Journalists report on facts, so it’s understandable that they would identify a large drop in the White population, reflected in data, as significant. Objectively speaking, it is.
Yet the trap of seeing the drop in White population as the only, or even the main, story of the Census data reinforces our own insistence on seeing these transformations through a cynical lens. Pitting White America against hordes of threatening “colored” people is part of a long, complex, and fraught history — one wherein changing definitions of “Whiteness” both expanded and restricted the boundaries of citizenship.
The Obama presidency ignited a free for all in American politics that continues to this day. The rise of the Tea Party, Birther Movement, Donald Trump’s presidency and his “Make America Great Again” ethos all share deep-seated racial fears that have haunted the nation since its founding.
Over the past two decades, some Republicans have used forecast demographic changes related to the Census for partisan political advantage, helping to sustain and grow a whole ecosystem trafficking in racially intolerant appeals that have remade American politics. The rise of a right-wing public sphere we are now seeing — untethered to science, objective facts and past support for voting rights and racial justice — depends on a narrative that presents democracy as a zero-sum game, with historic White winners on the verge of being replaced by citizens and immigrants of color.
Toxic narratives of White decline are baked into this country’s history of institutional discrimination in ways that go back to the 19th century — and beyond anti-Black racism — as well. White nativism, buttressed by eugenics theories of scientific racism that classified non-White and non-Nordic races as inferior, discriminated against Irish, Italians and others during the 19th century. As the category of ethnic “Whiteness” shifted to include these previously marginalized European groups, however, the xenophobia and nativism never waned.
And yet, America’s changing demographics tell a different, more inspiring story. Rather than a narrative of White decline, what if we saw in this data the increasing numbers of racially blended families and mixed-race children — and understood them as signs of a more racially diverse, economically just and culturally rich future?
Transforming the racist narrative of the changing demographics in the US will be key to saving American democracy from some of its worse impulses. GOP-driven gerrymandering policies seek to neutralize the votes of non-Whites in hopes of maintaining a racially monolithic version of power. Rather than changing the rules of the game to ensure perpetual White domination, Americans should welcome increasing racial diversity as a sign of growing strength rather than a circumstance that elicits fear and loathing.
America’s multi-cultural roots have been obscured for too long by the politics of White supremacy that assimilates some and racially and economically oppresses others. The racial diversity that made American political, social, entrepreneurial and technological innovations possible gets overshadowed by the stories we tell ourselves to rationalize a history too complex to relay in shorthand.