The Color of White
By John D. Turner
20 August 2001

I was reading an interesting article the other day, concerning race in America. Based on recently released census data, it was a bit of a departure from the usual reporting in that it centered on white demographics, rather than the usual Black/Asian/AmerInd breakdowns. The numbers listed were quite interesting. I already knew that I lived in one of the ten largest cities in the US, however I was quite surprised (astonished, actually) to discover that among those ten cities, we reportedly have the second highest proportion of whites in the nation.

Phoenix, Arizona topped the list with 74%. Having lived there for three years while attending college, I can't say I am too amazed at that finding. Had I been forced to guess, I probably would have put it somewhere near the top myself. However, I would have never in a million years put San Antonio, Texas second.

I have lived here for nearly 20 years. I know for a fact that somewhere around 56% of the city is Hispanic. What one would typically think of as "white" faces are in a clear minority. If it weren't for the presence of five military bases, that percentagle would probably be even lower still. So how is it that the census reports San Antonio as being 71% white, second only to Phoenix, Arizona in the top ten largest US cities?

There is an old saying that "figures don't lie, but liars figure". To paraphrase a former President of the United States, "it all depends on what the meaning of 'white' is".

"Hispanic", it seems, is considered an ethnicity, not a race. The census form listed both "ethnic" groups, as well as races. On the form, Hispanic appeared as an ethnic group. An individual choosing Hispanic as an ethnic group would then be forced to choose something else for race. Many, apparently, chose white.

Demographically, the definition of "whiteness" has changed over the years. Back in the 1790 census, it was taken to mean persons of Anglo-Saxon descent. To many it still does which just goes to show that perception and reality are not always the same thing. During the 19th century, Hispanics were often lumped in together with "native Americans" (I hate that term; what am I, who was born in this country then, chopped liver?), or "other". In the 1930 census, Hispanics had their own category (Mexican), however beginning with the 1940 census, they were listed as "white". This inclusion of Hispanics as "white" continues today, unless you have parentage or ancestry in some other race (black, Asian, AmerInd, etc) that you can claim instead. Also included in the definition of "white" today are the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Which explains how San Antonio, Texas can be listed as 71% "white", despite the fact that Anglos are in the definite minority.

The whole issue of race as the Federal Government applies it in the United States is at odds with reality anyway, and the above example just serves to illustrate the point. Census figures show that three out of four Americans describe themselves as exclusively white. What exactly does that mean though? When a black person talks about a "white person", does he or she include Hispanics in that definition? How about Egyptians? Saudis? Libyans? Would your average Anglo? And yet they are counted in the census figures as "white". Then there are the 5.5 million Americans who describe themselves as white as well as one or more other races, a number that is sure to increase dramatically as time goes on. It is interesting to note that Tiger Woods, who has one black parent and one Asian parent can claim either ethnic group on his census form. What would an individual with one black and one white parent claim? In theory, they should be able to claim either, same as Tiger. In reality, they would almost be forced to claim black. Quite aside from the fact that there would be no advantage to claiming white (and a definite advantage to claiming black), the hassle involved with claiming white would be way more trouble than it would be worth.

It is much easier to just say, "I am an American" and be done with it. After all, that's what we all are. But that's not the way it is done in the United States these days. Government monies and government programs follow ethnic and racial lines. To be labeled "white" is a bad thing; there are no set aside programs for whites. But if you are white, of the ethnicity "Hispanic", well, then that's ok. Here in San Antonio, if your children even look Hispanic, they automatically get signed up for the school lunch program, paid for by Federal dollars. I know this for a fact, because it happed with our family.

About three years ago, we put our kids back in public school for a year. After the first week, we noticed that Danielle, our second-oldest daughter, was on the student lunch program. We hadn't signed her up for the program, and none of our other three kids we had enrolled was on the program, just Danielle. When we inquired, we discovered that the school had made the determination to put her on the program, based on the observation that she "looked Hispanic". Nobody asked, they just signed her up. The implication here, of course, is that if you are Hispanic, you must be "disadvantaged", and therefore would qualify for the program. When we pointed out that she wasn't Hispanic, that none of her siblings were on the program, that we didn't qualify based on need, and that we could afford to provide lunches for our kids anyway, they still didn't want to take her off the program. After all, they would lose federal bucks if they did.

Belonging to a federally advantaged group is of such benefit that everyone is trying to get in on the act. In fact, if you want to make sure that your future kids are given every possible advantage, make sure you marry someone from a government-approved racial or ethnic minority group. It was noted in the article I read that demographers have noticed what they consider an interesting trend, that being "whites' rising interest in ethnic distinctions, such as Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans". Of course. You don't need to be hit upside the head very many times to notice that if you can pick up a hyphen in there somewhere, that can work to your advantage. You need something to differentiate you from just plain old garden-variety "white", which is more of a liability than an asset these days. While there may not be any government program for me as of yet, I would much rather be described as a "Scottish-American" than simply as "white". Of course, if I had my druthers, I'd be proud just to be called an American, and let it go at that.

I will be leaving on vacation this week, and following that will be heading back to Ohio for a Reserve Conference the first week in September, so I may not have anything new to post here for awhile. So, as one American to another, adios! Catch you later.