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
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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.

Coles found that these low-income white Americans were feeling slighted in less tangible ways as well; the nation’s attention, they noted, seemed newly focused on the plight of African-Americans, particularly in the North, where, Coles wrote, “the Negro … is now a constant topic of news and conversation.” There was, they felt, “a certain snobbish and faddish ‘interest’ in Negroes.”

In some cases, there was also backlash against a growing sense of guilt—a feeling that white Americans, being held responsible for their ancestors’ mistreatment of black Americans, were now being expected to make personal sacrifices to ameliorate the position of blacks. Coles quoted one young Irish mother in Boston:

I just can’t take what some of our priests are saying these days. They’re talking as if we did something wrong for being white. I don’t understand it at all.

Three decades later, in “Reverse Racism, or How the Pot Got to Call the Kettle Black” (November 1993), Stanley Fish argued forcefully against this concern that the plight of blacks might be overemphasized at the expense of whites. Focusing on the question of affirmative action, he contended that those claiming to be being unfairly discriminated against in favor of blacks were simply attempting to preserve their own racial privilege.The playing field,” he wrote, “is already tilted, and the resistance to altering it by the mechanisms of affirmative action is in fact a determination to make sure that the present imbalances persist as long as possible.”

He argued that the effects of racism—even on educated middle-class blacks—was “sufficiently great to warrant the nation’s attention.” And he encouraged whites to view the “unfairness” of affirmative action not as an intentional assault on their own opportunities, but as the byproduct of a necessary initiative to correct a greater unfairness in the past.

More recently, in “Mongrel America” (January/February 2003), Gregory Rodriguez suggested that racial jockeying might eventually fade to irrelevance, as Americans from different backgrounds increasingly intermarry and self-identify as belonging to multiple races. “Americans cross racial lines more often than ever before in choosing whom to sleep with, marry, or raise children with,” he pointed out. And therefore the more that can be done from a political standpoint to minimize the relevance of race-differences, he argued, the better off we might be:

The immigrants of recent decades are helping to forge a new American identity. …

At this point perhaps the best thing the government can do is to acknowledge changes in the meaning of race in America and then get out of the way. The Census Bureau’s decision to allow Americans to check more than one box in the “race” section of the 2000 Census was an important step in this direction. No longer forced to choose a single racial identity, Americans are now free to identify themselves as mestizos—and with this newfound freedom we may begin to endow racial issues with the complexity and nuance they deserve.
Laura Brunts is an Atlantic intern.
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