Reihan: Columbus Day

For those of you who haven't read Carol Swain's The New White Nationalism in America, the basic premise is that the changing demographic composition of the US population and the logic of official multiculturalism will soon lead to a potent white identity politics. Michael Lind made a similar argument in his brilliant The Next American Nation over a decade ago. This comes to mind because it happens in a context of declining "ethnic" allegiance among whites: consider the marked lack of hullabaloo over Columbus Day this year, a holiday that at least in part reflects the political and cultural clout of Italian Americans. One of my best friends is in the first year of an anthropology Ph.D. program at Yale, and she didn't even register that yesterday was Columbus Day: on campus, at least, that battle has long since been settled.

Will we eventually miss transactional ethnic politics? While talking to a cynical ethnic businessman a few months ago, he told me that when the Italians shake you down it's called "the mafia" and when members of underrepresented groups shake you down it's called "the coalition." Suffice to say, he's not the most enlightened character in the world, but his remarks reflect this idea that transactional ethnic politics are alive and well, on a much-reduced scale, in the big cities.

But if Swain is right, the new new thing is a kind of racial tribalism that will make wrangling over Columbus Day look like a breeze. More worrisome still, it's not obvious that intermarriage and assimilation will do much to blunt its effects.

I tend to be pretty optimistic about the prospects for ethnoracial conflict in the United States. In my admittedly limited experience, this country has adapted remarkably well to pretty dramatic changes in its population. Any prejudice I've encountered has been massively outweighed by indifference or maybe good-natured curiosity. I am interested, and of course concerned, to see if anti-Muslim sentiments become an enduring feature of the landscape. And I'm hoping the Republican Party doesn't choose to become "the white party," though it's easy to see how that would make for an accessible if not exactly attractive strategy. We'll see.

As for Columbus Day, it occurs to me that the so-called "Columbian Exchange" was probably the most important thing to ever happen to humans on Earth. Consider, and here I'm drawing on blogosphere favorite 1491, how badly things could have gone, say if indigenous Americans had contracted diseases from domesticated animals that could have spread back to the "Old World": the massive die-off in the Americas that is rightly remembered as a central tragedy could have been replicated in the rest of the world easily enough. Somehow what was torn asunder was going to be brought back together. Perhaps peace-loving Americans would have, given some time, traveled to Europe or Africa first. But one has to assume that this would have only delayed the die-off.

(Felipe Fernández-Armesto, one of my heroes, has a short book on The Americas offers a useful, contrarian look at some related issues. It turns out that he was recently beaten up by crazy cops.)