Jeff Chang: How We See Race, Historically, Today, and in 2042

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

2042: the year  U.S. Census Bureau projects that America’s white population will become the minority. Over the past few years, the majority-minority in America has been evolving. For example, in 2012, the number of ethnic babies born outnumbered that of white babies. In 2019, there will be more non-Caucasian adolescents under the age of 18 than white ones. As this inevitable demographic shift approaches, one question must be answered: How can we begin to imagine a new majority?

During his evening lecture this Monday, Jeff Chang, hip hop activist and Executive Director of the Institute of Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, proposed that this was the defining question for our generation. His new book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America, explores the connection between changing demographics and America’s perception of race.

Chang interprets race to be a matter of the visual: humans can easily discern phenotypic differences. Referencing the children’s book Are You My Mother?, Chang illustrated a simplified version of how we reconcile schematic difference between what one perceives and an established norm. As a lost baby bird attempts to look for its mother, it asks all sorts of different animals until it finally is reunited with its his mother, with whom it strongly identifies. When it comes to the realm of modern-day humans, however, the innate reaction to difference is to attach either superiority or inferiority to the “other.” Chang draws upon Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to exemplify the effect of othering: “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Though legislation can help drive steps towards racial equity, the law cannot solve culture-related issues. As Chang stated, “Legislative victories don’t tell humans how to live together.” To give insight on how to solve this issue, Chang began by detailing both the history of changing demographics and its effect on culture.

He began with the “othering” that incited the Civil Rights movement. In the 1960s, the white majority believed that the influx of people of color pouring into America threatened an ingrained culture in America. In fact, when “multiculturalism” was coined by Ishamel Reed in 1975, society considered this concept radical. As more people of color arrived to the “land of the free,” culture wars stormed all facets of society. As Chang stated, these culture wars became high-stakes battles between “the story of hopeful America” for immigrants and “the end of American civilization” for whites.

Chang pointed out that art and activism were effective tools during the Civil Rights movement. In 1965, Morrie Turner began Wee Pals, a post-segregationist inspired comic strip, which painted what a culture without racial segregation and discrimination would look like. Chang believes that art functions as a medium to allow us to imagine and be inspired by the change that has yet to come. And this hope, Chang argued, brought activists together to protest institutional racial inequality — the Third World Strike at UC Berkeley & SFSU, the mold-breaking art of Rupert Garcia, and the LA riots were just some of the many events that had a momentous impact on the Civil Rights movement. It was only after many of these cultural insurgencies that people of color gained institutional, cultural, and political visibility.

These conditions improved in the next few decades. During George W. Bush’s second term, the presidential cabinet was the most diverse that it had ever been. In 1993, TIME’s November 18th cover featured many digitized, interracial faces. The foreground features a woman of ambiguous racial makeup with the caption “How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society,” one of the first notions that multiculturalism is an inevitable outcome from the spate of immigration. Despite the political correctness and anti-discriminatory laws integrated into today’s postmodern society, Chang stated that a pervasive, cultural resegregation is undermining the gilded dream of true racial equity.

Patrick Buchanan, a conservative commentator who ran in the 2000 presidential election under the Reform Party, stated, “multiculturalism is an across-the-board assault on our Anglo-American heritage.” After Obama’s victory in 2008, culture wars flared up, with proponents of homogeneity stating that “we’re losing America forever.” Chang stated, “the radical multiculturalists hoped that by telling their stories about silenced folks that a well of empathy could be created, a consensus can form for equality and equity.” Evidently, there exists no such consensus today.

“Where are we now? Are we in a post-racial society?” Chang joked. This unrealized ideal became the platform through which Chang described deeply-rooted ills plaguing today’s society.

The first of these ills that Chang mentioned is a displacement of power that will produce a white anxiety crisis that sweeps across the nation in the coming decades, causing ripples in different facets of society. Second, the danger of a political dichotomy arises: for example, the presidential race frequently reduces to a homogenous culture platform versus an “other” platform, which can be off-putting for or non-inclusive of all people of color. Third, there is still a vast pay gap between races: for every dollar a white person makes, a black person makes 62 cents. Chang remarked that this is not just an economic problem, but also a social problem, which leads to the next and last issue. Fourth, a strong case of resegregation is appearing both along the Mexico-US border and in suburbs throughout the country. For example, in towns like Ferguson, the white-dominated police force are “armed to the teeth” due to a buildup of militarization, a direct result of the spate of cultural wars since the 80’s and 90’s. In 2010, 80% Latino and 74% black of K-12 students attended majority non-white schools. With these issues piling up on all sides, it seems like the solution for minorities is far in the future.

Chang concluded by saying that empathy is the key to the problem. Change isn’t something that is supposed to happen in waves — symbolically and scientifically, a wave is ephemeral and receding. He contended that true change stems when we “declare hostility to all evils, which leads to a true revelation of values and cultures.” Growing up through the 80’s and 90’s in California, Chang admitted that the difference between his childhood and today is astonishing, but there is always room for improvement. Addressing the students in the audience, Chang voiced his plea, “This is where we need all of you: we need you to bring an end to the culture wars. It’s my kids and my grandkids that will rely on what you can do. Start working on these questions now.”

This event was the first in a series of Intercultural Center’s POP IN dinners featuring special lecturers and speakers.

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