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Census data show us that no racial tantrum can last forever | Column
The number of white people in this country has fallen for the first time since the first census in 1790.
Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton waits to be introduced at a press conference regarding the 2020 Census at Douglas Park in Chicago last year.
Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton waits to be introduced at a press conference regarding the 2020 Census at Douglas Park in Chicago last year.
Published Aug. 18, 2021

Chris Rock described it as a kind of temper tantrum.

This was in 2011. “When I see the tea party and all this stuff,” the comedian told Esquire, “it actually feels like racism’s almost over.” He likened the tea party — with its street theatrics, overwrought histrionics and overt panic at the idea of living under a Black president — to little kids throwing one last hissy fit at bedtime. “They’re going crazy. They’re insane. You want to get rid of them — and the next thing you know, they’re f---ing knocked out. And that’s what’s going on in the country right now.”

Leonard Pitts
Leonard Pitts [ File photo ]

The intervening decade has proven how right Rock was. And how wrong. Because, yes, a large portion of white America was certainly having a racial temper tantrum back then. But the idea that it would soon be over is refuted by the obvious fact that it is still going on.

And it’s about to get much worse.

Last week, the Census Bureau dropped a demographic bombshell. According to its 2020 count, the number of white people in this country has fallen for the first time since the first census in 1790. To be clear: This is not a measurement of white as a percentage of the population, a figure that’s been dropping for years as we move toward a majority people-of-color population. No, this is white as an absolute number. It seems the group of Americans who identify as white alone (i.e., not biracial) shrank by 5.1 million, a decrease of 2.6 percent.

We’re talking a demographic demotion that will leave some of us terrified.

We already know what that leads to. Indeed, hysteria over the pending loss of straight, white, Christian primacy has driven the tumult of the last decade and a half. Meaning, yes, the obvious stuff like the church massacre in Charleston, the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, the murder in Charlottesville and street violence against Asian Americans.

But that hysteria is also at the root of outrages some might find less obvious. It’s why the GOP has withdrawn from basic democratic norms, why Donald Trump was elected, the Capitol was ransacked and state laws now suppress Black votes while restricting Black history. It’s why conservatives often cast Democratic legislation in racial terms, as when Rush Limbaugh dubbed the Affordable Care Act “reparations.” It’s why some people find the likes of Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez so deeply frightening, why they rail against masks and vaccinations as incursions on their “freedom,” why Tucker Carlson warns his audience of older white people on seemingly a nightly basis that they are being “replaced.”

There is a sweaty desperation to all of this, as if some white people — thank heaven, only some — cannot conceive of themselves without the perks, privileges, power and prerogatives of majority. And if that’s how they felt before last week’s announcement, imagine how they feel now. Suffice it to say, we should brace for more upheavals.

Almost lost in the midst of all this is the fact that these demographic changes, seismic as they are, portend a vibrant new America, one that will be a challenge, yes, but also an opportunity — and a hope. Assuming we get there. Assuming we are not undone by those whose allegiance to democracy is dwarfed by their allegiance to skin tone.

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They will scream and cry and stomp and kick and make a mess trying to get their way. But the good news is that no tantrum — not even the most epic — can last forever.

It just feels like forever, is all.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

©2021 Miami Herald

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