Browning America

In 2000, 76.5% of voters in the presidential election were white. By 2020, just two decades later, this number is projected to be only 66.7%. This nearly 10 point drop is a result of the growing numbers of voters of color. Most notably, the Hispanic vote is expected to nearly double from 7.4% to 13.3%.  It’s hard to understate the effect that this will have. Not just on elections, but on the American people. In 2009, America made history. Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first African-American president. Many heralded the start of a “post-racial America”. Now, 10 years later, it’s pretty clear that this was not the case. So what happened?

While most people say Obama’s election was a victory against racism, for many he was a symbol of something else: the declining power of white America. This view was not wrong either; Obama swept to power on a powerful coalition built on the back of voters of color. He was a symbol that the balance of power was changing in America.

Sociologists have studied what happens when people are shown information indicating that their political power is diminishing. In a particularly fascinating experiment, Spanish speakers were put on trains and train stations around (very liberal) Boston, particularly those in white neighborhoods. They simply took the train like anyone else, but after only 3 days researchers found a sharp rightward shift in the immigration opinions of the other passengers. In another experiment, subjects were shown demographic data indicating that the Hispanic population in America is growing very rapidly. After seeing this, subjects reported a noticeable shift to the right. They became more likely to support strict immigration policies, and even moved rightward on non-immigration related policies. In this second experiment, it’s important to note that this reaction was universal. Both African-Americans and Asian-Americans had the same response as white subjects. This is not an ideological reaction, it’s a human one.

These experiments show the effect of subtle examples of the declining power of white America. Obama’s presidency was not subtle, so we can only imagine the effects that it had. While this effect can cut both ways (Hispanics exposed to micro-aggressions such as a questioning of their citizenship move left) the overwhelming effect is to drive the American population to the right, particularly on immigration.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this in America. When immigration from Asia and parts of Europe surged at the end of 19th century, we saw a sharp move to the right among the political elite. The Chinese Exclusion act and the Immigration Act of 1924 came into being with bipartisan support, and the pseudo-science of eugenics became widely popular. This type of white-supremacist sentiment did not die down, and instead culminated, and violently ended, with the genocides of WWII.

This is something of a tangent, but anti-immigrant sentiment and white supremacy in America is closely connected to the rise of the Nazi’s in Germany. Nazi politicians studied US law, particularly in how it denied citizenship to non-white residents. And if you still have doubts, here is a quote from Adolf Hitler: “It was America that taught us a nation should not open its doors equally to all nations”. When the US entered WWII against Nazi Germany, it adopted an anti-racist sentiment to distinguish itself, but it was not the reason we fought against Germany.

We cannot and should not hope for such a cataclysmic event to end the rightward shift we see now. Instead, it falls on us and our political institutions. Next month, we’ll look at how the political parties may change in response to demographic change.


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