ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
"Are whites racially oppressed?" This was the eye-catching headline atop an article CNN.com posted last week about rising anxieties among Caucasians as they become a statistical minority in this country.
The simple answer is "no." Minorities don't aspire to oppress white people. Nor will they, any time in the near future, command the sort of wealth that will kick whites off the top pedestals of American power and influence.
The complex and more interesting answer would have been better served by the title: "Are whites nervous about shifting American demographics?" That could have fueled some honest discussions about the very real changes our country is beginning to navigate.
The 2,200-word piece looks at everything from the rise in whites' perception of discrimination to the emergence of "whiteness studies" courses on college campuses, and the popularity of conservative media commentators who worry that the Rockwellian America they knew and loved is gone forever.
There are two ways to react to such concerns.
One, you could be disgusted and dismiss them out of hand by noting any of a million pieces of statistical evidence showing that Caucasians, despite their diminishing number, continue to enjoy better physical health, access to excellent education, and job opportunities than minorities.
At the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alice Huang, the organization's president, expressed her dismay about the "bamboo ceiling" that Asian scientists face. The so-called "model minority" typically does not suffer the low levels of educational attainment or high levels of poverty that blacks and Hispanics do. Yet, according to Huang, recent data found that Asian-Americans in fields such as science "stand now as having the lowest chance of success in rising to the management level, despite their education and notable achievement." She urged science leaders to study why and then "do something that narrows the disparity."
The second way to react to a real or perceived increase in white anxiety is to step into its shoes and take a little stroll.
Imagine being a white Texan and waking up to this headline in The Houston Chronicle, "Texas demographer: 'It's basically over for Anglos.'" Sure, the Longhorn State is on the way to being majority minority even sooner than the rest of the country, but no one likes being prematurely bludgeoned into extinction by statistics.
Or look at what Colby Bohannan, president of the organization that bills itself as the Former Majority Association for Equality, says young white men are up against. His personal experience is that college scholarships are overwhelmingly targeted toward women and minorities, making it hard for young white men of modest means to go to school.
So Bohannan started a nonprofit organization to provide $500 scholarships to five males who are at least 25 percent Caucasian with a GPA that exceeds 3.0, and a demonstrated financial need.
The easy reaction would be to label him racist. But because he won't take donations from individual or groups identified with the promotion of segregation, white supremacy or hatred, he's struggling to come up with the money.
"We're not trying to promote racial bigotry," Bohannan told CNN. "All we're about is helping college students trying to better their lives who happen to be white males."
Consider that almost half of all those living in poverty today are non-Hispanic whites and their future prospects are as dim as those of many minorities, and you might understand where Bohannan is coming from.
"This topic is a legitimate concern," said J.C. Davis, when I called to ask about her "White boy scholarships" blog post. She is the author of "I Got the Fever," a book about interracial dating. "As the population demographics get closer and the equality gap narrows, we white people will freak out a little," she said. "But all of us need to address it rather than vilify those who might worry that once the minorities are the majority it'll be payback time for Jim Crow, Japanese internment camps and the stuff that's going on in Arizona."
I agree. Our country is changing and we need to face those changes together -- and this has to start with honest dialogue based on mutual acceptance. Just as the majority must understand the value of uplifting minorities' quality of life for the betterment of our whole society, so must minorities be willing to respect concerns about the new order of things as more than just the ravings of racists.
Esther Cepeda's e-mail address is estherjcepeda(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group