Lionel Shriver

Will racial blending undermine identity politics? Let’s hope so

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

Behold, the most incendiary statistic in America: the Census Bureau’s projection of when whites will become a minority in what last century was ‘their own’ country. (In only 1980, 80 per cent of Americans were white. Mind, where the US leads, Europe often follows.) When in 2008 that red-letter date moved up to 2042, notes California demographer Dowell Myers: ‘People went crazy.’

After decades of progressive lobbying for multicultural inclusion, the startling proximity of this demographic tipping point is enticing a certain brand of activist to embrace the rhetoric of replacement instead. Evident during the midterms, this new approach to the melting pot is militant. If I may paraphrase: ‘Move over. You white people have had your day, and now we’re taking over. You’re all old, and you’re dying out. We’re outnumbering you, so this is our hang now. We’re going to remember that you treated us like crap, too, and the miserable handful of you white people left will be sorry.’

The language of demographic conquest has obvious appeal. At last, no more begging for equal opportunity. Isn’t triumph more gratifying than entreaty? The plan: subjugate mainstream culture, and then supplant it. If and when the power dynamic flips, the perceived arrogance of historical white domination would logically invite payback.

Looking to 2020, the younger, more radical wing of the Democratic party might reconsider this strategy, however tempting the rhetoric of unapologetic demographic takeover. First off, it’s jumping the gun. Minorities are still regionally concentrated. More than 60 per cent of the country is still white, and 69 per cent of the electorate is white. Tell all these people that they’re yesterday’s news and you’re looking forward to their being dead? You lose.

Worse, the victorious brandishing of the tipping-point invites political backlash. Celebration of the demotion of the majority to one more sad little special-interest group spreads the propaganda of white nationalism, whose proponents tout the emotive prospect of minority status as the ultimate humiliation and welcome the idiom of racial crusade.

It’s not only right-wing reprobates who recoil from this watershed. In findings by two social psychologists at Yale and New York universities in 2014 (Jennifer Richeson and Maureen Craig), white Americans asked first to read a majority-minority report (a promising Tom Cruise sequel) expressed more negative feelings towards other races, supported more restrictive immigration policies and were more apt to fear loss of status and future discrimination than whites in a control group.

Another study by a demographer and political scientist at the University of Southern California (Dowell Myers and Morris Levy) presented a group of white Americans with a demographic future in which whites lost majority status by a hard-and-fast date. Among white Republicans, 75 per cent responded with anger and/or anxiety. More surprisingly, nearly half of white Democrats also responded with anger and/or anxiety.

But there is a third way: we could have a go at that statistic, which is soft, woolly and anachronistic.

The Census Bureau uses a peculiarly puristic definition of ‘white’, in reality a baggy, catchall category covering a vast range of genetic and ethnic backgrounds, and largely defined by what white people aren’t: non-white. If you have one white and one non-white parent (like Obama), you’re non-white. Indeed, check any other racial category in addition to ‘non–Hispanic white’, and the government doesn’t count you as white. Yet in truth, few whites have exclusively European lineage, as customers so often discover.

Mixed-race Americans already constitute a not-insignificant 7 per cent of the population, and the number of mixed-race children is soon set to double. More than a quarter of Asians and Hispanics in the US marry outside their race. If you loosen the definition of ‘white’ and start including people who are, say, half white, and may identify as white (whatever that means), the proportion of America’s whites is going up. With that more relaxed definition, the Census Bureau itself projects that as far out as 2060, 68.5 per cent of the US will still be white. As Matthew Yglesias argues on, ‘If you use an inclusive view and let anyone who identifies as white be white, then America remains majority white indefinitely.’

It’s all in the way you look at it. For if we stop regarding partially white children as somehow ‘lost’ to the majority as if we’re all still stuck back in Gone with the Wind, mainstream white culture is actually absorbing more immigrants and getting bigger. According to Richard Alba, a sociologist at the City University of New York, once an exclusive definition of whiteness is updated, the US ‘may never be a majority-minority society.’

So this is a PR question. Yet the frustrated demographer Dowell Myers has found it difficult to convince progressives to formulate the coming population shift in a way that’s less threatening to white Americans. Progressives see a dwindling white electorate as commensurate with a unilateral power transfer to the Democratic party. Presumably once all the white people disappear, so will Republicans. Speaking to the New York Times last month, Myers described the progressive reaction to the 2042 tipping point thus: ‘It was conquest, our day has come. They wanted to overpower them with numbers. It was demographic destiny.’

However satisfying, crowing over outnumbering the native-born erstwhile majority is divisive, and encourages whites to regard votes for minority candidates as votes for their own demise. Besides, as an American sick to death of race being put at the forefront of every issue, I adore the spanner of intermarriage — which creates a growing category of people who don’t fit into the pigeonholes of identity politics, and mercifully blur the arbitrary dividing lines between groups that needn’t be at each other’s throats. I love the idea of race in future becoming increasingly vague. True, the perverse solution to racial disharmony in Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is a little dreary — the whole population turns uniformly grey — but we’re still a long way from bland homogeneity, and worse things happen at sea.

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