Michele Norris On The Anxiety Of White America, And Her Optimism For The Future

Listen Now

In its Race Issue, National Geographic magazine examines the state of race relations in the United States, including an acknowledgement of the racism that permeated its own pages for decades. Among the magazine's contributors this month: Michele Norris, former host of NPR's All Things Considered.

Norris currently runs The Race Card Project, in which she asks people to send in their thoughts on race in just six words. When she began the project in 2010, Norris assumed she'd hear mostly from people of color. She was wrong.

"I think what happened, is people felt that they had an entry into a conversation that wasn't always welcome to them," Norris tells NPR's Sarah McCammon. "White Americans — in very large numbers — bought into the project and decided to share their stories."

In her National Geographic story, Norris digs into some of the feelings that white Americans have expressed. Her story focuses on the town of Hazleton, Pa. In the year 2000 the population of Hazleton was more than 95 percent white; today it's more than half Latino.

Interview Highlights

On change being uncomfortable, no matter where it's coming from

"When people talked about it, it was often the notion of suddenly being outnumbered — that's a word that I heard over and over and over again. Going to the doctor's office and suddenly looking around and realizing that everybody else is Hispanic. Going to the local Wal-Mart ... and realizing that, 'boy, the things they're selling in the produce aisle are different,' or 'there's a whole aisle where everything is in two languages, and I never noticed that before.' ... 'Suddenly it feels like this community that I knew so well' — so what they were saying is that they don't feel like it's 'theirs' anymore....

"And that coupled with economic changes, with jobs disappearing. And that coupled with — you know, the cultural things in a town that has had a very strong immigrant population for decades. There were people from Italy, and people from Ireland, and people from Germany and Montenegro and Slovakia and Slovenia, and they all had their traditions. And suddenly they have to make space for newcomers who come in.

"And that's happened throughout decades in America, but when the newcomers are brown, and when the newcomers speak a different language, and when the newcomers are less interested in assimilating in the same way and suddenly speaking English — they want to hold on to their old culture or they want to hold on to their old language ... suddenly the word 'immigrant' when it's spoken now doesn't have the same ring to it."

On race as subtext

"They wouldn't necessarily say 'those brown people,' or 'those Latino people.' There would often be sort of proxy for that — 'the food is different, the music is different, the town feels different.' There was a large 'threat' narrative — safety is a big issue here. People felt like, with the changing community, the crime rate had increased, or that they just didn't feel as safe as they used to.

"In some cases it was for a good reason — someone had literally drove a car into their restaurant, or someone had had a wallet taken. In a lot of cases, though, the fear was based on something in the abstract, not something that had actually happened to them — but the fear that if they did go downtown that bad things that would happen, or if they did go to the mall that it no longer was as safe as it used to be."

On the generational shift

"There was a difference in the way that people who were more advanced in years talked about it, than the kids. Because the kids are in probably the most diverse environment — they all go to the same schools, they play on the same sports teams, they cheer together on the cheerleading squad, to some degree they socialize with each other. ... They had a sort of more direct approach to talk about some of these things than people who still lived in communities where they lived and worshipped among people who looked like them or had a similar background...

"I remain optimistic, and yet I'm pragmatic. And so I know that when we say that race is perhaps an easier concept for young people ... it's easier, but it's not easy. It's not yet easy. And a mistake that's often made is thinking that because they ... inherited this incredible degree of integration that was completely foreign to just one or two generations ahead of them, that all the problems have been solved. That's not true....

"I think future is still something that we should be optimistic about, but it might take two, three, four generations before some of this gets easier. And it's not just because of demographics and race, it's also because of the economic tumult that we're facing, and it's also because of technological tumult — I mean, people's jobs are being replaced in large part by technology, and that creates a certain degree of vertigo. So it's not one thing. There are a lot of onions in that stew."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.