Oregon Historical Society
I usually zip through the opinion pages of the New York Times, but a headline on a recent column by Nicholas Kristof stopped me cold: When Whites Just Don't Get It.
Kristof noted that many white people say they're fed up with coverage of events in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer shot and killed a young black man he suspected of shoplifting.
The shooting was followed by demonstrations, which were followed by looting. Teenagers with cell phones used social media to post dramatic images that would never get past jittery editors. As a result, the story was driven faster and farther by YouTube, Twitter and Instagram than by newspapers and TV.
Cable networks did their best to catch up by filling air time with speculation, commentary and guesswork presented as expert opinion. A common theme was that events like those in Ferguson would be less frequent if we could have national conversation about race. Then we’d all understand each other much better.
Kristof echoed this sentiment. His column offered a grab-bag of factlets about income, crime and education to argue that blacks have serious grievances that white people should listen to, and respond to, for the good of the country.
What struck me about this two-sided conversation idea was the outdated premise. This just isn’t a starkly divided black-white country any more. According to the last census in 2010, non-Hispanic white people accounted for an all-time low 64 percent of the population. Blacks were just under 13 percent.
That means a whole lot of people—nearly one in four—simply don’t stand clearly on either side of what we consider America’s racial divide.
In fact, many more never did.
This was driven home when I was researching the Armenian experience in America and came across the federal government’s attempt to keep America white by shutting Tatos Cartozian out.
Cartozian was an Armenian immigrant who settled in Oregon. He became a naturalized American but the federal government tried to revoke his citizenship. It accused him of falsely claiming to be a white man. The back story to Cartozian’s 1924 federal court case fascinated me.
Way back in 1790, George Washington signed a law limiting naturalized citizenship to white people. The law didn’t define white except by noting that the term was commonly understood, which was certainly true when nearly everyone on the continent was either of European or African descent except the Indians. As America grew, so did the challenge of deciding just who was white.
Immigration clerks squinted harder and harder throughout the 19th century as they looked up at the swarthy faces of Italians, Spaniards and Jews. It was left to the courts to assign each ethnicity a place on the American color chart.
Armenians were among the final ambiguities. Look at us and you’ll see why. Our history of invasion, subjugation and migration has produced a rich palette of skin tones as well as a wide variety of facial features.
So the Cartozian case involved testimony from anthropologists, historians and certifiably white Americans who testified that Armenians displayed the character traits of white people even if they didn’t always show the physical traits.
Cartozian won. That decision was a big legal step forward for Armenians who’d had no right to citizenship or any legal protection at all in the land of their ancestors.
But what does it mean today? In the narrowest sense, it means I am considered a white man. So is Kristof, whose father was an Armenian from Poland. Their family name was originally Hachikian.
In a broader sense, it means I am invisible. My identity is smudged into that 64 percent majority, along with Greeks, Turks, Arabs and so many others who look nothing like Astors or Vanderbilts.
Unlike Hispanics and Asians, who are far more numerous, Armenians have no minority status. No special protection, no preference, no affirmative action—not even a box to check on the census form.
The reality of America is that all of us identify ourselves—and are identified by others—in many ways. Yet we also share a common identity that binds us into a nation. No matter the number, the shrinking white majority is an artificial construct as well as an anachronism and I refuse to let it define me.
So while I have no objection to a national conversation about race, it can’t be two-sided or there will be no place for me and millions of others.