The Meaning of Race in a 21st Century America

As rapid demographic changes occur, Americans must understand—not fear—the inevitable changes to our society.

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Shown is the First Presbyterian Church in Natchez, Mississippi. (Flickr/J. Stephen Conn)
Shown is the First Presbyterian Church in Natchez, Mississippi. (Flickr/J. Stephen Conn)

Contrary to how I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life and career, I didn’t grow up thinking very much or too deeply about race. In fact, for the greater part of my childhood, I was totally unaware that it existed. For that, I thank my father.

My namesake father, born in the first quarter of the 20th century, was a second-generation Presbyterian minister who imbued in me the belief that all that occurred on Earth was the preordained will of God. No man determined the ultimate fate of another. That was the exclusive power of the Almighty. So he didn’t talk very much about race or discrimination or any of those manmade matters.

The Rev. S. L. Fulwood Jr., who died at age 83 in 2007, also believed that in the United States being black and poor were synonymous. To imagine anything otherwise was impossible for him, despite evidence to the contrary. Race was a fixed concept, as far as he was concerned, a cross for black Americans to bear from here to eternity.

My father’s views were shaped by his existence. He grew up in rural North Carolina surrounded by black people who were less well off than his own family. When he married in the early 1950s and set about raising a family that would come to include my brother and me, about 55 percent of black Americans were living below the official poverty line. Although my family’s situation was comfortable, well beyond the grinding privation so associated with growing up black in the Jim Crow South, my parents never allowed themselves to imagine wealth. They always associated themselves with the underdog realities of the legally segregated black folk they grew up around.

Until his death in relatively affluent retirement, my father considered himself a poor man going to Heaven for his reward. “Always been black and poor, and that’s how I’ll meet the Lord,” he told me, not too long before he did just that.

I’ve been thinking about my father as my Progress 2050 colleagues organize tomorrow’s “The Meaning of Race in a 21st-Century America” event. The world today is a very different place from the simplistic, binary, black-and-white concept of race that my father thought he had figured out. And it’s changing at a speed that he’d have difficulty comprehending.

According to Census projections, by 2043, non-Hispanic whites will become a minority of our population. By 2050, they will be only 47 percent of the U.S. population, with communities of color combining to form a solid 53 percent majority. Hispanics will make up 28 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2010, and African Americans will make up 13 percent, about 1 percentage point higher than their level in 2010. Asians will make up 7 percent, up from 5 percent in 2010, and another 0.7 percent will be made up of American Indians and Alaska Natives, unchanged from their 2010 levels. Finally, multiracial individuals should double in size, from their current 2 percent of the population to 4 percent by 2050.

Despite the ever-evolving nature of America’s population, far too many people cling to outdated notions regarding race. At an earlier point in our nation’s history, when demographic changes reshaped the nation, colonial Americans allowed fear and folk tales to guide their behavior, which had dire consequences that we’re still struggling to overcome. As noted anthropologist Audrey Smedley observed in her landmark book Race in North America: The Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, the fiction of race as a real and identifiable thing stems from a need by English settlers in the New World to separate themselves from the African workers they imported as slaves.

“There really was no such thing as race then,” Smedley explained in a 2003 PBS interview. “Although ‘race’ was used as a categorizing term in the English language, like ‘type’ or ‘sort’ or ‘kind,’ it did not refer to human beings as groups.”

To be sure, in the very early 1600s, race-based slavery wasn’t even practiced in the Americas. Indentured servitude was a system of exploitative labor among the many poor whites, the few Africans, and some Native Americans all along the Atlantic seaboard colonies. “They played together, they drank together, they slept together,” she observed, wryly adding that, “The first mulatto child was born in 1620 (one year after the arrival of the first Africans).”

But such comity broke down as white settlers became uncomfortable with the growing presence of Africans, and to justify the growth in the slave trade, they needed to prevent them from finding common ground with the indentured white workers. Employing the pseudoscience of phrenology and base religious values, the early white Americans argued that blacks were a subhuman species perfect for white subordination.

Of course, only the most outrageous racists would make such a claim today. And most thinking people agree that race is a social construct. As John H. Relethford of the State University of New York at Oneonta writes in his textbook The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology, “Race is a concept of human minds, not of nature.”

But scientifically discredited notions of race as something real, impermeable, and empowering persist in the political and cultural view of nearly all Americans. That’s why this week’s conversation on the contemporary meaning of race is so vitally important. As rapid demographic changes occur, Americans must understand—not fear—the inevitable changes to our society.

I’m eager to embrace the future diversity of America. How I wish my father were alive to see it with me.

Follow this link for a live webcast of the event.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)