I grew up in a small town outside of Houston in a culture that was mostly white, Anglo, and Christian.
It wasn’t exclusively white. We had both African-American and Mexican-American neighbors and, after NASA set up the Johnson Space Center nearby, we had Jewish ones as well. The NASA influx also brought in people with roots in other countries, not all of them European.
But the default culture was white. Southern white, with a Texas flavor.
The local school was small and inadequate, so my folks sent me to junior high and high school in Alvin, a neighboring town where the schools had modern items like language labs and new math. My mother took me to the bus stop at 7 a.m. every morning.
Every morning while I waited for the bus, I saw our neighbor Mr. Mitchell drive by in an Alvin school bus. (You couldn’t miss our orange and white buses.) I thought it was odd that he drove right by us but didn’t take us to school, so I asked my mother about it.
Turned out that Mr. Mitchell was driving that bus into Alvin to pick up all the Black kids and drive them another twenty miles down the road to Dickenson, which had a “colored” school.
Note that this was some years after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregated schools unconstitutional (I’m not that old). Eventually, Dickenson closed its segregated school and Alvin integrated. But they managed to drag their feet about it for a dozen years.
I imagine that put Mr. Mitchell out of a job, now that I think about it. I don’t recall us getting any Black teachers or bus drivers after the schools were integrated. But back then, schools that integrated without a lot of hassle looked like a victory. And we didn’t have riots or school closures or even the opening of a lot of all-white private schools.
The culture was still white, though, even if there were more people who weren’t.
A few years ago, an African-American friend of mine in casual conversation referred to me as “European-American.” It strikes me as a reasonable term to use if we’re serious about getting away from letting the default definition of American be “certain kinds of white people.”
Though I’m not completely comfortable with it, not because it’s not accurate to say that my ancestry is European, but because my family has been on this side of the Atlantic long enough that I know nothing but very vague stories about where we came from before landing in North America. I don’t feel tied to any other countries.
The most recent immigrant in my family is my grandmother’s grandfather, who came from Ireland before the U.S. Civil War. As near as I can tell, most of the rest were here before the American Revolution.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t come from immigrants. It just means that my ancestors got here before immigration became complicated. And, of course, they were white. I have the impression that even my Irish ancestors didn’t run into much difficulty coming to America.
The truth is, the only Americans who aren’t immigrants are those we call Native Americans. Given the way they have been treated under laws and treaties and military action, it is obvious that birthright isn’t the defining feature when it comes to immigration debates.
The current state of affairs is not the first time our country has engaged in anti-immigrant behavior. It gives me some measure of comfort to know that actions blocking or imprisoning or discriminating against people based on their countries of origin have not fared well in the history books. That won’t end the suffering such actions are causing right now, though.
It recently occurred to me that I’ve spent half my life in U.S. jurisdictions where the white, non-Hispanic population was under 50 percent. I spent many years in Washington, D.C., which was predominantly African-American, then returned to a Texas in which non-Hispanic white people – though they still held onto political power – had shrunk to 45 percent of the population.
Now I live in California, another majority-minority (as the current term goes) state. The American I’ve been living in isn’t white and Anglo. It’s a diverse place, with people from all over the world.
I’ve always thought that the mix of cultures in our country was one of our greatest assets, that despite some very ugly racism, we were doing better at living in a diverse society than, say, the Europeans. Recent political changes have shaken my faith in that theory.
But Texas and California are our two largest states; together they represent about twenty percent of the population. And while the Texas politicians are still trying to drag the state back to the 19th century, the changing demographic will eventually change the politics as it has already changed Texas culture.
California, meanwhile, is setting a good example on diversity after having gone through the throes of anti-immigrant fervor in the 1990s. The New York Times had a recent piece on how what happens in California – good and bad – eventually happens in the rest of the United States.
I’m glad they noticed. I figured this out 20 years ago – long before I even thought about living out here – when I was first working as a legal reporter and realized how crucial it was to cover both litigation and legislative action in California, because the same things were soon to be seen elsewhere.
It’s not that we don’t have problems in California. The old Woody Guthrie song still holds true: California may be the “Garden of Eden,” but unfortunately, “You won’t find it so hot if you don’t have the dough-re-me.”
But right now Californians are doing a better job than most at figuring out how to live together. Given the number of serious protests nationwide over the ban of people from certain Muslim nations, some of the rest of the country isn’t far behind. With luck the federal government will catch up with us all sooner or later.