clock menu more-arrow no yes
Javier Zarracina/Vox

White threat in a browning America

How demographic change is fracturing our politics.

In 2008, Barack Obama held up change as a beacon, attaching to it another word, a word that channeled everything his young and diverse coalition saw in his rise and their newfound political power: hope. An America that would elect a black man president was an America in which a future was being written that would read thrillingly different from our past.

In 2016, Donald Trump wielded that same sense of change as a threat; he was the revanchist voice of those who yearned to make America the way it was before, to make it great again. That was the impulse that connected the wall to keep Mexicans out, the ban to keep Muslims away, the birtherism meant to prove Obama couldn’t possibly be a legitimate president. An America that would elect Donald Trump president was an America in which a future was being written that could read thrillingly similar to our past.

This is the core cleavage of our politics, and it reflects the fundamental reality of our era: America is changing, and fast. According to the Census Bureau, 2013 marked the first year that a majority of US infants under the age of 1 were nonwhite. The announcement, made during the second term of the nation’s first African-American president, was not a surprise. Demographers had been predicting such a tipping point for years, and they foresaw more to come.

The government predicts that in 2030, immigration will overtake new births as the dominant driver of population growth. About 15 years after that, America will phase into majority-minority status — for the first time in the nation’s history, non-Hispanic whites will no longer make up a majority of the population.

That cross will come in part because America’s black, Hispanic, Asian, and mixed-race populations are expected to grow — indeed, the Hispanic and Asian populations are expected to roughly double, and the mixed-race population to triple. Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white population is, uniquely, expected to fall, dipping from 199 million in 2020 to 179 million in 2060. The Census Bureau minces no words here: “The only group projected to shrink is the non-Hispanic White population,” they report.

This isn’t just a statement about the future; it’s a description of the present. The economist Jed Kolko notes that the most common age for white Americans is 58, for Asians it’s 29, for African Americans it’s 27, and for Hispanics it’s 11. A new report out of the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Applied Population Lab found that white births are now outnumbered by white deaths in 26 states, up from 17 in 2014 and four in 2004.

Meanwhile, America’s foreign-born population is projected to rise from 14 percent of the population today to 17 percent in 2060, 2 percentage points above the record set in 1890. The rise has been staggering in its speed: As recently as the 1970s, America’s foreign-born population was under 5 percent.

The country’s gender dynamics are also in flux. Hillary Clinton was not just the first female presidential candidate to win the popular vote but the first to be nominated by a major political party. Women now make up 56 percent of college students, and are 8 percentage points more likely than men to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 29.

Demographers can and do disagree over whether these projections will hold. Perhaps Hispanic whites will begin identifying simply as whites in the coming years, much as the Irish became white in the 20th century. Race is what we make of it, and what we make of it shifts and mutates.

Another way to say that is it’s often our perception of race and power that matters. In that case, though, most Americans feel the browning of America is happening even faster than the demographers report. Back in 2013, the Center for American Progress, PolicyLink, and the Rockefeller Foundation surveyed Americans and found that the median participant believed the country was 49 percent nonwhite; the correct answer was 37 percent.

I spent months talking with politicians, social psychologists, and political scientists about what happens in moments like this one, moments when a majority feels its dominance beginning to fail. The answer, attested to in mountains of studies and visible everywhere in our politics, is this: Change of this magnitude acts on us psychologically, not just electorally. It is the crucial context uniting the core political conflicts of this era — Obama and Trump’s presidencies, the rise of reactionary new social movements and thinkers, the wars over political correctness on campuses and representation in Hollywood, the power of #MeToo and BlackLivesMatter, the fights over immigration.

Demographic change, and the fears and hopes it evokes, is one of the tectonic forces shaping this era in American life, joining income inequality and political polarization in transforming every aspect of our politics and culture. But to understand what it is doing to us as a country, we need to begin by understanding what it does to us as individuals.


In 2014, psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson analyzed the responses of 369 white, self-identified political independents who had completed one of two surveys. Half of the participants received a survey that asked them whether they knew that California had become a majority-minority state — which is to say, a state where whites no longer made up more than 50 percent of the population. The others read a survey devoid of demographic information.

This was a gentle test of an unnerving theory: that the barest exposure to the concept that whites were losing their numerical majority in America would not just make whites feel afraid but sharply change their political behavior. The theory proved correct. Among participants who lived in the western United States, the group that read that whites had ceded majority status were 11 points likelier to subsequently say they favored the Republican Party.

In a follow-up study, Craig and Richeson handed some white subjects a press release about geographic mobility, while others read one explaining that “racial minorities will constitute a majority of the U.S. populace by 2042.” The group that read the racially tinged release “produced more conservative views not only on plausibly relevant issues like immigration and affirmative action, but also on seemingly unrelated issues like defense spending and health care reform.”

(It’s worth noting that these dynamics cut in the other direction too: A 2016 study by Alexander Kuo, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo split a sample of Asian-American college students into two groups. One group was subjected to a staged microaggression during the study — their US citizenship was doubted by the researcher managing the experiment. The incident increased support for Democrats by 13 percentage points.)

Perhaps the most striking experiment in this space was conducted by Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos. He attempted something rare in social science: an actual test of what seeing more diversity in our everyday surroundings does to our political opinions. His explanation of both the experiment and its results is worth reading:

I sent Spanish speakers to randomly selected train stations in towns around Boston to simply catch the train and ride like any other passenger. I focused on stations in white suburbs. The intent was to create the impression, by subtle manipulation, that the Latino population in these segregated towns was increasing.

Before and after sending these Spanish speakers to the train platforms, I surveyed passengers on the platforms about their attitudes about immigration. After being exposed to the Spanish speakers on their metro lines for just three days, attitudes on these questions moved sharply rightward: The mostly liberal Democratic passengers had come to endorse immigration policies — including deportation of children of undocumented immigrants — similar to those endorsed by Trump in his campaign.

Enos goes on to note that his findings match what we saw in 2016: The biggest gains Donald Trump made over Mitt Romney’s performance “were in the places where the Latino population had grown most quickly. ... For example, Luzerne County, adjacent to Scranton, Pennsylvania, had experienced an almost 600 percent growth in its Latino population between 2000 and 2014, and, after decades of voting Democrat in presidential elections, gave Trump 12 percentage points more votes than it had given to Romney in 2012.”

So here, then, is what we know: Even gentle, unconscious exposure to reminders that America is diversifying — and particularly to the idea that America is becoming a majority-minority nation — pushes whites toward more conservative policy opinions and more support of the Republican Party.

What happens when the exposure isn’t so subtle?


When Obama was elected in 2008, there was much talk of America moving into a post-racial moment. But as Michael Tesler shows in his powerful book Post-Racial or Most-Racial?: Race and Politics in the Obama Era, the mere existence of Obama’s presidency further racialized American politics, splitting the two parties not just by racial composition but by racial attitudes.

What Tesler proves is that in the Obama era, attitudes on race drove attitudes on almost everything else, in a way that’s unique in recent American politics. The black-white divide in support for Obamacare was 20 percentage points larger than the black-white divide over Bill Clinton’s similarly controversial proposal, for instance.

But it wasn’t just health care. Party identification became significantly more divided by race. Perceptions of the economy became significantly more divided by race. Even perceptions of the president’s dogs became more divided by race — shown pictures of the Obamas’ dog Bo, more racially resentful Americans liked the dog better when told it was a picture of Ted Kennedy’s dog Splash.

“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

You might assume, seeing all this, that the reason for the racialization of American politics under Obama’s presidency was that Obama, being African American, discussed racial issues and put forward race-conscious policies more often than past president. You’d be wrong. “According to content analyses conducted by political and communication scientists, Barack Obama actually discussed race less in his first term than any other Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt,” writes Tesler.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Obama’s presidency didn’t force race to the forefront of American politics through rhetoric or action but through symbolism: Obama himself was a symbol of a changing America, of white America’s loss of power, of the fact that the country was changing and new groups were gaining power. That perception wasn’t incorrect: In his 2012 reelection campaign, Obama won merely 39 percent of the white vote — a smaller share than Michael Dukakis had commanded in 1988. That is to say, a few decades ago, the multiracial Obama coalition couldn’t drive American politics; by 2012, it could.

The changes that led to Obama’s presidency are everywhere in our culture. We live in an America where television programs, commercials, and movies are trying to represent a browner country; where Black Panther is a celebrated cultural event and #OscarsSoWhite is a nationally known hashtag; where NFL players kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and pressing 1 for English is commonplace.

There’s a reason why, when the Russians wanted to sow division in the American election, they focused their social media trolling on America’s racial divisions.

White voters who feel they are losing a historical hold on power are reacting to something real. For the bulk of American history, you couldn’t win the presidency without winning a majority — usually an overwhelming majority — of the white vote. Though this changed before Obama (Bill Clinton won slightly less of the white vote than his Republican challengers), the election of an African-American president leading a young, multiracial coalition made the transition stark and threatening.

This is the crucial context for Trump’s rise, and it’s why Tesler has little patience for those who treat Trump as an invader in the Republican Party. In a field of Republicans who were trying to change the party to appeal to a rising Hispanic electorate, Trump was alone in speaking to Republican voters who didn’t want the party to remake itself, who wanted to be told that a wall could be built and things could go back to the way they were.

“Trump met the party where it was rather than trying to change it,“ Tesler says. “He was hunting where the ducks were.”


Ashley Jardina is a political scientist at Duke University who studies racial identity. In her 2014 dissertation The Demise of Dominance: Group Threat and the New Relevance of White Identity for American Politics, she argues that generations of scholars have taken African-American and Hispanic and Asian identity seriously but assumed there was no such thing as white identity. The conventional wisdom was that “because of their numerical majority and political dominance, whites do not, by and large, possess their own sense of racial identification, and they do not feel consciously compelled to protect some sense of group interest.”

Jardina argued — and, in a series of experiments, proved — that this was wrong. White political identity is “conditional.” It emerges in some periods and is absent in others. The periods it emerges in are periods like this one.

“When the dominant status of whites relative to racial and ethnic minorities is secure and unchallenged, white identity likely remains dormant,” she writes. “When whites perceive their group’s dominant status is threatened or their group is unfairly disadvantaged, however, their racial identity may become salient and politically relevant.”

You’ll notice the language Jardina uses is careful and probabilistic. “Racial identity may become salient,” not will become salient. When we spoke, she took pains to emphasize that none of this is inevitable. “There are a lot of incentives for elites across the political spectrum to try and stoke identity in the first place,” Jardina told me. “Donald Trump has done a great job on this.” Then she added, a bit ruefully, “My dissertation reads sort of like a playbook.”

But “it depends a lot on how politicians decide to take advantage,” she continued. “There’s an opportunity for politicians to think about how they’re going to organize politics around identity. I don’t think it’s inevitable that race will be the defining cleavage.”

Different politicians could make different choices. In 2012, Mitt Romney chose to run a campaign mainly based on economic identity, pitting his vision of the heroic entrepreneur against Obama’s emphasis on the screwed-over worker. Perhaps future Republicans will return to similar themes, and American politics will calm.

Perhaps. But another way of looking at that era is that someone like Trump was becoming more and more inevitable. Many of these same forces were thrumming through American politics in 2012 — indeed, Trump was amassing power in the Republican Party by championing birther conspiracy theories. The background context of conservative politics was becoming more racialized in response to Obama and the changes he represented.

In 2009, for instance, Rush Limbaugh went on the air to tell his listeners:

How do you get promoted in a Barack Obama administration? By hating white people, or even saying you do, or that they’re not good, or whatever. Make white people the new oppressed minority, and they are going along with it, because they’re shutting up. They’re moving to the back of the bus. They’re saying I can’t use that drinking fountain, okay. I can’t use that restroom, okay. That’s the modern day Republican Party, the equivalent of the Old South, the new oppressed minority.

In 2012, on the eve of the election, Bill O’Reilly, then the top-rated cable news anchor in the country, sat down to tell his viewers What It All Meant:

Because it’s a changing country; the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff, they want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it, and he ran on it. And, whereby 20 years ago President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney, the white establishment is now the minority.

It would be easy to dismiss these comments as the over-the-top rantings of pundits, but Limbaugh and O’Reilly’s views are widely shared. A 2016 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 57 percent of whites agreed that “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” A 2017 GenForward poll of white millennials found 48 percent agreed with a similar statement, showing that the sentiment isn’t confined, or even concentrated, among older whites.

You can think of politics as a market and powerful, primal fears like these as representing a market opportunity. Eventually, someone was going to come along and give the people what they want. If Trump hadn’t done it in 2016, another politician would have in 2020, or 2024. The pressure was just going to keep building.


There is an explanation we prefer for all this; an explanation that accounts for the turmoil of our politics without forcing us into uncomfortable conversations about race, power, and resentment. That explanation? It’s the economy, stupid.

As the argument goes, the financial crisis, the rise of automation, the wreckage of globalization, the pain of the Great Recession, the shocking rise in inequality — all of that was more than enough to upend our politics; you don’t need to reach for racialized explanations. So a bitter debate has erupted since the 2016 election between those who blame our politics on economic anxiety and those who see a country riven by racial resentment. In its aftermath, a popular synthesis has emerged: Economic anxiety activated racial resentment, which means, comfortingly, that a better economy would calm our divisions.

The best evidence we have suggests this gets the relationship largely backward. In their forthcoming book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck analyze reams of data and show that racial resentment activated economic anxiety, rather than the other way around:

Before Obama’s presidency, how Americans felt about black people did not much affect their perceptions of the economy. After Obama, this changed. In December 2007, racial resentment — which captures whether Americans think deficiencies in black culture are the main reason for racial inequality — was not related to whites’ perceptions of whether the economy was getting better or worse, after accounting for partisanship and ideology. But when these exact same people were re-interviewed in July 2012, racial resentment was a powerful predictor of economic perceptions: the greater someone’s level of racial resentment, the worse they believed the economy was doing.

This is unnerving data, as we tend to imagine the economy as a rare subject on which objective facts, rather than group conflicts, drive opinions. Sadly, no. Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck analyzed polling on economic sentiment and found that “Republicans in the highest income quintile, those making more than $100,000 per year, were actually slightly less satisfied than Democrats in the lowest income quintile, those making less than $20,000 per year.”

This was borne out in the election’s aftermath. Trump’s election led to a remarkable 80-point jump in economic confidence among Republicans, and a 37-point fall among Democrats.

The economy since Trump took office has mostly shown the same trends from the final years of Obama — job growth, in fact, has been slightly slower — but his coalition’s confidence has continued to soar, even as they live under much the same economy that so depressed them in 2016. Indeed, new data collected by Tesler shows that the most racially resentful are now the most economically optimistic.

None of this takes away from the fact that economic anxiety is real, or that more broadly shared economic growth would be good for our politics. But it does suggest economic anxiety cannot explain away our political or cultural divisions.

Indeed, Trump himself is proof of this: He calls the economy under his watch “a miracle,” but that has not led him toward a gentler stance on immigration or less concern over NFL players kneeling to protest police brutality. A better economy would be good for the country because a better economy would always be good for the country. But it will not allow us to vault over the difficulties of a diversifying country.


There’s a story Jennifer Richeson, the Yale psychologist responsible for some of the studies discussed above, likes to tell about the building she works in.

“My lab is an old engineering building and there’s exactly one women’s bathroom,” she says with a laugh. “No one noticed that, or at least no faculty members did.” And then, slowly, Yale began adding women to the department, and they noticed it. They complained. “When new people show up, they notice new things and start asking questions and begin making demands,” she says.

There’s been an obsessive interest in recent years in conflicts over political correctness. Tune in to Fox News on any given night and you’ll find yourself dropped into a controversy on some liberal arts college somewhere. The connective tissue of the intellectual dark web — the anxiety that has made a coalition of new atheist Sam Harris, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, comedian Joe Rogan, Quillette editor Claire Lehmann, and others — is fear that the boundaries of acceptable discourse are being narrowed, that PC culture and identity politics are choking free speech. There’s a whole subgenre of punditry arguing that Trump’s rise is a regrettable, but predictable, backlash to political correctness, and thus the blame for his emergence properly belongs to campus activists and Black Lives Matter protesters.

These fears can seem bizarre at first glance. Given all the other things available to worry about in the world, who cares what happened at this or that college? But the speed with which these clashes go viral on Twitter and Facebook, the enthusiasm with which they’re covered on cable news and traffic-hungry websites and celebrated podcasts, all of it reflects the reality that something deeper and more fearful in us is being activated. These are proxy wars for bigger, more fundamental concerns over the direction of the culture.

What can you say without being criticized? Protested? Punished? What are the lines, and who gets to decide where they’re drawn? When have students gone too far, when have speakers gone too far, and whose job is it to punish infractions?

Trump himself harnessed these sentiments during the campaign. “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Much of this debate has played out under false pretenses. The idea that college campuses have ever been bastions of free speech is a fiction. In October 2017, Sean Decatur, the president of Kenyon College, noted that American colleges have always believed the regulation of civility and behavioral norms to be part of their mandate. He quoted Kenyon’s statement of student responsibilities from the 1960s, which warned that any behavior that “offends the sensibilities of others (whether students, faculty members or visitors) … will result in disciplinary action … vulgar behavior, obscene language or disorderly conduct are not tolerated.”

This was, he continued, “far stricter than anything that 21st-century critics of higher education see as a product of ‘political correctness.’” So what’s changed? The answer, Decatur suggested, is who gets to decide what counts as offensive behavior:

The demographics of elite, residential colleges has changed drastically in the last 50 years and, as a result, the definition of civility has begun to change. There are many, including myself, who see the act of whites dressing in blackface as a disrespectful act. Reminding students of the norms of civil, respectful behavior, including refraining from blackface, is in line with the actions of colleges historically. What has changed is not the expectation that colleges define norms for civility, but rather the definition of civility.

There are behaviors on college campuses in general, and at Kenyon in particular, that may have passed a standard for civility 50 years ago — when the institution was all-male and almost all-white — that would not be considered civil today.

It is easy to read that as pure progress, but for those who dominated the discourse before, it represents real loss, and for everyone involved, it carries confusion and upheaval. New lines are being drawn, but no one is quite sure where they are or who is doing the drawing. The power to define the boundaries of acceptable behavior and polite discourse is profound, and right now, it is contested.

“I call it the democratization of discomfort,” says Richeson. “There were whole swaths of people uncomfortable all of the time. Now we’re democratizing it. Now more people across different races and religions feel uncomfortable.”

On all sides, the debate over PC culture is really about the core questions of not just politics but life: Whose grievances get heard? Who gets to be referred to by the names and labels and pronouns they choose? Who has the power to grant respectability, and who has the power to take it away?

It’s become common to mock students demanding safe spaces, but look carefully at the collisions in American politics right now and you find that everyone is demanding safe spaces — the fear is not that the government is regulating speech, but that protesters are chilling speech, that Twitter mobs rove the land looking for an errant word or misfired joke.

In our eagerness to discount our opponents as easily triggered snowflakes, we’ve lost sight of the animating impulse behind much of politics and, indeed, much of life: the desire to feel safe, to know you can say what you want without fear.


The dynamic driving the fights on campuses is also driving broader collisions in our culture and politics.

As America changes, so too do the issues America chooses to confront, and the ways it chooses to confront them. In 1996, as President Bill Clinton swept to reelection, the Democratic Party platform included a section on immigration that sounds as if it could have been released by the Trump administration today:

Today’s Democratic Party also believes we must remain a nation of laws. We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it. For years before Bill Clinton became President, Washington talked tough but failed to act. In 1992, our borders might as well not have existed. The border was under-patrolled, and what patrols there were, were under-equipped. Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.

President Clinton is making our border a place where the law is respected and drugs and illegal immigrants are turned away. We have increased the Border Patrol by over 40 percent; in El Paso, our Border Patrol agents are so close together they can see each other. Last year alone, the Clinton Administration removed thousands of illegal workers from jobs across the country. Just since January of 1995, we have arrested more than 1,700 criminal aliens and prosecuted them on federal felony charges because they returned to America after having been deported.

Fast-forward to the 2016 Democratic Party platform: Another Clinton was running for president, but the party was much more reliant on Hispanic votes.

Democrats believe we need to urgently fix our broken immigration system — which tears families apart and keeps workers in the shadows — and create a path to citizenship for law-abiding families who are here, making a better life for their families and contributing to their communities and our country ... we will defend and implement President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans executive actions to help DREAMers, parents of citizens, and lawful permanent residents avoid deportation. We will build on these actions to provide relief for others, such as parents of DREAMers. ...

We believe immigration enforcement must be humane and consistent with our values. We should prioritize those who pose a threat to the safety of our communities, not hardworking families who are contributing to their communities. We will end raids and roundups of children and families, which unnecessarily sow fear in immigrant communities.

In 1996, white voters were more closely split between the two parties, the Hispanic vote was smaller, and both parties were more skeptical of immigration. In 2016, white voters were concentrated in the Republican Party, Hispanic voters were far more powerful, and this cut a political schism in which Democrats became friendlier to immigrants and Republicans nominated Trump.

This is a dynamic Tesler describes well. “In the post-civil rights era, Democrats needed to maintain their nonwhite base without alienating white voters,” he said. “So their incentive was silence. And Republicans needed to win over white voters without appearing racist. So their incentive was to speak about race in code. The shifts now have made it so Democrats’ incentive is to make explicitly pro-racial equality appeals and Republicans now have an incentive to make more explicit anti-minority appeals.”

Take that idea and extend it out into the coming decades of American politics. The Democratic Party will not be able to win elections without an excited, diverse coalition. The Republican Party will not be able to win elections without an enthused white base. Democrats will need to build a platform that’s even more explicit in its pursuit of racial and gender equality, while Republicans will need to design a politics even more responsive to a coalition that feels itself losing power.

This dynamic is behind much of the frustration about “identity politics.” When a single group dominates the political agenda, their grievances and demands are just coded as politics, and the vast majority of policy is designed in response to their concerns. But that changes when no one group can control the agenda but many groups can push items onto it; then the competition between identity-based groups becomes visible. And it becomes particularly visible to the group that’s traditionally dominated the agenda and believes that their issues reflect what politics is supposed to be about and other groups’ concerns represent special pleading.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

The experience of losing status — and being told that loss of status is part of society’s march to justice — is itself radicalizing. In 2006, Nyla Branscombe, Michael Schmitt, and Kristin Schiffhauer published a fascinating paper called “Racial attitudes in response to thoughts of White privilege.” They found that priming white college students to think about the concept of white privilege led them to express more racial resentment in subsequent surveys. The simplest way to activate someone’s identity is to threaten it, to tell them they don’t truly deserve what they have, to make them consider that it might be taken away.

Recently, I was in Los Angeles, interviewing Mayor Eric Garcetti. I asked him how, in a diverse polity, he dealt with the tensions of what some call identity politics and what some just call politics. His answer? Talk less, act more.

“I came in here as mayor,” he replied, “and I looked at the boards and commissions that I appointed about 300 people to oversee our departments. And within six months, I made them, for the first time, over 50 percent women. I think it was 53 or 54 percent women. And then we could get back to business.”

Perhaps that’s the answer. But imagine that at the national level, attempted by the first female president, with a polarized media looking for conflict. Many would celebrate it. Others would see discrimination, threat, loss. Think back to Limbaugh saying, “How do you get promoted in a Barack Obama administration? By hating white people.” Think of Jordan Peterson labeling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s efforts to promote gender equality a “murderous equity doctrine.”

The world is not zero-sum, but it is sometimes zero-sum. A world in which 50 percent of government appointees are female is a world in which fewer are male. Those losses will be felt, and fought. Powerful social movements will arise to protect what is being taken, to justify the way things were before. The quickest path toward social calm would be to leave these inequities untouched, but even if that were desirable — and it’s not — it will be impossible as historically marginalized groups gain the power to demand their share of the American dream.

As we navigate these sensitivities, we can do so with more or less care. Richeson believes it would be wise for demographers to stop using terms like “majority-minority America” — after all, whites will still be a plurality, and what good can come of framing America’s trajectory in a way that leaves the single largest group feeling maximally threatened? It sounds like “a force of nonwhite people who are coming and they are working as a coalition to overturn white people and whiteness,” Richeson said, laughing. “That’s a problem!”

Richeson’s research shows that if you can add reassurance to discussions of demographic change — telling people, for instance, that the shifts are unlikely to upend existing power or economic arrangements — the sense of threat, and the tilt toward racial and political conservatism, vanishes. The problem, she admits, is, “we can’t say, ‘Don’t worry, white people, you’ll be okay and you’ll get to run everything forever!’”

The other problem is that the conversation about, and the experience of, a browning America will not be driven by demographers and social psychologists; it will be driven by ambitious politicians looking for an edge, by political pundits looking for ratings, by outrageous stories going viral on social media, by cultural controversies like Gamergate and Roseanne Barr getting fired.

To say American politics is in for turbulence is not to say we are in for dissolution. A majority of Americans — though not of Republicans — believe the browning of America is a good thing for the country. And we have watched states like California and Texas transition into majority-minority status without falling to pieces. Politicians able to articulate a vision of this future that is inclusive, inspiring, and nonthreatening — the mixture Obama sought in 2008 — will reap massive rewards.

But as Obama found after he was elected, leadership in this era requires delivering for diverse coalitions, and taking sides in charged cultural battles, and thus becoming part of the very conflict you’re trying to calm. The cycle of unity giving way to conflict, of hope about the future activating fear about the present, is likely to continue. And as long as much of the country feels threatened by the changes they see, there will be a continuing, and perhaps growing, market for politicians like Trump.


Listen: Ezra Klein and Jennifer Richeson discuss white threat and American politics

Subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Gender Equality

Kirsten Gillibrand is making paid family leave a defining issue in her 2020 run

World

Trump just made a highly controversial decision about Israel — again

Politics & Policy

Trump’s free speech executive order isn’t about free speech

View all stories in Politics & Policy