An America that's more than white

Story highlights

  • Eric Liu: America's changing demographics are fueling tension over the idea that the U.S. will no longer be a majority white nation
  • Lui says there's painful but rewarding work ahead for Americans if we confront our racial divides

Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "A Chinaman's Chance" and "The Gardens of Democracy." He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Post-racial? Not quite. And maybe that's all right.

In a new CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, the number of Americans who say racism is a big problem has jumped significantly since 2011. From campus protests to the campaign trail, there are tremors of racial tension across the land.
And beneath them all is a deep tectonic shift: whiteness and Americanness are at long last delinking. This will be painful in the short term, especially for whites. The long term depends on how all of us respond to pain.
    Eric Liu
    What does it mean for whiteness and Americanness to delink?
    From the origins of our country, to be white was to be presumed American and to be American was to be presumed white. That was true when the Constitution was written. It was true in the Civil War. It was true in World War II. It was true in the civil rights movement.
    It's still the case in most parts of this country that if you ask someone to picture an American, they will not imagine my face. They will not see even the face of our current President. They will conjure up someone white, likely a man.
    But things are now changing, rapidly and inexorably. A majority of babies born in the United States are now of non-European descent. In 25 years, America will be majority people of color. And this demographic revolution is creating simultaneous surges of hopefulness and anxiety -- cheers for the multicultural hip-hop musical "Hamilton," alongside calls for deportation of eleven million of our mainly brown neighbors.
    You can sense this flux in three key findings from the new poll: about the American Dream, institutional racism and white privilege.
    Most white Americans surveyed believe they will do worse than their parents. That makes sense, given the increasing inequality in America. But strikingly, most African Americans, especially younger ones, now feel they have a better chance of achieving the American Dream than their parents did.
    African Americans in the aggregate were hit harder by the Great Recession than whites, have benefited less from the recovery and began at a lower economic baseline. So what explains this racial optimism gap?
    Perhaps it's the realization, among whites and blacks alike, that as society becomes more diverse, whiteness simply cannot remain the default norm: a sense that relative opportunity and mobility are increasing for blacks and declining for whites.
    That brings us to the second key finding, about institutional racism. Whites, by a two-to-one margin, believe racism is a problem of bad individuals rather than biased institutions. Blacks and Hispanics are far more divided on the question.
    Americans by habit think in terms of individual responsibility rather than collective. At the University of Missouri, for instance, a few bad individuals did do racist deeds -- showering black students with racial epithets, smearing a swastika on a building and driving a truck through campus with Confederate flags.
    But what got Mizzou's president ousted wasn't just that he was slow to address these individual acts. It's that the slowness and tone-deafness of his response bespoke a deeper institutional problem: a neglect that comes naturally when a power structure of alumni, administrators, donors and legislators is largely white and has little habit of seeing through the eyes of nonwhites.
    This is not unique to Mizzou or Yale, where protesting students of color have also challenged the administration to be more responsive and inclusive. Such blind spots and implicit biases are common in boardrooms and classrooms across the land.
    Thus the third notable finding, about the meaning of privilege.
    Most whites surveyed admitted that being white has been an advantage for them socially and economically. Yet they also insist that people should be judged on merit and that people of color who are lagging economically are responsible for their own plight.
    A harsh word for this is denial. A more compassionate word is self-justification.
    It is a universal human impulse to want to justify oneself and one's place, to not have to be the bad guy in one's own story. The author C. Terry Warner, in his book "Bonds That Make Us Free," describes this instinct succinctly: I accuse you to excuse me. If on some level I know I have an unfair and unearned edge, my reflex is to deflect attention to your own shortcomings and failings.
    White privilege is real. That doesn't mean all white people are affluent or on the rise. It doesn't mean all white people are guilty and all nonwhite people innocent. It means simply that it's long been easier in everyday life -- housing, policing, schooling, banking, shopping, hiring -- to be white in America than not.
    That must change. It is starting to. And how we -- Americans of every color -- navigate this change depends on our capacity for both complexity and compassion. Can we find a language of race that is not, literally and figuratively, so black and white?
    Latinos are now the largest group of color in America. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing immigrant group, and there are burgeoning numbers of mixed-race Americans. (The CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll includes the views of the latter two groups, but the sample size wasn't large enough to break them out separately.)
    And as we embrace complexity, can we see each other with compassion?
    Facing race can be a self-justifying process of acting out and lashing out. Or it can be a grown-up process that begins with each of us imagining what it's like to be another and ends with each of us taking responsibility -- for the country we inherited, which preferred whites in every way, and the country we want to create together, which can't.
    That isn't "getting past race." It's getting past the illusion that race can be gotten past without work. There will be pain. But as they say in the gym, pain is just laziness leaving the body.