Whites not the majority? Nothing new in that…

Did y’all see the “news” the other day — ironically, the day before my grandson was born — that white babies are no longer the majority? I first heard it on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Quoth Neal Conan:

We’ve known for years this day would come, but here it is. The Census Bureau announced today that nonwhite births now make up a majority in the United States. Data gathered in 2011 show that nonwhite, Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Native American, mixed race and others combined for 50.4 percent. That’s the first time that white births were not a majority in U.S. history, and that raises some questions about policy – from education to social services programs – and about how we see ourselves as a nation….

Perhaps this is a good time to inject a bit of historical perspective…

I’m still off-and-on gradually making my way through Charles C. Mann’s 1493, while reading several other books at varying rates, and every time I read a stretch in it, I learn something startling. For instance, I refer you to the fact that for most of the history of Europeans in the Americas — up to the mid-nineteenth century — there were far more people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere than there were white. Way more. An excerpt (I hope the publishers will excuse the length of this quote. I share it within the context of urging you to run out and buy this book; there are many other things in it that will surprise you, and enlarge your understanding of our world.):

This was surprising to me for a couple of reasons. For instance, I had long known that before and after the Civil War, South Carolina had a larger black population than white. Which means that before 1860, most of the state’s population was enslaved.

I used to think of that as anomalous. I thought of it as helping explain the fact that South Carolina slaveholders were more fanatically devoted to their Peculiar Institution that the white elites anywhere else. Hence that firing on Fort Sumter thing.

But as it turns out, if you look at ALL post-Columbian immigration across the hemisphere, not just English, you see that far, far more were brought here as slaves from African than came here, either free or indentured, from all Europe. By 1860, this balance had changed in many places (thereby making SC somewhat anomalous), but for most of the time from 1492 until then, a larger black population had been the norm. (Of course, for that same period, there remained more Indians than whites or blacks, in spite of the way native populations had been decimated by European and African diseases.)

I also found it surprising because I spent part of my childhood in Latin America, and it did not prepare me for this statistic — even though I studied history in Spanish in school (Mann’s references to Columbus as Cristóbal Colón seem very natural to me). In Ecuador, where I lived for two-and-a-half years, it was very unusual to see anyone who looked at all African. I knew that Brazil had imported vast numbers of slaves during the colonial period, and that you could see the results on the streets of Rio. I would have said the same of the islands of the Caribbean.

But for there to be that many more blacks than whites across all the Americas? I had no idea. We all are aware that black labor largely built this country, but I guess I thought that was because those workers were owned by a white majority. I was wrong. At least from a hemispherewide perspective.

In any case… whites not being the majority? Nothing new about that on this side of the world.

12 thoughts on “Whites not the majority? Nothing new in that…

  1. Susanincola

    I wonder how much the minority majority number is inflated by those who are culturally white, but have at least one Hispanic grandparent. I know in my family, my brother-in-law came from Cuba as a child, but my nieces and nephews would certainly be considered just white in the day-to-day world. Wasn’t Jewish considered another “race” at one time, but white folks eventually reclassified them as white (and now they aren’t scary anymore — voila!) 😉

  2. bud

    Nice read Brad. I knew there were a lot of slaves brought over from Africa but this is a sobering reminder of just how awful that era was. Is there any history showing Africans fighting back against this atrocity?

  3. Brad

    Yes. Although it’s more about escaping and going out to establish communities away from the whites. One of the invisible parts of our history has been the interactions between Africans and Indians in America. There was more of that going on than between Europeans and any other group, because there were more Africans and Indians.

    One passage I just read was about a neighborhood in a major Brazilian city that has a 400 history as a runaway slave community. Originally, it was out in the wilderness on its own, but was eventually swallowed by urban sprawl — yet it stands apart, without basic infrastructure, because the modern city grew around it…

  4. Brad

    By the way, if you read this book (and I urge you to), you might want to read its prequel, 1491. It’s about all the latest scholarship regarding life in the Americas before Columbus.

    One of the big revelations: The original native population was much, much larger — many times larger — that historians used to believe. The thing was, European and African diseases spread so rapidly across the continent that they went out years and decades ahead of white colonists (due to trade and other contact between different groups of Indians). By the time actual contact with native peoples had been made, their populations had already been decimated. So the numbers of Indians whites actually encountered were far fewer than what had been here before.

  5. Brad

    Another thing: I don’t want to be misleading. South Carolina WAS the only state with a majority-black population in 1860, so it WAS an anomaly in the United States. It’s when you look at the Americas as a whole that you see that Europeans were a minority.

  6. `Kathryn Braun

    According to my friend, Professor Mark Smith of USC’s History department, the small farmers who settled the Midlands were “imported”–encouraged to settle here from Germany and Switzerland after the Stono Rebellion, when the whites looked around and realized they were seriously outnumbered by blacks and Indians and required a buffer and some back-up. Hence mustard-based barbecue and names like Shumpert, Shealy (Schiele), Bessinger, and Shuler and the large Lutheran population.

  7. Brad

    Yes, that’s one of the few exceptions to the rather monotonous story of South Carolina demographics. We never had the massive influx of Irish and Italians and Poles and other Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Except for those few German-speakers, and some French Huguenots and the occasional Greek or Jew coming in through Charleston, ours was mostly a story of people from West Africa and the British Isles (originally by way of Barbados). No rich melting pot for us.

  8. Steven Davis II

    Yeah, but unless high school drop out rates drop fall 20% among Blacks and Hispanics, they’re going to always be working for the White man who will retain control of 90% of everything. People aren’t going to elect leaders or promote employees to who dropped out of high school their sophomore year.

  9. Brad

    By the way, that painting on the cover of Mann’s book is a curiosity in itself. Entitled “De Español y Negra, Mulato,” it is an example of a weird art genre from the 18th Century.

    They were called “casta paintings,” and they were a visual guide to the “casta” system in Spanish America, which rigidly categorized people according to their racial makeup. These paintings came in sets, usually 16 in number, illustrating various ethnic combinations. This one shows a Spanish father and African mother and their child.

    Mann calls the paintings “bizarre versions of the natural-history painting then becoming popular in Europe.”

  10. Tim

    bud says: May 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm
    Nice read Brad. I knew there were a lot of slaves brought over from Africa but this is a sobering reminder of just how awful that era was. Is there any history showing Africans fighting back against this atrocity?

    The Seminole Indian Wars of the early 1800’s were largely fought, not by native Indians, but by Black Seminoles, escaped slaves from the Carolinas. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Seminoles

    The richest, largest plantations were rice plantations between Georgetown and Charleston. in the Mid 1700’s perhaps the greatest concentration of wealth in the world, with the largest slaveholdings. Populations in SC lowcountry were approximately 90% black. The Gullah connections are strong in the black seminoles and the Cherokee Freedmen, both were rice cultures from Africa, specifically Sierra Leone.

    The Gullah culture extends to this day into the Cherokee Freedmen of Oklahoma, and has even spread to Texas and Mexico. The eventually formed the heart of the Buffalo Soldiers in the Old West. Its quite a fascinating and little known aspect of history.

  11. 803andy

    Good post, I will pick up the book. Some of the facts remind me of passages in “Lies My History Teacher Told Me”. Brad if you haven’t already you should read this book along with “Sundown Towns”.

Comments are closed.