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It is possible that we are now in the process of similarly altering our conception of whiteness again. Many Hispanics identify as white, and marriages between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites make up more than 40 percent of recent interracial marriages. That may be enough to artificially postpone America’s majority minority milestone again and reassure the millions of “white” Americans who feel threatened by the increasing status and power of today’s ethnic minorities.

Stoking fears of white decline reinforces the myth that this whiteness always included all who now identify with it — as if the Irish had never been demonized, as if Italians had never endured discrimination, as if Jews had never been excluded. Through a historical lens, being white in America today is like belonging to a once-exclusive social club that had to loosen its membership criteria to stay afloat.

Because of the status white people retain in American society, a degree of privilege and belonging still awaits those who can claim it. People who identify as white hold disproportionate power and resources today, and this pernicious reality seems unlikely to change even if white people do become a 49 percent plurality in about two decades. And there is precious little evidence of real solidarity among America’s diverse minority ethnic groups. So a 51 percent pan-minority share is unlikely to yield any new majority status without a new pan-ethnic sense of community.

Despite his susceptibility to eugenics and racial theories of supremacy, Roosevelt also offers us a way forward. His American nationalism was defiantly civic — rather than only ethnic or racial — in nature.

In his narrative histories published from 1885 to 1894, Roosevelt argued that as European immigrants were assimilated, their heritages were being absorbed into the American body, fusing Americans into a single people forged in the “crucible” of the frontier. The acts of claiming and developing land and defending it against the forces of nature all constituted rites of passage that transformed foreigners into Americans.

In Roosevelt’s understanding, Americans were born through no document; they were made by their encounters with the wilderness and their cultivation of strength, individualism and democratic community — their commitment to a set of principles. For him, the new ethnicities admitted into the United States were not entitled to their American identity; it was to be earned.

There is no frontier anymore, but the grind of modern capitalism is just as stern a forge for fashioning American identity. In counting the American people, the Census Bureau may distinguish between Black, white, Asian and Hispanic, but it indiscriminately recognizes them all as fellow Americans — as people who count and therefore must be counted.

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