06/20/2013 03:50 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

Whiteness in Fact and Fiction

2013 ushered in the revival of two "classic" pieces of American culture.

The first marks the mainstream's return to gaze upon F. Scott Fitzgerald's magnum opus, The Great Gatsby -- this time on the silver screen thanks to the courtesy of executive producer and rap mogul Jay-Z. The film was, by and large, a success. It took in 50 million over opening weekend and grossed 140 million by last week.

The second classic piece of Americana is the Census Bureau's release of the Constitutionally mandated data that hands the nation a much-needed mirror -- it affords us a much needed a picture of who we are and what we look like. Especially along the lines of racial and ethnic populations, the report is striking. It states that for the first time in U.S. history, deaths among white Americans exceeded births, leading many to predict that the US will be a majority nonwhite nation by around the year 2043.

These two incidents might seem completely unrelated. But to a sociologist who studies race and has reread Gatsby over the years, there are striking parallels that bear further exploration given our contemporary political and racialized moment.

For some, the census report spells the end of white people. Reading the report from a xenophobic, racist, and reactionary standpoint, it is the harbinger of doom. Many are fearful of what a nation, whose under-five population now stands about 50% nonwhite, will look like in a couple of decades. For example, a man we know as Pat Buchanan recently published Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? The tract takes up the notion that the U.S. will transform into an unfavorable milieu dominated by nonwhites who lack academic and professional skills, intelligence, and the moral backbone of a supposed Anglo-work ethnic. Writing in 2011, Buchannan penned the following: "A close look at the numbers from the Census Bureau fleshes out the picture... the end of white American comes in thirty years... what is coming appears inexorable... two of three Texas children today are non-Anglo and by 2040 only one in five will be white. As the education and income levels of Hispanics lag far behind... the future is bleak."

Such prose recalls another man named Buchannan; Fitzgerald's fictional sobriquet of a 1920s era white supremacist named Tom: "Civilization's going to pieces,' broke out Tom violently. 'I've gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?... Well, it's a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be -- will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved... It's up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things... This idea is that we're Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and... And we've produced all the things that go to make civilization -- oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?' "

The parallel recalls Oscar Wilde's adage that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life." And such comparisons neither begin nor end here.

From Obama's second term to Sotomayor on the bench and from Eric Holder as Attorney General to Detroit's former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, many seem unsettled by the nonwhite political power. For example, when former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was arrested on multiple felony counts inclusive of mail fraud, wire fraud, and racketeering, Detroit's premier business journal, DBusiness wrote, "Before he [Kilpatrick] was first elected mayor, there were those who suggested that this may be the city's next-generation post-racial mayor, in much the same way Barack Obama's election was naively touted by some as 'post-racial.' But racial animus is thriving in the United States... It remains so today, thanks to high-profile contributions by Kwame Kilpatrick, his mother, and his father. The national press was watching, and what it saw was a racial mosh pit where anything can happen."

This recalls the scene in Gatsby, that also escaped the cutting room floor for the film, when Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby drive across the Queensboro bridge. Crossing over Blackwell's Island, Nick notices a limousine, "driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry. 'Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge,' I thought; 'anything at all.'"

In both fact and fiction, some see positions of nonwhite authority (to which some whites are subordinate) as the precipice of a historic reversal of white male domination in the political realm. Moreover, the threat of nonwhite political participation, election, and authority is not simply seen as the consequence of demographic changes that will brown America, but as solipsistic shifts in the universe in which anything can happen! In both Fitzgerald's description of a white chauffer who serves the conspicuous consumption of "modish negroes" and the symbolism that implicitly cites dysfunctional blackness as the cause of Kilpatrick's corruption, these images reflect an anxiety over what the racial future holds, coupled with a Herrenvolk sentimentalism for a white racial past that was supposedly moral and predictable.

However, both the Census Bureau and Fitzgerald failed to consider that these racial categories are not static -- a cardinal sin for both writers of dynamic characters and demographic crystal ball gazers. Race is a social construction; its meanings, its boundaries, and its requirements for belonging, are the product of social forces -- from how we socially decide what race someone is to how they are officially designated on the census. Who qualifies as "white" changes from one period to the next. Consider first that the fastest nonwhite population growth is among multiracial Americans, Asians, and Hispanics. Next consider that the highest rates of inter-racial marriage occur between people now understood as White and Asian and then White and Hispanic. Given prior research that demonstrates how people pass into whiteness, we can theorize that many now-Hispanics, now-Asians, and now-White/Asian and now-White/Hispanic multiracials will identify as white, and thus the U.S. will remain a majority white nation for long after that 2043 mark. Moreover, the Census itself measures "whiteness" by those that check only the white box on the race question and check the no box for Hispanic. Those people might be less than half, but they may pass and be treated as white for sometime long after 2050. Demographic rates change, but the categories they measure change also.

All in all, the eugenics logic-laden angst over a nonwhite ushered decline of civilization and the concern over the loss of de jure white political nationalism forgets that race is a social construction in the service of power. Those that qualify as "white" show no signs of a decline of authority and privilege. While those that claim whiteness may change, the meanings and power of whiteness remain robust and stubbornly fixed. And in so long as privileges are afforded to those who can successfully lay claim to this arbitrary social designation, we will have an entrenched and unequal social order. Until we recognize that our debate over racial demographics is really a debate over the power and inequality that we have arbitrarily enshrined in randomly assigned phenotypical features, then we will hopelessly "beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."