Anticipation of the End: Hua Hsu and Oscar Grant

by zunguzungu

Hua Hsu’s “The End of White America” has a provocative title, but if that makes the argument seem less nuanced than it is (and it is smart and nuanced), provocation is on the menu for a reason. “We’re approaching a profound demographic tipping point,” he writes, “According to an August 2008 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, those groups currently categorized as racial minorities-blacks and Hispanics, East Asians and South Asians-will account for a majority of the U.S. population by the year 2042.” Since — by my watch — that tipping point is thirty-five years in the future, he has to find a way to make this sound more cataclysmic than it is by writing “Among Americans under the age of 18, this shift is projected to take place in 2023, which means that every child born in the United States from here on out will belong to the first post-white generation.”

Obviously, then, this is really about Obama, and the looming inauguration. Or, to put it another way, it’s less about empirical changes in demography than a very spectacular shift in the symbols we use to understand that reality. After all, let’s not forget why “statistics” is a fancy word for “lying with numbers”: like photographs, they produce an image of “reality” which can both be presented as authentic and undeniable and yet can also be profoundly subjective, because subject to interested manipulation. To not mince words, Hsu is manipulating statistics, and the fact that everything he says is true doesn’t change the fact that he’s (in good faith) framing the data in particular interested ways. While he doesn’t share either the nativism racism or rapturous anticipation of a Lothrop Stoddard for the oncoming cataclysmic war for civilization, he does share with that type an investment in anticipating an onrushing event of some sort. So he cooks the books a tad; he concocts an event where there isn’t one.

Why does he want an event? Why does he want to transform what is a profound but also tectonic transformation of demographics into a visible tipping point? Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell has gotten to him. But then, I’ve already told you why I think it is that he’s done this: the United States is about to inaugurate a non-white president, a fact which is a thousand times more visceral than any statistic. Especially right now (and, interestingly, now before it has become real), we can feel that onrushing event in a way we won’t feel it when it’s happening or has happened, when Obama is really the president instead of only conceptually. My guess is that this inauguration dais I snapped a picture of a week ago is more real now as an event than it will be when it’s filled with people, when a thousand different things are happening at once. Right now, perhaps, it can be only one thing because it hasn’t happened yet.

daisYou can’t feel a statistic. I might even say that the usefulness of a piece of statistic data is almost always a product of how counterintuitive it is, the extent to which it tells you the reality of something which does not actually seem real to you. And after all, if we are surprised to learn that our country is about to become a non-white majority country (and this is always the subtext of this sort of discourse), why shouldn’t we be surprised? The profundity of our country’s increasingly segregated housing patterns shouldn’t be underestimated: the built communities in which we live are effectively designed to make the underlying demographic facts difficult to perceive. Since the majority of white Americans live in communities which are majority white in a big way (or are constructed to conceal the existence of people of color), the median white American can be forgiven for not having a clear understanding of the demographic shift that’s occurring. And even if non-white people were a majority in this country, “they” could be equally forgiven for not feeling like one. In other words, this is an event because it is counterintuitive, because we can feel one thing but be told another, because we feel in here that America is a white country, but be told in some undeniable way (a census, an inauguration) that it is not.

Don’t misunderstand me; my point is that both of these facts are true, but that they are true in significantly different ways, and we need to be able to think about both, about how America can be a white country and also not. To be as blunt as possible, demographic reality is one thing and symbolic reality is another, and neither is anything like clear-cut anyway; the crux of the biscuit is the way the two interact and are articulated. For example: demographic shifts in the population are certainly part of the explanation for why Obama could be elected (see here, for example), but the overdetermined fact of “President Obama” is certainly not reducible to demography, nor should we underplay the significance of the various factors which mediate how demographic fact translates into democratic results. It isn’t that he’s a biracial / non-white / black / minority / muslim-named / whatever candidate that got him elected, it’s how he articulated himself as a combination of those possible identities, how he navigated the mine-fields of identity and managed to produce his own symbolic narrative to explain what still, to many, defies explanation. And in doing so, he called on an intellectual tradition that — however latent it may often be — still runs close to the mainstream of American culture, through King to DuBois to Douglass to Lincoln to, and so on and so forth.

The flip side of all this, though, if we have the audacity to do more than hope, is that we can begin asking (and finding out) the reverse question: what effect does a changing symbolic fact have on empirical facts? Here, for example, is an empirical fact:

Video might be as susceptible to manipulation as any other medium, but I’ve stood on that BART platform myself, and can testify that it is an empirical reality. I’m pretty sure that Oscar Grant is empirically dead, and I think I’m safe in assuming that he died when that cop shot him. And it wasn’t a statistic that sent rioters into the Oakland streets the other day to protest: it was the fact that video images make it real, make you feel it. We might be a majority non-white country, now or soon, but will it change the fact that people like Oscar Grant will empirically feel that bullet pass through their body, and die of the experience? When it comes to Oscar Grant, frankly, this sort of thing gives me more optimism than anything like the cultural politics of an event.

(more to come)