You can almost taste the disappointment and perplexity of reporters that the Trayvon Martin shooter, George Zimmerman, isn’t some caricature from Deliverance. The New York Times saw the need to describe his as “a white Hispanic,” a term which a Nexis search shows has only been used five times previously in the entire history of the paper. Robert VerBruggen noted here yesterday, “if a plain-vanilla white guy shot Zimmerman, he’d be considered just ‘Hispanic.’” But that’s an artifact of elite media prejudices and government race laws, not social reality.
That’s because the meaningful social divide in our country is — and always has been — not white/non-white but black/non-black. Everyone on the non-black side of that divide eventually becomes part of the majority population, starting with Quakers in New England (who, despite being English Protestants, were the wrong kind of English Protestants), then non-English Protestants, then northern European Catholics, then southern and eastern Europeans, then people of Middle Eastern origin (my cousin once owned a house in D.C. that had a restrictive covenant against Armenians, and now she’s an “Anglo”!), and, eventually, people of Latin and Asian ancestry.
The ultimate yardstick for this process is intermarriage, and Zimmerman exemplifies that. The fact that his father is what we today call “white” and his mother is Peruvian (though ethnically that could mean anything, since Peru is a “nation of immigrants” too) only became relevant in the context of the shooting — otherwise, it was irrelevant, except where our ridiculous race laws make it so (checking a box in a college admissions form, for instance). There’s a reason that, even in the 60s, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner didn’t feature a white girl bringing home her Indian or Brazilian fiance. Was Ricky and Lucy having a child even remotely comparable to television’s first interracial kiss? (Take that Kathryn!) Of course not. There are dozens of kids in my boys’ schools who are half Asian and half white and no one even imagines them to be “biracial,” whereas I know two boys with black fathers who are considered biracial (and, further, one has an Asian mother, the other a white one).
It’s the black/non-black divide in our society that we must keep struggling to overcome, so that ethnicity loses its political saliency and becomes a purely voluntary matter, and ultimately becomes a matter simply of genealogy, with all of today’s Americans sharing the same great-grandchildren. But mass immigration interferes with that process, both by slowing intermarriage of recent immigrant groups and by introducing yet more groups that will climb over the backs of black Americans to enter the mainstream. Frederick Douglass’s observation on this is as valid today as when he wrote it in 1853: “Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant, whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place.”