2010 In Review: The Year For White Americans

America ends the decade with its first black president, and census numbers have revealed that the country isn't so black-and-white anymore. Hispanics and Asians are increasing in numbers compared to an aging white population. Historian Douglas Brinkley reflects on what's shaking up the status quo.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

For a week now, we've been talking with people from diverse backgrounds to ask for stories that illustrate what's changed in their lives this past year - Latinos, African-Americans, LGBT, Muslim-Americans.

There's little doubt, though, that the most politically active group this year was white people: the great majority of the tea party that played such an important part in the political debate, the great majority of the vote that swept a Republican majority back into the House of Representatives.

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, joins us today on the line from Carmel in California. Nice to have you back with us. Happy New Year.

Professor DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (History, University of New Orleans): Happy New Year to you.

CONAN: And is there a story that you think helps explain how things changed for white Americans this past year?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, I think the big change was when Barack Obama got elected president. It seems surreal to a lot of white Americans. Nobody ever thought the country was ready to have an African-American as president, let alone one with only a modest background in politics. He was quite young, and with a name like Barack Hussein Obama. The right thought that this was a guy they'd be able to, you know, dissolve on the campaign trail, and instead he beat John McCain and was sworn in in this historic inauguration. And you had, as first family in the White House, a black family.

And it created, I think, a real schism of - in the country - oh, in -particularly with white people that perhaps we are losing something in America, the, you know, white male ascendancy. If you look at even a children's breakfast mat, you'll see it's all white presidents. And now, suddenly, there's Barack Obama. And, you know, something had changed, and I'm not sure people knew how to respond to it.

And a lot of grassroots native, this sort of anti-Obama energy, started bubbling to the forefront, some of it legitimate in the sense that people worried about the sagging economy and high unemployment rate. But some of it was connected to the fact that we're - Americans were losing their essence, what Americanism meant. And we're on a downward slide if we're having a guy like Obama who got soon dubbed a socialist in the White House. But there is a lot of veiled, you know, racial references, in one way or another, that dominated much of the political discourse this past year.

CONAN: And, obviously, just as we said about Latinos or African-Americans or any other group, white people are a pretty diverse group. Obviously, Barack Obama won that election pretty handily, as it turned out. But the majority of white people voted for the other guy.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, that's right. The majority of white people voted for the other guy. And then, of course, there are breakdown groups, for example, of Catholics. And, you know, Republicans have been gaining Catholic votes on the abortion issue now, for the - for a decade. And it used to be a strong Democratic group, Catholics. But because the Vatican is opposed to abortions and - you know, it's bringing some conservative Catholics into the Republican fold. American Jews are still - some turned to the Republican Party. They used to be Democratic but are turning on a pro-Israel stance in the sense that - feeling that the security of Israel, somehow, is safer under a Republican administration.

So you're getting different groups that splinter in different ways. But what we used to call Protestant America and, you know, brilliantly, incidentally, talked about the mindset of a white male working class, middle class striver, was the Rabbit figure that was written about by John Updike...

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. BRINKLEY: ...in his great books and...

CONAN: "Rabbit Run" and on to "Rabbit Gets Rich." Yeah.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yeah. I mean, there - I'm not - never been a huge Updike fan per se, but these incredibly valuable novels, because he gets right into the mind of the fear of somebody that's, say - let's call them upwardly noble white person, not particularly well-educated but, you know, trying to make money and trying to stay alive in America. And Rabbit has a lot of fears and part of them are the fear of long gasoline lines and double-digit inflation and business failings. Part of it is worries about his marriage in a country now that - we have 60 percent divorce rate. What happens when a marriage, you know, infects your life.

But another part of it was fear of this - the new minorities, the fact that he was - you know, Rabbit was born into a world where the white men were running things and is - was getting old in a world that was up and kind of an upheaval. And now, not only do women have the right vote, but they're getting equal pay, or at least the attempt for equality is starting to be there for women. And then African-Americans and Latinos were on the rise and had a different culture that was affecting Rabbit's culture. And right there in those series of novels, you can see what's been played out this past year in America. It's still our best artistic model.

CONAN: So we want to hear from our listeners today and - those who are white. What was the story from your life this past year that illustrates how things changed for you. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're talking with Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, with us on the line from Carmel, in California.

And let's get Pat on the line. Pat's with us from St. Augustine in Florida.

PAT (Caller): Hi. I just have to take - I disagree with the gentleman's premise. You know, I'm a white man. I'm an educated white man. And I have to tell you, I resent being called a racist because I don't necessarily support the programs of, you know, President Obama. So, I'll take my comment or I'll take your answer off the air.

CONAN: Well, Pat, I think if you go back and look at what Douglas Brinkley said, he said that there's a racial aspect to it. He did not say that anybody who disagrees with Barack Obama is, per se, a racist.

PAT: Well, I - I did listen to what he had said to say. And the subtext is, in fact, that, you know, we have a black president and (unintelligible), all the white people are upset. I mean, we never thought we'd see this. I heard everything he said and I resent his position because I don't think it's true. I don't believe it reflects the white people who - across the country. And so, as I said, I'll take my comment off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Pat. Thanks very much. Douglas Brinkley?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, you know, we're talking about a very sensitive subject here. And when you add something like white America, it's a very large topic. And so, no...

CONAN: We did that.

Prof. BRINKLEY: ...generality is going to ever fit into play. But what we're trying to do and analyze in an un-emotive way is just take a look at how - you know, that the - obviously, the election of an African-American president is historic. It's come with - it was a great moment for our country. And some people are going to be worked up about that. Some people aren't going to be very trusting of that.

But the reason why the caller has the right to be upset - and certainly, I don't - didn't want hint it, to feel neither NPR or myself would be saying that to somebody that's a conservative, white voter who doesn't like Obama and is a conservative, the reason that they hold those views is racial. That's not true. It may be true in a number of examples, but we just can't make that as a sweeping statement. And I'm - I hope I didn't do that.

All I simply am trying to point out to people is that it was a big change and we did hear a lot of rhetoric, you know, cartoons of Obama in African garb in major magazines. And then the question about the birther movement. Where is his birth certificate? He wasn't really born here. A man who's a Christian that constantly has to explain to people he's not a Muslim, well, I don't know who's doing it. It's a minority of white people. But they're out there and it certainly dominated a lot of our news cycle and energies of the past year. And we got to get over that. It's not a good trend. And the new governor of Hawaii is trying to clear this up, because it's been such an annoyance, this birther issue.

And I would say, anybody who's promoting the birther issue has some kind of animosity towards Barack Obama's lineage. There's no other way you could accept it, because it's kooky to be pushing this notion that the president is not an American and is lying about being born in Hawaii. And the newspapers of Hawaii were wrong about his birth. And this movement, birther movement, got a lot of credibility on mainstream, you know, cable networks and on the Internet. And even newspapers have had a - serious newspapers have had to confront it, and it's coming from somewhere.

Look, we have problems in the '60s, when you have the streets on fire and campus unrest. And what happened in - when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill in '64 and '65? He said, there goes the South for the Democratic Party. And he was...

CONAN: For his generation. And that generation sort of came to an end in 2008.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yeah. And it led in '68 to George Wallace's timely successful third party run, simply on a segregationist platform. Just like Strom Thurmond back in '48, had his Dixiecrat run. You know, this is a part of our national politics. We can't be naive ostriches and stick our head in the sand, that race plays a large role in how we could figure our politics in this country.

And, nevertheless, majority of the country in - felt that we're ready for an African-American president. We still haven't had a woman president. But I think those feelings are being broken. Mitt Romney may be running and he might become the first Mormon president. Hillary Clinton could become the first woman president. You know, many of our leading political figures of our day, if you just turn on the news this week, it's still about Nancy Pelosi or Lisa Murkowski, Hillary Clinton. So women are in the mix, in a way, in politics - including on our Supreme Court, like never before. So you can see this advancement that's gone on and kind of opening up American society to - so it's not just the domain of white males. It's happened, it's real, and there is a backlash against it by some white Americans.

CONAN: Douglas Brinkley, again, an historian at Tulane University and also at the University of New Orleans. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Nash on the line. Nash calling us from Knoxville.

NASH (Caller): Yeah. I'm actually born and raised in Santa Fe and I'm just calling in. I'm a young white male. I recently graduated this last spring from the University of Delaware with a degree in art conservation, a bachelor's degree. And, well, this summer, I was able to get a very prestigious internship and was quite successful of that. At the end of the internship this fall, I found myself at home without any work and living at home. And, you know, while this was going on, I found myself actually struggling with, sort of, my voter identity. I would describe myself as an independent, although I'm a leaning liberal. But, you know, I wanted to just, sort of, overlapping from the other show, the previous show, I've also found myself, you know, after, you know, a few months at the end of this summer living at home, vigorously job searching, I actually have found myself a position. And I'm on my way to Washington, D.C. now.

CONAN: Oh, congratulations.

NASH: Well, thank you. And I've also noticed, you know, in your talk of race and voter relations, you know, to me and, you know, certainly in my peer group, I've noticed that race is not a factor in determining what our voter identity is in many cases. And often, you know, for certain people, it certainly is. And but, you know, for me, neither is religion. So, you know, Romney, Obama, black, Mormon, the relevance is their political stance to me, especially on particular issues. And I think that that's a major indicator of how things are changing, you know, the talk that we are starting to, you know, while we have elected our first African-American president, et cetera. And I think the fact that we haven't you done show that, you know, the subject of race is no longer the primary consideration.

CONAN: Nash, thanks again, and good luck with your new job. Happy New Year.

NASH: Wonderful. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And it's Douglas Brinkley, it's interesting, Nash points out, obviously, things are hardly angry for everybody everywhere and that's very true as well. And, yes, there's a lot of anger, a lot of unemployment, a lot of disempowerment among white people. Though as a group, I think white men are still doing better than everybody else, and they're worried about changes. I think everybody is worried about changes.

The degree of anger, though, we've had some people email and suggest that there has been some comparison to the period of reconstruction. I wonder if you think that's valid at all.

Prof. BRINKLEY: There is some of that. I mean, but, look, let me just say something about what our last caller. One of the things I'm worried about right now, I think in if you want to say what's good, I teach at college, teaching 20-, 21-year-olds, they're very racially blind. But granted, these I'm teaching at good universities and so it's a certain pool of persons. But people now, since the Internet and everybody has friends around the world, globalization. We're having so many great college students from China and India, Pakistan, Vietnam, you know, Africa-American students, Hispanic students, they all are in classes. And race is really not that big a deal for the younger generation of today. They're used to multiculturalism in a way an older generation wasn't. So that's very heartening.

On the other side, I'm very worried about people in their 20s today, and particularly at my field, the humanities, trying to find employment. I mean, it's very rough to be an English major, philosophy major at a university come out looking to get hired right now. It's something like 27 percent, you know, unemployment in that bracket of college graduates, first year out, looking how to find a job. And so, you know, we're expecting them to pay in to the Social Security system and things, without any kind of guarantee Social Security will be there for them.

So it's a very unusual generation coming up right now. They don't have these racism isn't their M.O. but they're coming around at a time of very bad economic opportunities and we have to figure out a way to, kind of, find openings for that generation to get employed or be paid internships or government service, or something needs to happen, I think, to stimulate post-college experience for young people in their 20's, because the numbers of unemployment are just sky high.

CONAN: Yeah. We were just doing a segment on that higher than any time since, well, statics started to be kept 60 years ago. Douglas Brinkley, thank you very much for your time today and a happy New Year to you.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Oh, happy New Year to you. Thank you.

CONAN: Douglas Brinkley joined us on the line from Carmel in California. I wanted to end with this email from Tanya in Des Moines. I'm very white, unknown if I have any ancestors of color, and so thrilled to have a black family in the White House. I've prayed years ago for a president who was half white and half black then forgot about it until fairly recently. So, obviously, different people feel differently.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Happy New Year, everybody. We'll see you again in Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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