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How White Liberals Became a New Racial Minority

So you log on to the NPR web site, and you glance over the U.S. map from November 2, 2004. The red footprint seems to smother the whole country. Fringes of blue cling to the coasts and the Great Lakes for dear life. The colors drive home a sense that some antagonisms can’t be drowned in wine and song, blown off with a few hours of reality television, or diffused with politeness.

It’s a civil war. The Civil War, in fact, all over again. Ohio and Indiana seem to have crawled over the border ­ but don’t be tricked by their geographic location. Cuyahoga County, on the southern shores of Lake Erie, is the home of Cleveland and its Rust Belt suburbs. That county voted two thirds for Kerry. So did Lucas County, ringing Toledo. Ohio’s split down the middle between the new North and the old South. Indiana is about as northern as Kentucky. The Mason-Dixon line is no longer definitive ­ the divide is cultural, psychic, social. But it’s still geographic too. The blue states are all contiguous, adjacent, clinging to each other for their dear life against the encroaching march of the Republican empire.

And it’s racial too. But race is not the easy black/white divide that it once was. Over forty percent of Latinos voted for Bush. And Latinos range from blonde and blue-eyed to African and dark-eyed. Within our comfortable old racial categories there are now offshoots, spinoffs, mutating branches. The whitened, conservative Latino is just such a creature, a newly grafted model of human being that challenges everything we once assumed about race relations. I don’t particularly like the model. I prefer to keep those kinds of Latinos out of my hair, quarantine them in Miami, South Texas, and the gauche suburbs of Phoenix.

Isn’t that the point? My Latinos are like me. They live around me. I see them every day. We understand each other and see eye to eye. We’re on the same side of the dividing line. It’s only in national elections that I have to worry about the non-me Latinos, the obnoxious, recently evangelized, anti-immigrant Chicano who drives a pick-up with a gun rack through the sands of West Texas and sounds like George Bush when he talks, or the babbling Cuban business owner in Broward County who still goes on and on about Castro’s abuses and turns his nose up at Puerto Ricans.

Race is getting very complicated. Within the races we used to understand, misunderstandings cause huge cracks. Maybe they’re not the same races anymore. Maybe there are several kinds of Latino, with nothing in common. It’s not just that we can’t agree on what being Latino means ­ it’s that we don’t talk to each other and don’t have to, because I know and they know that we aren’t the same species.

As race changes, race doesn’t disappear as a dividing concept. In fact, race has everything to do with the November 2 election. It was a race conflict slowly boiling into a race war. It’s not a huge surprise to people of color (however you choose to construe that old term), because if you’ve been a racial minority all your life, you treat racial strife as a given, like rainy days or rust. You deal with it and move on.

What I find fascinating, however, is how much the new racial conflict surprises white people. Specifically, white liberals. I remember six or seven years ago, I never used to see eye to eye with white liberals. Even though they were sympathetic, they still had an underlying faith in the American system that would drive me crazy. They wanted racial problems to be solved, but they believed that if you just patiently dealt with the structures that existed ­ circulate a petition, apply for a grant, get out and vote ­ the planets would realign and the system would change for you. I always felt, deep down inside, that those efforts were ultimately futile. When you’re branded as a racial other, you know that every court is a kangaroo court, every election an exercise in fraud, every grievance process a sham performance. It used to be, before the Clinton impeachment, that white liberals would find my cynicism off-putting. They would find me cold. Ultimately they would feel that I wasn’t giving them or their ideals a chance. Partly, these impasses came about because white liberals wanted to believe that white people were good at heart, and if they were presented with sound logic and a real chance, they would be tolerant.

Nowadays, when I talk to white liberals, I don’t notice any impasse at all. We see eye to eye all the time. In fact, we seem to be feeling the exact same things. It almost feels ­ dare I say it? ­ that white liberals have become people of color.

It makes sense that white liberals have become people of color, through no efforts of their own. They cluster in the “blue states” and they’re literally redlined by the red states out of the structure of power. They’re demographically gridlocked. No matter how much they fight to assert their demands, the system knocks them down. And because they’re white, they’re subtly punished for not being like white people who take whiteness to its rightful apex ­ the evangelical church raising, the GOP fundraiser, the “God Bless America” bumper sticker on an armored SUV, and the abiding belief that one was born to rule the world in God’s will. White liberals are the target of the worst political rhetoric, debased in the most degrading terms, and ultimately, stripped of their rights and branded traitors. They have been stripped, in fact, of their whiteness.

The turning point may have come when Clinton was impeached, and the press mistakenly called him “the first black president.” That’s not the case. He was simply the first white political figure to be publicly stripped of his whiteness. Unfortunately, whites in that situation don’t become black. They’re simply shoved into a no-man’s land and suffocated.

White liberals ­ welcome to the club. If the election has left you disgruntled, if you suddenly feel like nothing you do through legitimate means can change anything, if you feel outnumbered, if your whole country seems to be against you, if you feel branded and marred by some stain of otherness that you don’t understand, if you’re forced to be someone you are not, if you have to be careful so you don’t get deported or lose your job or end up in a Star Chamber, if you feel hemmed in by politics and stuffed into the blue ghettoes on the fringes of the mapyou have officially been de-whitened. Join hands with those of us who have been dealing with those very sentiments for our whole lives. You and we are all people of color now, adrift in the cruel ocean of whiteness.

Robert O. Lopez is a frequent contributor to Buffalo Report. He can be reached at: lopezro@camden.rutgers.edu