By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008
It's different now, isn't it?
John McCain has chosen Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and the election that had been presented as old vs. new suddenly feels like new vs. new:
Whichever ticket wins, America is now guaranteed "a historic first" in the White House.
On Inauguration Day 2009, the symbol finally will catch up to the statistical reality of this democracy.
White men historically have been the power demographic. The lawmakers, the power players, the default box in drop-down menus asking about sex and race.
That may be why, somewhere along the line, white men got the designation "majority," though in fact they really weren't. At the moment, they seem to be hovering at less than a third of the overall population.
In 2007, non-Hispanic white males were 32 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent survey -- 97.7 million out of a total population of 301.6 million. White women represented 33.6 percent of the population; women, in fact, make up the majority in this country, albeit a slight one, at 50.7 percent.
Asked the last time that white males were in the majority in America, Kelvin Pollard thinks for a moment and then gives a startling answer.
"Actually, I don't think there has ever been a time when white males have been the numerical majority," says Pollard, a senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, which analyzes demographic shifts for governments worldwide.
This fact shows up right after the U.S. Constitution's ratification, in the first population count in 1790, in fact, when the census broke down nonwhite respondents into "free" or "slave." White men represented just 41 percent of the population, 1.6 million out of 3.9 million.
We've even had women and black men in office for longer than you might have remembered from high school history: Jeannette Rankin represented Montana in the U.S. House beginning in 1917; Hiram Rhodes Revels, an African American, was elected to the Senate in 1870. And, of course, Geraldine Ferraro made history 24 years ago, when she ran as Walter Mondale's would-be veep in 1984.
Our history books are dotted with the accomplishments of women and minorities. But we've still been lacking that symbol -- one that could hang in the National Portrait Gallery, one that could stare out from the back of the restaurant place mats that feature all the presidents and vice presidents.
We've still been waiting for the highest offices, the ones that really count.
Still, in some ways, doesn't it seem strange, to treat Barack Obama and Sarah Palin as faces of change, when in fact they are faces of what's always been there?
Albeit, sometimes tucked in the wings? ("Behind every good man . . .")
Neither is truly an outsider, really. Neither is communist or socialist or anything too ghastly and un-American. He's a Democrat, she's a Republican, and the demographics they represent have always, combined, constituted the majority in our country.
And yet, we marvel at their newness.
"She's not from these parts," McCain said yesterday, when introducing Palin to a cheering crowd. "And she's not from Washington."
Somehow, he didn't seem to be talking geography.
"In a world full of hierarchies, women have always had secondary power to men, ever since hunting and gathering times," says Bill Domhoff, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and co-author of "Who Rules America? Power, Politics, & Social Change." And nonwhite males have been subordinate to white males.
The fact is, even while women and minorities statistically have been the majority, the country historically has had a little trouble counting people. We've reduced humanity to mathematics, finding ways to fractionalize persons for governmental purposes.
This was the history of the Three-Fifths Compromise, one of the near-stalemates of the Constitution, wherein the delegates of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 decided that just three-fifths of the slave population would be counted when it came to distribution of taxes and apportionment of seats to the House of Representatives.
Women were counted as zero-fifths -- at least symbolically -- unable to vote nationwide until 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, behind Australia and Canada and lots of other countries.
And now, one of those disenfranchised parties will stride into one of the highest offices in the land -- not possibly but definitely, finally.