parents from India, changed her name, assumed her husband’s last name and converted to Christianity. In 2001, Haley identified her race as “white” on a voter registration form. As governor, Haley signed a voter ID law that was enacted amid bogus claims of voter fraud and criticized by Black leadership as racist and anti-civil rights.
Asian-Americans, which are by no means a homogeneous group and include South- East- and Southeast Asians, are sometimes given honorary white status and subjected to the model minority label, which could obscure the racial discrimination they face. Their high rates of intermarriage, however, may place them in closer proximity to whiteness.
Savannah Law School Professor Vinay Harpalani agrees that there is a concept of “honorary Whiteness” –“the attainment of benefits and privileges of being White without formal classification as such” — associated with Southeast Asians. Harpalani, who is of South Asian descent, notes the racial ambiguity of the group, which has a wide variety of skin tones and does not fit conveniently into the traditional Black and White categories, yet its members have been classified as both. Harpalani pointed to former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who when asked about a commissioned portrait that depicted him as a light-skinned man replied, “You mean I’m not White?” Jindal blamed the controversy over the whitened portrait on liberals’ “silly” obsession with race.
Latinos — the largest ethnic group behind whites at 58 million people — are increasingly identifying themselves as white, with more than half doing so in the 2010 census. While some Hispanics aspire to become white, they are encouraged by the language of the census to do so. Pew Research Center studies have found that 39 percent of Afro-Latinos identify as white or white in combination with another race, and 59 percent of self-identified white Latinos believe others perceive them as white. As Mic reported, not only do some Latino descendants of immigrants stop identifying with their heritage and embrace being American, but some have embraced the alt-right and the white nationalist movement. George Zimmerman, the son of a white father and Peruvian mother, killed Trayvon Martin and assumed the role of a white man in becoming a cause célèbre for Second Amendment rights and white people who have sought to preserve “Stand Your Ground” laws to protect against perceived threats of Black criminality.
Meanwhile, a 2016 AFL-CIDO study found that whiteness is expanding, and “those who can now claim a white identity increasingly include light-skinned Latinos, East Asians and South Asians.” As Ian Haney Lopez, the University of California at Berkeley law professor the author of the report noted, while many Americans of European descent subscribe to whiteness as a worldview, whiteness is also a problem among people of color, who may believe that color defines “those who makers vs. takers.” Lopez identifies racism between and within nonwhite groups. “Not infrequently, the more privileged—in terms of color, education, social position and wealth—give credence to routine stories of racially coded worth and worthlessness. These people, too, can be convinced to vote their racial position against their economic interests,” he wrote.
Lopez noted that “demography will not save us,” that the declining number of white Americans will not lead to the end of racial manipulation in politics. He believes that while whiteness has been defined as those of exclusively European descent, the color line will shift. “White identity is quickly becoming available to those of non-European descent, provided they are sufficiently light, with Anglicized names, excellent English, and high economic or professional status,” Lopez said, suggesting that the addition of Latinos who identify as white could cause a surge in the white population. “Dog whistle politics is a strategy. Power is the game, and those who stoop to demagoguery could not care less about recruiting some nonwhites or blurring the boundaries of white identity,” he added.
While whites are projected to become a minority in the next quarter century, issues of white power and white supremacy are not going away anytime soon, reminding us that race is very much a sociopolitical construct, and who passes for white can change over time. How society deals with these issues will determine how matters of racial and economic justice and coalition building will play out in an emerging, demographically changing America.