America should not give in to the pessimism of white nationalism
US Politics: What it means to be white is liable to change but it need not cause unrest
People hold candles as they pray during a candlelight vigil at the Immanuel Church for victims of a shooting that left 22 people dead at the Cielo Vista Mall WalMart in El Paso, Texas. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
At some stage during this century, perhaps near its midpoint, white people might no longer amount to an absolute majority of the US population. Whether or not they should mind, enough do to disturb the politics of the republic and at times its very peace.
A feeling of racial dispossession animated at least the fringes of the Tea Party movement a decade ago. There is no accounting for the political rise of President Donald Trump without some reference to the same anxieties. From what we know, and with due caution in asserting cause and effect, the “replacement” of his race aggrieved the man who murdered 22 people in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday.
How the US deals with its diversification is of weight to the rest of the West, because other countries, if not to the same extent, nor at the same pace, will follow. It matters, then, if Americans succumb to despondency – to a sense that turmoil is the way of the future.
The balance to be struck here is precarious. The US has to avoid the comforting pretence that El Paso was an isolated atrocity. It has to take white nationalism more seriously than it has done. But it has to do so without granting its core pessimism: that a plural society is by definition a fractious one. To the contrary, the transition to “majority-minority” status need not be such a defining event, nor one attended by terrible social rupture.
What it means to be white is liable to change. It has changed before. During and immediately after the mass migrations from Catholic and Orthodox Europe in the 19th century, the Irish, Italians and Slavs were held by nativists to be so alien as to constitute a separate ethnic, if not racial, group.
As far back as 1751, in his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Benjamin Franklin abhorred the arrival of Germans (“Palatine boors”), whom he contrasted with English descendants not just in custom but also in “complexion”. It was only over time, often in response to yet other immigrant groups, that these variegated Europeans “became” white. Consider how some who now fear for “Judeo-Christian” culture used to regard the people described in the first half of that term.
In or Out
Just as the definition of a “real” American widened from those of English descent to those of European descent, it has the potential to widen again. The new test of whether someone is In or Out might be whether they speak English as a first language, or identify with some kind of Christian denomination. That people fracture along the lines of language and religion rather than of colour is no great cause for joy. It would certainly not meet the republican ideal of one’s citizenship being the only identity that matters. But what it would do is confirm how plastic is our understanding of who belongs and who does not.
Demographic projections, in which a line marked White and a line marked Non-White cross over at some point, do not capture this. The idea of one internally coherent group up against some equally monolithic “other” does not describe the history of the US. The tensions of the future are likely to be complex and cross-cutting.
Even the projections themselves rely on a certain crudity. In the Census Bureau data of 2018, it is “non-Hispanic whites” who fall below 50 per cent of the US population by mid-century. Scholars worry about the difficulty of categorising a person who has one white and one Hispanic parent, to say nothing of other permutations. Compare George P Bush, nephew of a president, son of a Mexican-American mother, with a non-English-speaking new arrival from, say, Russia. Who is “white” here? At some point, the usefulness of such projections struggles to keep up with their power to unsettle.
If a person in 1945 were given sight of the West in 2019, what would strike them – the social dislocation brought about by racial variety or, actually, how little of it there has been given the scale of the change?
British readers will be familiar with the “Enoch was right” line of thought. Enoch Powell, a Tory minister who warned in the 1960s against postcolonial migration, was not right. Britain became a multiracial society – not without strife, but certainly without “rivers of blood”. The same is true in much of the Sest. Think of white Australia’s transformation into what we see in modern Perth or Sydney.
The US is different in all sorts of respects. It has a unique history and offers unique ease of access to the means of violence. But its challenge is one that other open democracies will face in their own ways. It must resist racial pessimism while raising its vigilance to those who strive to vindicate it. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019