While promoting Lee Daniel’s The Butler in 2013 and discussing its racial themes, Oprah Winfrey made a blunt statement that spurs vigorous controversy to this day. “There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated … in that prejudice and racism,” she told BBC Arts Correspondent Will Gompertz in an interview, “and they just have to die.”
Though conservative commentators predictably and strongly denounced the comments, Oprah’s point that the end of racism will inevitably follow a significant population of white racists dying off is an idea that is embraced by many progressives. But deeper analysis reveals the sobering reality that a system of racial oppression will not collapse on its own given only time. For a true end, far more difficult steps must first be taken, and those steps will be just as difficult for a younger, browner America as for anyone else.
The same year Winfrey made her controversial statement, the Census Bureau projected that by 2043 America will no longer be a majority white country, a shift led primarily by a boom in the Latinx population. Though flaws in that estimate have been noted, it’s undeniable that over time the white population will dwindle in proportion to nonwhite demographics.The white population’s influence and the systems created to benefit it are another story entirely, however.
Having fortified a racial system over time, white people do not need power in numbers to remain in position of power. Take Ferguson: following the killing of Mike Brown in 2014, the city was 67 percent black, but only 3 of its 56 officers on the police force were, a disparity that is not unique to that town.
More importantly, white people don't even need to remain in positions of power for the white supremacy from which they profit to persist. For instance, beginning in the 1960s, the Caribbean saw a wave of countries gain their independence from their European colonizers. But the political climate that followed, at long-last informed by a racially representative process, did little to ease the overall power dynamic between the newly “dis-empowered” white minorities and black majorities, especially on a global scale.
According to The Encyclopedia of Nations, in Jamaica, “wealth is distributed largely along racial lines, reflecting Jamaica's slave-plantation heritage. The descendants of black slaves tend to be among the poorest classes in Jamaica, while white and mixed-race descendants of plantation owners and traders tend to be better off. These extremes are reflected in the nation's distribution of income: in 1996 the wealthiest 20 percent of Jamaicans controlled 43.9 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 20 percent controlled only 7 percent. In fact, the poorest 60 percent controlled just 34.3 percent of wealth.”
In an interview with Scott David, Jamaican writer and scholar Sylvia Wynter calls this racial dynamic “the dilemma of independent Caribbean societies,” explaining, “while the black majority has now come to constitute the electoral majority … the ascriptions of race and wealth’ still function to keep the electoral majority as the poorest, the least educated and the most stigmatized group of society.”
Similar “ascriptions of race” are in action in America today, race-based credits that are destined to outlast mere demographic shifts. For example, a 2015 study measured the influence of support from voters of various demographics on government action, and found legislation becomes less likely to pass as black people increase their support, a relationship unique to that population.
Farai Chideya reported on this alongside other data corroborating the claim that black issues are routinely ignored not just despite but because of their increased involvement around that issue. Why does this glitch in democracy exist for black American and not other segments of the population? According to Chideya, there's a, “fear of turning off other constituencies with appeals to black Americans that shifts the playing field.”
These findings suggest that, ultimately, American society, democracy, and the nation’s economy are built upon a racial caste system that has anti-blackness as a guiding principle. It is indeed the leveraging of anti-blackness that allows all Americans, even people of color, to gain footing in this country. Therefore the fight for racial equity is not just a matter of how many people of color are represented, or even how active they are in the political process, but how much blackness, specifically, is demonized and discarded.
To be sure, demographic change will no doubt have some effect on racial dynamics, but if this country’s racial misdeeds are to be fully rectified, younger generations who usher in a new non-white America have a task ahead far more enormous than generally acknowledged. Americans concerned with racial equity will have to dismantle antiblackness in order to dislodge the deeply entrenched, often invisible, racial caste system in which all of all of us are implicated.
Currently, the nation is engaged in a presidential election greatly shaped by the country's changing demographics. Obviously, some white Americans have a very real fear of their inevitable decline in numbers. This fear has been singled out as the driving factor behind everything from white supremacist groups’ recent membership boom to Donald Trump’s popularity.
The response to this movement from progressive Americans has been insufficient. Calls to “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Our Country” have been met with quiet pronouncements that demographics are destiny. The racist ways the right has reacted to their dwindling power in numbers has been called out mainly as an appeal to voters of color, obscuring the more fundamental flaws in our democracy.
When America’s racism is reduced to one politician and his “basket of deplorables,” the “browning” of our country seems like a powerful force in and of itself. Without a full understanding of how anti-blackness works, the fight against racism might appear as simple as voting for Hillary Clinton.
We should not be so seduced by the promise of changing demographics that we fail to address anti-blackness as a basis of racial injustice. We also shouldn't let the potential for representation or the threat of demagogues conceal what they work ahead actually is. It's not old racists that have to go away for America to achieve racial equity; it’s anti-blackness. And that won't just die; we have to kill it.