White America Reacts

Articles from the turn of the 20th century onwards show that the breakdown of racial hegemony in America has been a slow, challenging process

According to a recent Census Bureau report, whites could become a minority of the U.S. population as early as 2042. In the January/February issue of the Atlantic, contributor Hua Hsu explores the implications of this development from both a demographic and cultural perspective.

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To some extent, Hsu argues, an important shift has already taken place. “Where the culture is concerned,” he writes, “[white America] is already all but finished.” While some are celebrating this new, more multiethnic America, others, he notes, have reacted with anxiety—sometimes with blunt xenophobia (like Pat Buchanan, who characterizes America’s white-minority future as “Third World America”), and sometimes with ironic self-deprecation (like Christian Lander, whose blog and book, both titled “Stuff White People Like,” have found popular success).

Such concerns about perceived or real challenges to white hegemony are nothing new. Hua Hsu opens his essay with a look at some of the fears about racial encroachment that once prevailed among a certain cadre of scholarly white men in the 1920s:

Their sense of dread hovered somewhere above the concerns of everyday life. It was linked less to any immediate danger to their class’s political and cultural power than to a perceived fraying of the fixed, monolithic identity of whiteness. From the hysteria over Eastern European immigration to the vibrant cultural miscegenation of the Harlem Renaissance, it is easy to see how this imagined worldwide white kinship might have seemed imperiled in the 1920s.

More than a decade before the books cited by Hsu were published, Atlantic author William Z. Ripley took on the issue of early 20th-century immigration and its—in his view—dire demographic implications. In his 1908 article, “Races in the United States,” he discussed how “Mediterranean, Slavic, and Oriental” immigrants were “swarm[ing] over here in rapidly growing proportions.” In light of this, he expressed grave concerns about America’s racial and cultural future:

We have even tapped the political sinks of Europe, and are now drawing large numbers of Greeks, Armenians, and Syrians. No people is too mean or lowly to seek an asylum on our shores. … Relative submergence of the domestic Anglo-Saxon stock is strongly indicated for the future. ‘Race suicide’ marked by a low and declining birth-rate, as is well known, is a world-wide social phenomenon of the present day.

Ripley did suggest, however, that such “mean” and “lowly” immigrants could perhaps be educated and improved through the generous efforts of their Anglo-Saxon superiors:

An even greater responsibility with us, and with the people of Canada, is that of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’s burden,’—so to nourish, uplift, and inspire all these immigrant peoples of Europe that, in due course of time, even if the Anglo-Saxon stock be physically inundated by the engulfing flood, the torch of its civilization and ideals may still continue to illuminate the way.

In the 1960s, the increasing power of black Americans posed a more direct challenge to white cultural supremacy. During the aftermath of the civil rights movement, Dr. Robert Coles conducted an informal anthropological study on the attitudes of white northerners towards African-Americans. His June 1966 Atlantic article, “The White Northerner: Pride and Prejudice,” summarized what he had gleaned from many interviews. Because of changes brought about by the civil rights movement, he wrote, many working-class white families now felt “cheated and nervous”—resentful of the fact that they suddenly had to compete with black families for schools, jobs, and charity efforts.

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Laura Brunts is an Atlantic intern.

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