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Both the Right and Left Need to Remember Demography is Not Destiny

In the more racist corners of the mainstream right, the 2020 census findings that the white American population has declined are cause for panic.

“Democrats are intentionally accelerating demographic change in this country for political advantage,” the Fox News host Tucker Carlson insisted on Friday, treating the results as confirmation of this conspiracy theory. “Rather than convince people to vote for them—that’s called democracy—they’re counting on brand-new voters.”

Carlson, it’s worth noting, has it wrong—voters who are not white are no less persuadable than those who are. If Republicans want to win over those constituencies, nothing is stopping them beyond their own nativism. And any read of the census results that assumes the growing diversity of the United States will simply redound to one party’s benefit is likely mistaken.

Political parties and identities are not static, and few concepts are as elastic as the invention of race, in particular the category of “white,” which is defined not just by looks and ancestry, but also by ideology and class. The fact that fewer Americans identify as white in the 2020 census than did 10 years before does not spell doom for the Republican Party, nor does it herald an era of political dominance for the Democrats, despite the forlorn cries of those who are committed less to conservatism as an ideology than the political and cultural hegemony of those they consider white.

American nativism has a long and ugly history. At the turn of the century, fears that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe would flood the country with an inferior genetic stock led to a panic. The result was a series of racist and anti-Semitic immigration laws designed to preserve America’s supposed “Anglo-Saxon” character. The composite white American identity that emerged after World War II was not yet dominant—the popular belief was that there were many white “races.” Europeans of Jewish, Italian, and Russian extraction were “beaten men from beaten races” who lacked the Anglo-Saxons’ inherent faculty for self-government. Immigration had to be curtailed before the old, “native” white American stock committed “race suicide,” the ideological precursor to the “white genocide” and “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories, themselves historical inversions of the realities of European colonialism.

These ideas are consonant with a particular worldview popular with certain social conservatives of virtually every era—that today’s population is coddled, weak, and degenerate compared with generations past. “The first requisite in a healthy race is that a woman should be able to bear children just as the men must be able to work and fight,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a letter in 1901. As Thomas G. Dyer writes in Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, the 26th president feared that old white American stock had grown decadent in its luxury, and would soon lose the “war of the cradle” to inferior races.

As it happened, the race pseudoscience of the time, which denigrated certain Europeans and nonwhite people as mentally deficient and unfit for self-government, aged poorly. The Southern and Eastern European immigrants once deemed genetically inferior were raised into the American mainstream and middle class by a racially stratified New Deal welfare state, and became so assimilated that some of their descendants today repeat versions of the old dubious theories to justify their suspicions about new generations of immigrants. Because race is a biological fiction, its categories are shaped by power and social dynamics, not hard laws of science.

The history of how America has defined who counts or identifies as “white” illustrates this reality, and reveals why drawing broad political conclusions from the census is impossible. As white Americans in the North and South retreated from the brief experiment with multiracial democracy after Reconstruction, the question of who was defined as “white” gained critical salience. Ian Haney López writes in White by Law that from 1878 to 1952, American courts struggled mightily to define the borders of American racial identity in legal terms. “A court in 1909 ruled that Armenians were White, even though their origins east of the Bosporus Strait, the official geographic line between Europe and Asia, made them at least geographically Asian,” Haney López observed. “More perplexing still, judges qualified Syrians as ‘white persons’ in 1909, 1910, and 1915, but not in 1913 or 1914; and Asian Indians were ‘white persons’ in 1910, 1913, 1919, and 1920, but not in 1909 or 1917, or after 1923.”

Read entire article at The Atlantic