‘What is it to be white,’ and other thoughts from Keith Ellison

Playing off the fairly stunning fact in the latest census that a slight majority of babies of born in America are “non-white,” and that in the foreseeable future the United States will have no racial majority, an online journal of African-American culture call “The Root” decided to discuss these matters with Congressman Keith Ellison of Minneapolis, the only “non-white” person ever to represent Minnesota in Congress.

The interview is awesome. For purposes of enticing you to read the whole thing, here’s a taste. What’s below is part of one of Ellison’s statements in interview:

“What is it to be white? It does mean something to be Norwegian. It means something to be Polish or German or Spanish. But ‘white’ is simply a catchall for ‘light-skinned person.’ It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s basically an invention to suit the slaveocracy in America during [the] antebellum [period], and it still works today because of that legacy of Jim Crow … So yes, the idea of whiteness might decline in terms of its meaning as well.

And in my district, for example, it’s difficult even to just say ‘black’ people. We have the highest percentage of Somalis in the whole country. We’re either first or second in the number of Liberians.. The reality is, when you say ‘black’ people, who are you talking about? The Somalis? The Liberians?

And now, in Minnesota, we’ve started talking in terms of ‘traditional African Americans,’ and what we mean is, those people whose ancestors were brought from West Africa and made to work for free for a few centuries in the South, and then their families immigrated to the North — or didn’t.

One of the things that will decline over time is the demand that the society or the government bring forth a particularized racial remedy based on a history of deprivation. That will be even more difficult to do in the future.

Now, I’m not saying that I advocate that. Like I told you, I believe in affirmative action. But I believe it will become more difficult. That’s why it will become more important to propose economic solutions that will benefit a broad cross section of American working- and middle-class people and the poor, but to make sure in the implementation that these benefits are shared.”

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/27/2012 - 01:15 pm.

    Ellison’s right

    in that in the future it’s going to be more difficult for policitians to pander for votes by promising redress for alleged historical wrongs when that victimized group represents the majority of the population.

    And if he was smart he’d recognize that the system that has most elevated the world’s poor, from North America to Asia, is free-market capitalism. Because unlike his imaginary system where prosperity comes from sharing the wealth created by others, with free-market capitalism individuals create their own wealth by responding to incentives and rewards.

    But hey, at least he got the first part right.

    • Submitted by Martin Owings on 09/28/2012 - 12:27 pm.

      alleged wrongs?

      Dennis – When you start off by using the words, “alleged historical wrongs” your argument immediately loses some of its credibility. Removing the word, “alleged” might add more weight to your argument, unless you’re disputing factual historical records. In which case I think the burden of proof is upon you to dispute those specific historical records within the context of your argument.

      If you want to look as far back as the Atlantic Slave trade you might also make the argument that it was, “free-market capitalism” that helped drive and subsequently sustain slavery. Most people believe slavery is wrong, therefore one could extrapulate that some elements of, “free market capitalism” are bad. It took a government action to eliminate slavery, it was not the benevolent forces of free market capitalism.

      Elevating the worlds poor on the other hand is good. For those that participate in, “free market capitalism” it can be a wonderful thing. For those that fall through the cracks or lack the same opporunity or who play the game on an imbalanced playing field their story can be far different. If a government can help by leveling the playing field, filling the cracks or sharing opportunity is it obligated to do so?

  2. Submitted by Gary Doan on 09/27/2012 - 03:44 pm.

    Aren’t the majority of Americans non-white now?

    Only a small percentage of blacks in the USA are related to the total of 600,000 total slaves, that slave traders sold in America before slavery was outlawed. President Obama for example is first generation in the USA from Kenya.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/27/2012 - 07:58 pm.

      In one sense

      the majority of Americans have always been non white.
      In the 19th century, Italians, Jews and other south and central Europeans were not considered to be ‘white’.
      The musical ‘Showboat’ (“Old Man River”) is an interesting commentary on American racial attitudes at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s still available on DVD,

    • Submitted by Sean Huntley on 09/28/2012 - 09:27 am.

      In 1860 there were four million slaves in the United States.

    • Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/28/2012 - 12:30 pm.

      small percentage?

      Where are your statistics? Many experts say it’s as high as 3 million. Nobody knows. Who was keeping track back then? What makes you think that “only a small percentage” is now related to the slaves? How would you know? There are millions of people of mixed ancestry; many don’t even know it. Some people have passed for white and after a few generations, people no longer know this background.
      Every black born in the United States except for recent emigres is mixed race. Look at some early photographs of black people; it’s obvious. Because slave owners did just as they wished with their “property.” There was no way to protest or object.

    • Submitted by Martin Owings on 09/28/2012 - 12:48 pm.

      Historical Accuracy Is Important

      Gary – It’s not a, “small percentage” it’s actually around 40% or slightly greater. That’s about 16.8 million people.

      Census data show that up until about 1960 most black Americans were decendants of slaves. Beginning in about 1960 immigration began to effect those numbers. In addition, the number you used, “600,000” is a Wikipedia number and doesn’t take into account the somewhat poorer record keeping of the 17th and 18th centuries. Historical records suggest that slave ship manifests were often inaccurate. If you used census data, you might find that as many as 4 million slaves existed in the United States alone in 1860.

      Here is document that might help add clarity on the immigration influence for you.
      http://www.prb.org/pdf07/62.4immigration.pdf

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/27/2012 - 03:44 pm.

    Too bad

    …there’s never been the sort of “free-market capitalism” that Mr. Tester idolizes. We’ve always – always – had a “mixed” economy, with capitalist enterprises aided by government, and vice-versa on occasion. Prosperity – on a national rather than an individual scale – has always come from sharing the wealth.

    So, Mr. Tester didn’t “…get the first part right.”

    As for the second part, while I typically disagree with his views, it’s not often that I find the sort of jaw-dropping ignorance of American history that Mr. Tester displays with his “…alleged historical wrongs” comment.

    “…alleged historical wrongs?” Are you kidding me? Does Mr. Tester think there was no institution of slavery in the United States? Does he imagine that slavery to have been some sort of pleasant, vacation-like idyll far removed from the stresses of daily life? Does he imagine West Africans lined up along the coast for 200 years, shouting “Take me! Take me!” to the slave traders? It’s not often we see this sort of racism stated so blatantly.

    Since he has mentioned with some frequency his service in the the U.S. Navy submarine service during the Cold War, I’m left wondering what country Mr. Tester thought he was protecting.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/28/2012 - 10:32 am.

    The problem is

    that pure ‘free’ markets are unstable.
    There’s a feedback loop where one company inevitably gets larger and competitively benefits from its size, driving out or buying up its competitors. That’s the history of 19th century monopolies.
    Read your history or repeat it.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/28/2012 - 03:42 pm.

    It turns out that President Obama is of more “mixed” American racial stock than we thought. He is not merely the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother. His mother was also of mixed race: one of her seventeenth-century forbears in Virginia was perhaps America’s first documented black slave. More blurring of those artificial “color’ lines.

    The NY Times is one of the venues that carried that news this summer:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/30/us/obamas-mother-had-african-forebear-study-suggests.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

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