The United States is unquestionably becoming a more racially and ethnically diverse society. And new data from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that Americans have a fairly stark partisan disagreement in terms of how to feel about that.
Few Republicans say outright that they wish the country would maintain its white, European majority forever, but only 29 percent say they prefer the idea of a more diverse ethnic mix in the country. Among Democrats — who are disproportionately likely to be nonwhite themselves — 65 percent welcome an increase in diversity, with independents somewhere in between.
It’s difficult to know what the popular middle-ground position here amounts to, if there even is one.
But sociologists who study race and ethnicity in America generally believe that the Census Bureau’s projection that we’re 25 to 30 years away from a nonwhite majority is somewhat overblown. This forecast is driven largely by the statistical habit of treating all mixed-ethnicity people as nonwhite even though this is not necessarily how racial identity plays out on the ground. The census view, in other words, is that a monolingual English speaker with fair skin and one grandparent whose family came from Cuba (me, for example) is part of America’s nonwhite population. But if you instead use an “inclusive” definition of whiteness such that anyone who identifies as white-and-something-else is white, then the country’s white majority stays intact for a much longer (and potentially indefinite) time span.
Obviously a country with lots of quarter-Asian people in it would still be a more ethnically diverse society than the current United States, but a joint study by USC’s Dowell Myers and Morris Levy shows that Americans have very different emotional reactions to the narratives based on whether they use the inclusive or exclusive definition of whiteness.
The sharp partisan divide uncovered by PRRI isn’t exactly shocking, but it certainly illuminates the subtext to many ongoing debates in US partisan politics. After years of policy wonk arguments about the labor market impact of immigration, Donald Trump has centered his immigration politics on a rhetoric of physical threat that hooks in well with the idea that the inflow of people from Latin America is per se a problem. Democrats, meanwhile, have grown increasingly uncomfortable with celebrations of historical figures like Thomas Jefferson or Christopher Columbus whose iconic status is seen as implicitly defining American identity in white racialized terms.
So far, explicit advocacy for a white America remains taboo in mainstream circles. But from Charlottesville white nationalists chanting “you will not replace us” to Rep. Steve King (R-IA) wondering what’s wrong with white nationalism to the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter’s conspiracy theories about refugee resettlement, it’s clearly become a potent force below the surface of American public life — and one that may well grow if this topic, like so many others, becomes polarized over time as a result of more explicit discussion.