EL PASO — I grew up white. But now I am brown.
Oddly, I didn’t make this choice; my country made it for me — and for everyone who is brown, black, yellow or some hue in between. Most Texans, like many Americans, are simply not white — or not white enough — as the great white backlash of the Trump era takes hold.
Yet today’s racism, fueled by Republican dog whistles and outright appeals to white nationalism, is just a desperate, if dangerous, last gasp of a passing generation. By excluding non-whites, Trumpism is only uniting an ever-larger reaction of non-whites, millennials and whites who believe in equality and justice. In Texas, going into 2020, Trumpism’s racism is a losing proposition.
I was raised decades ago the son of an Anglo father and a Mexican immigrant mother on the banks of the Rio Grande. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, children of mixed nationalities were unusual but not exactly exotic. We negotiated friendships with Mexican-Americans and Anglos alike. In the vernacular of the era, we could “pass” in either camp.
And though these camps were separated by language, culture and even religion, they were not separated by race as I saw later in the South and the Midwest, in particular. Sure, there was tension and the occasional high school ass-kicking rumble. And some of us seemed more Anglo than Latino, while others seemed more Latino than Anglo. But I was raised Catholic, spoke Spanish and have remained fluent.
At the time, we were actually trying to heal racial and ethnic divides — not widen them. For example, today people routinely discuss whites, a race, as one that does not include Latinos. But the U.S. Census Bureau has always considered Latinos white. In 1950, for example, there was not even a category for Latino, or Hispanic, ethnicity. The racial divides recognized by the government were white, African-American, Native American, and Asian. That was it. Only in 1970 did the Census Bureau ask if people were of some Hispanic origin, such as Mexican or Central American.
When the government clarified this in 1997, it noted that Latinos, or Hispanics, could be of any race: white, Native American, African American or Pacific Islander. But most were white because of history. Most Latinos are people of European ancestry mixed with indigenous people, the Native American people of Latin America. As the bureau flatly stated at the time: “It is important to recognize that this system treats race and ethnicity as separate and independent categories.”
This was a reflection, too, of a tragic reality throughout much of the 20th century: African Americans were simply and categorically treated worse than everyone else.
Yet in this century, America has somehow reversed course and increasingly striven to reopen racial and ethnic wounds. The explosive growth of the Latino population in America, now numbering 62 million, simultaneously muddied centuries of that stark, largely white-black classification of society. Texas led the way with more Latino growth than any other state.
Even so, I noticed that young Latinos no longer viewed themselves as white.
In 2013, I interviewed young Latinos for my book on the future of Texas, Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America. Carla Ramos, from the Woodlands, told me she had moved into East Austin with her Anglo boyfriend. Their new Latino neighbors referred to both of them as “the white people.”
“Look,” she quoted them as saying as they pointed to her house. “That’s where the white people live.”
That struck her as weird, as her parents were both Mexican immigrants. Later, teaching college, I noticed that my Latino students would usually talk about white people as separate and other than themselves. And so would white students about Latinos. Society and power increasingly inverted. At the time, nearly 100 percent of Republican legislators in Austin were white, even as Texas public schools were nearly all Latino, black and Asian. The nation had already endured two crackdowns on Latino immigrants, one during the George W. Bush administration and another during Obama’s. Then came Donald Trump.
The day he was inaugurated in 2017, tensions boiled over on campus. An Anglo student spit on a female Latina student of mine, telling her, “Go back where you’re from!”
She was from The Woodlands.
Run out of words
That despicable incident foreshadowed what was to come once Trump was elected and underscored a reality that had been overlooked long before Trump began his campaign. The vast majority of Latinos, Asians and African-Americans in 21st century America say they are targets of white discrimination.
Nearly 70 percent of Latinos say that Anglos look at them as Latinos and not white, according to the Pew Research Center. More importantly, some 58 percent of Latinos say they have been discriminated against in the last year because of their skin color; 78 percent of African and Asian Americans report the same.
Many argue that the civil rights laws of the 1960s eliminated de jure racism in America. But either way they certainly haven’t destroyed de facto racism, which has simmered beneath the surface before bursting forth during the past three years. The idea of a color-blind society is a ruse.
We have run out of words to describe what’s happening. “Racism” is a word forged in the oppression of African Americans but doesn’t quite encompass ethnicity. “Bigotry” suggests a kind of almost harmless ignorance. “White nationalism” is a meek, academic term that fails to capture the hatred behind the phrase.
To me, Trumpism resembles nothing so much as a rudimentary apartheid, which in South Africa not only segregated whites and blacks but also Indians and people of mixed race.
But here is the good news. Apartheid was a losing proposition, and so is Trumpism. Non-white America is defining what America is in the 21st century. In Texas, non-Hispanic whites are already a minority. Contrary to Trump’s rants about big cities, people of color no longer confine themselves to inner cities. The suburbs are increasingly home to Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans. Just look at the diversity in the Houston suburbs Mission Bend, Missouri City and Sugar Land.
These trends will only accelerate, and largely due to one simple reason: Intermarriage. When I was the product of marriage between an Anglo and a Latina, it was a rarity. Today it’s commonplace. Now, Asian Americans marry whites at a higher rate than any race or ethnicity. More than a third of Latinos marry a non-Latino.
And while their children’s and grandchildren’s identification as Latino likely will dissipate with time, they will still carry seeds of diversity. My own children are a generation removed from their Mexican heritage, for example, but they have not forgotten their culture, and one is even fluent in Spanish, focusing her work on Latin America.
With these successive generations comes something new, beautiful and powerful: a defiant belief in diversity — for all ethnicities, nationalities, gender identifications and sexual orientations. This is in keeping with the greatest American traditions. My children may not be brown. Perhaps they are tan — “I’m a little bit Mexican,” my youngest daughter used to say — and their children will be, say, gray. They may be what some call “racially fluid.” But bluntly, my adult kids will never be Trump Republicans. Both voted for Barack Obama in 2016.
So, what is emerging is as much a generational conflict as much as a racial and ethnic struggle. The largest bloc of voters going into 2020 is the millennial generation, only half of whom are white. In contrast, Republican racism is rooted in some members of a generation now in decline: Baby Boomers, three quarters of whom are white.
Yet the die is cast. All in, just 60 percent of the country is white under our new working definition, which excludes Latinos as well as Asians and blacks from Trump’s America. In Texas, though, the picture is precisely reversed: Only 41.5 percent of Texans are non-Hispanic whites.
The era of the white man, as Trumpism has defined it, has already passed.
“It’s basically over for Anglos,” Steve Murdock, the director of the Hobby Center at Rice University, famously said back in 2011. “The future of Texas and America is tied to minority populations.”
Maybe that’s why so many Republican congressmen from Texas are retiring: They see the writing on the wall, especially as Trump’s racism drags them down. That’s why so many voters have warmed to talk of reparations for African-Americans and removing criminal penalties for some border crossings.
And yes, thankfully, there are plenty of white Americans who abhor the racial and ethnic division that Trump has gleefully reopened. Many white Americans still believe in the Constitution, diversity, equality and justice. So, the Republican Party’s de facto whites-only strategy is, to paraphrase the president, a loser.
This never had to be a zero-sum game. I truly believed in the early 1990s, that Republicans could, indeed, woo Hispanics, Asians and even some African-Americans. But it has been the choice of Republicans to walk the increasingly narrow plank of racist politics.
So let them.
This has been the story of how I, and many of us, grew up white. And how we have become decidedly, wholeheartedly brown. And why all people of color and many wise white people of good faith now share the same patriotism, rooted in shared fate -- and grim determination.
Thanks, Donald Trump.
Richard Parker is author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, and a regular columnist for The Houston Chronicle.