When America confronts race, it casts a keen eye on blacks, Latinos, native Americans, Asians - everyone, it seems, except whites.
Whites have historically dominated the United States, and their ideas and values largely have shaped the culture. But only supremacists talk about "white culture." Everyone else keeps mum.
But in the past few years, some "white studies" scholars have begun breaking the silence. To understand the nation's racial diversity, they argue, it's crucial to understand the characteristics and privileges of America's largest racial group. Especially now, since for the first time white majority status looks threatened.
Hispanics - who are defined as an ethnicity, not a race, in the census - hold the key to the nation's demographic identity. If large numbers of them identify themselves as white, then white society will predominate in the US (albeit with a Latino flavor) for decades to come. If Hispanics forge a separate identity, then somewhere around mid-century, the non-Hispanic white population will fall into minority status and the nation could enter a new era defined by a multicultural center.
"Whatever that racial center is, it's still going to be in many ways culturally white," says Jeff Hitchcock, executive director of the Center for the Study of White American Culture, a private nonprofit group based in Roselle, N.J. "But for someone who wants to be only white, it's going to be a little difficult for them."
Three out of 4 Americans describe themselves as exclusively white. Throw in the 5.5 million people who describe themselves as white as well as one or more other races, and the share climbs to 77.1 percent of the US population - a higher proportion than existed in 1830.
Whites hold majorities in all but one state (Hawaii), according to a census report released Monday. Maine and Vermont have the largest white populations (97.9 percent). Mississippi (61.9 percent) and California (63.4 percent) have the smallest white majorities. Not surprisingly, whites are concentrated in the 10 largest states, which happen to hold the most sway in electing American presidents. Of the 10 largest cities in the US, Phoenix has the highest proportion of whites (74 percent) followed by San Antonio (71 percent). Detroit has the lowest share (14 percent).
With such numerical advantage, it's little surprise that whites hold most of the levers of power in the US. But notions of white culture fell into disrepute with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That's another reason few people talk of white culture nowadays - it sounds racist.
In fact, many minority scholars who study race welcome the emergence of white studies. "It's like putting a microscope on their culture," says Ray Winbush, director of the Race Relations Institute at historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. "We have black studies, women's studies, Latino studies.... The fact of the matter is that white culture needs to be discussed in depth."
White studies experts face charges of being supremacists when, in fact, many of them espouse a move toward a multicultural society. (For example: Mr. Hitchcock, who is white, is married to a black sociologist, has two children of mixed race, and works for a minority-owned diversity consulting firm.) "You can talk about whiteness and white culture," he says. "And it's important to do so if we want to build a multiracial society."
Of course, the concept of whiteness changes over time. In 1790, the US granted citizenship to "free white persons" - read: persons of Anglo-Saxon descent. Irish immigrants were discriminated against. Later, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and elsewhere joined the establishment, to the exclusion of other minorities. Today, the census counts as white the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. "Recognizing the historical fabrication, the changeability, and the contingencies of whiteness, we might begin to look in a new way upon race, the power relations it generates, and the social havoc it wreaks," writes Matthew Jacobson, a Yale University professor of American studies, in his 1998 book "Whiteness of a Different Color."
The big question now looming is whether Latinos will expand even further the definition of whiteness. During the 19th century, census enumerators often lumped Hispanics with native Americans or "other." Only in the 1930 census, after a significant influx of Mexicans, did they gain their own category. Beginning with the 1940 census, however, Mexicans were listed as "white" unless they were definitely some other race.
This official inclusion of Hispanics as "white" continues today with two major differences. Since 1970, the job of determining race has been left up to the individuals themselves. Ever since 1980, the census has categorized Hispanics as an "ethnic" group - meaning people mark whether they're Hispanic in one question and then pick from 15 race categories in another. In the 2000 census, just over half of Hispanics identified themselves as white.
Many demographers expect Hispanics will be assimilated into white culture during the 21st century, just as southern Europeans were integrated during the 20th century. But white studies experts point to an intriguing counter-trend: whites' rising interest in ethnic distinctions, such as Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans.
According to this week's census report, white youths in particular show an increasing tendency to be identified as multiracial. For example: of the 5.5 million individuals who said they were white and at least one other race, 43 percent were under 18. By contrast, 24 percent of those who said they were white alone were under 18. "The question is: How far will it go?" Hitchcock says. "Will it take us to a multiracial society? I tend to be optimistic."