Human Rights

Pockets of White America Are in the Throes of an Existential Crisis

As the Census "time bomb" ticks, fear mounts over a perceived loss of whites' raw power - demographic, social, economic, and political.

The headlines snared my attention over the last several days. "White Americans' Majority to End By Mid-century," announces The Associated Press. "Projections Put Whites in Minority in U.S. by 2050," declares The New York Times.

The Census Bureau has been churning some provocative press releases between its last head count (2000) and the one next year. Why, I wonder, the palpable anxiety? And why don't these headlines announce a positive reading of this statistic? Why not: "By 2050, People of Color Will Be a Majority"?

Already, 40 percent of Americans under the age of twenty-four are not white. Between now and 2050, the Latino population is projected to triple, the Asian population to double, and the non-Hispanic white population to flatline.

Meanwhile this week, two white police officers in Shenandoah, PA were indicted in federal court for filing false reports about the beating death of Luis Ramirez, a 25-year old undocumented worker. (When the immigrant was murdered in 2008 in the Pennsylvania hamlet, one of police officers was dating the accused teenage assailant's mother.) And the Justice Department announced this week that federal hate crimes cases are at their highest level since 2001.

"Do you understand what the New York Timeswants, and the far-left want? They want to break down the white, Christian, male power structure, of which you're a part, and so am I," said Bill O'Reilly to John McCain in 2007, complaining about the number of undocumented Latino immigrants. "They hate America, and they hate it because it's run primarily by white, Christian men. They want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have."

Sealing the Mexican border would not significantly disrupt the Latino population increase. Nor does a sour economy. Domestic births currently outpace immigration as the key source of Latino population growth. In bellwether California, for example, births to Latina mothers outnumber births to all other races combined.

Racial demographics singe my thinking like a slow-burn fuse. When exactly did I grasp white people's proportional population decline? When, at last, did I realize what explosive emotions Latino immigration triggers? Was it reflecting on the many Census-related headlines, or while noticing other media's metaphors for Latino immigration ("flood," "tidal wave," "overrun," "invasion"), metaphors firmly in the vernacular of catastrophe, the idiom of natural disaster?

Was it absorbing all the reports in March of 2001 that announced black Americans' declining population share, a news flash that hit me more like an eviction notice. Hey, effective immediately, the Hispanics have ousted the blacks as America's largest minority! Or was it watching deposed Alarm King Lou Dobbs's "Broken Borders" segments, or clicking through the competing doomsday scenarios on cable TV, or noticing the spate of panicky best sellers, like Peter Brimelow's Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster, Patrick Buchanan's State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, and Samuel Huntington's Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's Identity. I can't put my finger on any moment, no. It has been a ten-year drumbeat, a rat-tat-tat, of quickening alarms alerting drastic, unprecedented cultural changes to our nation, complete with compression intervals.

By 2050, White People Will No Longer Be the Majority. The next census is being conducted against this backdrop, what I call "The White People Deadline."

Our country's Obama-era racial politics rarely mentions race in debate, though it lodges race just under the surface of "nonracial" issues: taxes, health care reform, immigration, public spending. There is a slim silver lining to the economic slump: It may inspire a greater commitment toward our nation's common good and more confidence in the public sector. For too long, an anti-government, race-tinged mindset has corroded belief in "one nation for all," while fertilizing conservative myths that "explain" the economic meltdown and rebuke President Obama's recovery agenda: "too much government regulation," "high taxes," "wasteful spending," and "undeserving welfare recipients."

Tea party protests. Combusting town-hall forums. A nativist Birther movement. Rising hate crimes against Latino Americans and immigrants. "You lie!" Right-wing calls to boycott the 2010 Census. Pockets of white America are suffering an existential crisis.

As the Census "time bomb" ticks, fear mounts over a perceived loss of whites' raw power - demographic, social, economic, and political.

Rich Benjamin is the author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.
He is also senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based nonpartisan national think tank, and also sits on the board of the Roosevelt Institution, the first and largest student-run think tank in the nation. His commentary is featured on NPR and Fox Radio, and in newspapers nationwide.
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