By Tom Ehrich
HEREFORD, TX --Six Hispanic men eating breakfast at my motel watched glumly as CBS reported the latest effort of whites to keep them down and, if possible, out.
These men were a reminder that racial attacks always hurt real people. Antagonists hide behind "law" and "Constitution," as well as bad economic theory about jobs, but it's all about skin color.
There's plenty of room in America, and in many areas, there are plenty of jobs. But some whites fear the loss of America's perceived character as a "white nation." It isn't surprising that the latest assault came from an Anglo judge in Brownsville, TX, a city on the Mexican border that is over 90% Hispanic -- "maybe 99.9%," said one diner.
Haters, of course, are going to hate. Before people of color were the target, hatred greeted each wave of white-skinned arrivals from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Armenia. The Klan targeted Roman Catholics as angrily as they targeted blacks.
People of color, however, don't assimilate as easily. Their skin is a constant reminder that whatever people knew in 1950 or 1970 or 1990 is changing. As a Federal judge told three white men at their sentencing for a race killing, it was ironic that the Attorney General, the prosecutor in their trial, the head of the prison system that will be their home until death, and the judge sentencing them are all African-American.
But maybe not ironic. Maybe those were precisely the changes that stirred them to beat a black man and run over him with their car.
America has never been a "white nation." The continent was filled with darker-skinned natives when white Europeans arrived. Not long after whites arrived, so did black slaves from Africa. Large portions of the eventual lower 48 states were once Mexican, and the 49th and 50th states had large non-white populations. Asians arrived in the 19th Century and helped to build the trans-continental railroads on which white merchants, farmers and industrialists depended.
But many white Americans thought of their nation as "white." The ads they saw on TV showed white people. So did most of the movies they saw, the leaders they admired and voted for, the schools their children attended, and until the 1950s, the athletes they saw in college and professional sports. Auto racing and country music are still almost entirely white.
Those white faces weren't a mirage. In 1960, whites comprised 85% of the total US population. If you wanted to market a product, that was your audience.
Today, of course, the nation is becoming much less white. By 2060, it's estimated non-whites will make up 57% of the total population. To sell a car or house or store brand today, you had better have at least some people of color on display.
Practical people get that. Color seems less and less critical for ad campaigns and entertainment. But for those whose skin color is a primary identifier, indeed for some their only bragging right, the growing presence of dark-skinned people is a threat, an offense, something to be resisted at any cost. It could be argued that the Tea Party is actually a "white people's party," and its relentless attacks are about skin color, not theories of law and government.
States where non-white populations are large have tended to be the most determined to preserve white privilege. Two states with the most vitriolic right-wing leadership are Arizona and Texas, where non-white populations are substantial. As non-white immigrants poured into states like Iowa and Kansas seeking jobs, those states joined the hard-right movement.
It isn't all the people of Texas and Arizona who want to put up a wall along the Rio Grande. It is whites. It isn't all the voters in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin who are worried about some illusion called "voter fraud." It is white voters, and their issue is dark-skinned citizens casting ballots.
The irony is that when jobs are plentiful, white and non-white people tend to get along. Here in Hereford, a cattle boomtown, the bargain steakhouse had whites, Hispanics, Native Americans and blacks, all eating and chatting amiably. I saw the same thing in Farmington, NM, at the Navajo Nation, and in Tuba City, AZ, on both Hopi and Navajo lands. In fact, I saw it every day in New York City, which became majority non-white in the 2010 census.
We do know how to get along. We just need racially-motivated whites and politicians serving haters to get out of our way.