Two competing narratives dominate our debate about the ongoing ethnic and demographic transformation of America. The first holds that non-European immigrants O.K., let's be honest, Mexicans will rip apart the nation's social fabric. The second has it that the diversity of younger generations of Americans will inevitably lead to a more integrated, postracial era.
But both of these narratives are off the mark. With some minor differences, today's immigrants are assimilating into U.S. society in ways not terribly unlike those of millions before them. At the same time, it's likely that decades from now, Americans will still invest a lot of meaning in group distinctions.
The most profound changes in American race relations, however, will revolve around the other side of the equation: native-born white Americans. As much as Americans pride themselves on the notion that their national identity is premised on a set of ideals rather than a single race, ethnicity or religion, we all know that for most of our history, white supremacy was the law of the land. In every naturalization act from 1790 to 1952, Congress included language stating that the aspiring citizen should be a "white person." And not surprisingly, despite the extraordinary progress of the past 50 years, the sense of white proprietorship "this is our country and our culture" still has not been completely eradicated. Even though we now have an African-American President, we still tend to treat minorities as parts and whites as representatives of the whole. This, along with the luxury of rarely feeling obliged to think self-consciously about one's racial background, has been one of the perks of belonging to the demographic majority.
But according to the Census Bureau, by 2050 whites will be a minority group in the U.S. How the current majority reacts to its incipient minority status is the most crucial sociodemographic issue facing the country in the decade to come.
The most obvious impact will be political. If California's demographic transformation is any indication Anglos dropped below 50% of the population there in 2000 whites elsewhere may increasingly develop a stronger consciousness of their political interests as a group. In 1996, California's white voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 209, a ballot initiative that sought to eliminate state-sponsored affirmative action, because many of those voters felt that the playing field had begun to tilt against them. That decade, California also passed two other ethnically charged ballot measures, against illegal immigration and bilingual education. It's difficult not to conclude that these initiatives were part of a white backlash against the state's ethnic transformation. However, the very demographic trend that inspired those ballot initiatives has ensured that there haven't been any racially charged propositions since. With so-called minorities outnumbering whites, mainstream politicians have been reluctant to endorse any initiative that would invite a backlash from nonwhites.
But California's ethno-political détente may not be in the cards for other regions of the country. Though whites will become a minority in the national population, the vast majority of individual states will probably remain majority white. (This is because the most profound demographic change is happening in a handful of the most heavily populated states.) A strong white-minority political consciousness is most likely to arise in regions that are nowhere near actually becoming majority-minority. It is in these regions, where white-minority status is more phantom than reality, that politicians and demagogues can best employ the rhetoric of white ethno-nationalism.
This won't take the form of a chest-thumping brand of white supremacy. Instead, we are likely to see the rise of a more defensive, aggrieved sense of white victimhood that strains the social contract and undermines collectively shared notions of the common good.
Way back in 1991, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote the best-selling book The Disuniting of America, in which he argued that identity-based multiculturalism threatened the integrity of the nation. "The cult of ethnicity," he wrote, culminated in an "attack" on a shared American identity. He decried the "separatist impulses" of nonwhites, "or at least their self-appointed spokesmen." Nearly two decades later, one can hear evidence of white grievance in many corners of the country. And it's not coming just from fringe bloggers. In the spring of 2008, candidate Hillary Clinton appealed to "hardworking white Americans" to help her campaign against an ascendant Barack Obama. Last March, conservative commentator Glenn Beck suggested that the white man responsible for the worst workplace massacre in Alabama history was "pushed to the wall" because he felt "silenced" and "disenfranchised" by "political correctness."
The past decade has also seen a rise in the number of accusations of reverse discrimination and the emergence of high-profile court cases like the one filed by firefighters in New Haven, Conn. in which white men claim they were denied promotions because of their race.
Over the next decade, we're likely to see more antidiscrimination suits filed and growing anger over reverse discrimination. Not only will traditional affirmative action run into greater resistance, but there will be demands for whites to be included in affirmative action and even in government set-aside programs. In the face of growing demographic change, new groups will be dedicated to defending the interests and rights of European Americans. Candidates of both major parties will increasingly appeal to this sense of white grievance.
This means race will continue to be a defining feature of our politics, but the dynamic will be the precise opposite of what it was a generation ago, when angry nonwhite activists were a centrifugal force in America. Instead, with the election of Obama, blacks are polling as more optimistic than they were before. Having pretty much abandoned their counter-cultural stance, Latino activists are not fighting against U.S. power but are instead demanding that immigrants be allowed to become part of it. Meanwhile, even though they are still the majority and collectively maintain more access to wealth and political influence than other groups, whites are acting more and more like an aggrieved minority. Schlesinger would be turning in his grave.
Rodriguez is the author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America