Fear of a Nonwhite America

Naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles, Calif., in 2013. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
Are white identity politics a solution to our racial woes?

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE E ric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift is in part a very long, very academic exploration of how immigration is playing out across the West — in particular, of how white majorities are responding to demographic change, including through political resistance, “white flight,” intermarriage, and broadening the definition of whiteness to include those of mixed heritage (a category that includes Kaufmann himself).

But it’s also, in part, a normative argument about how society should change in response to these trends if it wants to avoid a backlash and potentially even violence, and Kaufmann’s core suggestion is an eye-catcher. He says we need to be more open to anti-immigration arguments rooted in white “ethno-traditional nationalism” — i.e., in the desire of whites to maintain a given ethnic balance in their home countries. This would resolve the double standard in which minority groups are allowed to engage in identity politics but whites are not, a double standard that will become harder to maintain as whites themselves become a minority group. And it would let populists talk out loud about what’s really bothering them, demographic change, so that it can be addressed through policy.

Kaufmann may have a point in regards to Europe — that’s not my area, literally or figuratively — but his narrative doesn’t quite hold up here in the States. Mass immigration poses real difficulties, but at least here, there’s little sign that these problems are reaching any sort of white-backlash crisis point. We don’t need to give in to identity politics and jettison the ideal of colorblindness. To the contrary, maintaining and strengthening this ideal may be the key to winning over the country’s center when its Left is falling off the deep end — and meanwhile, there are concrete changes to the immigration system that can aggressively address the concerns of populists without alienating the middle.

The U.S. Is Not Courting an Unmanageable Anti-Immigration Backlash

Let’s start with a Gallup chart that has profoundly influenced my own thinking on immigration and that is discussed for a few pages in Whiteshift as well. (Pew has a very similar chart, for a question specifically about legal immigration, here.) There’s a simple and straightforward way of interpreting it, as well as a far more convoluted way.

The straightforward interpretation is this: The worst of the backlash to the immigration changes passed in the late 1960s, and the illegal-immigration wave that crested in the late 1990s, is already behind us. The desire to reduce immigration is at all-time lows; the desire to increase it is at all-time highs; and the rock-solid median answer is to just leave immigration at its current level. (The shifts are also far too big to be just the result of immigrants themselves answering the poll.) Increasing immigration does not seem smart given that two-thirds of Americans oppose such a move, but cutting immigration looks no better, if we’re talking purely about public opinion.

A Pew question on whether immigrants strengthen or burden the country is also helpful, because the results are broken out by generation since 1994. It shows that generations of Americans have generally become more supportive of immigration as they’ve aged, and also that each generation starts off more pro-immigration than the last.

Kaufmann’s discussion of the chart included above is sensible. (His version ends earlier, presumably reflecting the most recent data available as he went to press.) He writes that increased immigration “took place against a backdrop of large-scale liberal attitude change,” with “egalitarian and humanitarian” attitudes on the upswing and an ethos of “universalist individualism” taking root while older, more closed-minded cohorts died off.

But it’s also worth checking his broader narrative of immigration, presented elsewhere in the book, against these data. Part of his case is that populists and extremists can cause problems even if they can’t win elections, which of course is true. But he also argues — in part using lab experiments in which researchers try to trick people into saying what they really think about touchy issues — that (A) political-correctness norms are so strong that whites may be underreporting their opposition to immigration (by as much as half in one study) and (B) populist movements succeed by shattering these norms, opening up space for whites who privately oppose immigration to oppose it publicly as well.

How much you buy this narrative will depend on your trust in Kaufmann’s psychology studies (replication crisis anyone?) and how plausible you find it a priori. I don’t buy it much at all; in surveys such as the ones above, there may be some misreporting from Americans cowed by the PC haranguings they suffered in college, but “we should have less immigration” is not some beyond-the-pale sentiment that no one will admit to. In addition, open restrictionism has declined since Trump entered the scene, suggesting that if “woke” norms, rather than changing opinions, really are a big part of the story, even a successful presidential candidate who went on about Mexican rapists and Muslim bans did nothing to break them. Indeed, one theory for the recent uptick in support for immigration, which NRO’s Teddy Kupfer explored here, is that the public actually reacts against politicians who turn up the populist heat on issues the way Trump did (and is continuing to do).

Another consequence of immigration that Kaufmann explores is segregation — the tendency of people to live around others like them. This is, of course, a very real thing: Immigrants set up shop near other immigrants; whites often leave changing neighborhoods or avoid heavily minority ones. If you think human beings lost their natural instinct toward homophily the instant MLK said that thing about the content of your character, Kaufmann’s data will come as an enormous shock. But I was more surprised to see him spend rather little time on a question that might be more important: Are these tendencies getting better or worse?

In fact, one important study found that whites are avoiding diverse areas less than they used to. Another found that “white segregation from others declined significantly from 1980 to 2010, regardless of the measure of segregation or the [definition of the] white population used.” Looking at more specific forms of segregation, whites and blacks are becoming less separated, albeit more slowly than we should want to be the case. White/Hispanic segregation is harder to measure in an informative way — it’s a complicated mix of white flight and avoidance, new immigrants flowing into ethnic enclaves, and immigrants’ descendants integrating into the wider society (sometimes ceasing to identify as Hispanic at all) — but it generally appears to be steady or declining, and at any rate Hispanics have always been less separated from whites than blacks are.

Roughly a third of Americans say they want to reduce immigration — including a quarter who even want to reduce legal immigration — and these folks tend to place the most importance on the issue, so anti-immigration voters can certainly play a huge role in politics, especially with a little push from the math of the Electoral College. But most Americans seem just fine with the level of immigration we have currently, immigration is getting more popular with time, and while segregation will be with us for as long as we are a multiethnic society, it is generally headed in the right direction. Intermarriage is up as well, as Kaufmann documents.

Are there changes we should make that the populists would like? Hell yes, as I’ll explain in a bit. Our current immigration system is a farce that does not serve the national interest. But I’m just not sold that these problems are reaching such a crisis point that American society needs to make a deliberate effort to welcome arguments based on “white identity,” voiding the implicit contract whites signed when they got on board with the civil-rights movement, rather than just fixing that system.

Wait, Then How Did Trump Win?

One might reasonably reply: Isn’t the 2016 election unambiguous evidence that immigration opposition is higher than polls would suggest? I don’t think so. Trump’s road to the White House was a fairly odd one, and he had numerous advantages besides his views on immigration, starting with high name recognition and an enviable knack for attracting media attention. The share of Americans who are enthusiastic Trump supporters is fairly small, easily reconcilable with the share who want less immigration.

In the earliest primaries, Trump won only about a third of the Republican vote. The number rose as other candidates dropped out and he gained momentum, but even if we count all of the primary votes — including in states where he faced no opposition at all — only 45 percent of Republicans voted for Trump. He won the nomination not by representing the party’s consensus, but by carving out a niche and benefiting from the fact that the rest of the party was severely fragmented. Then, in the general election, he won only 46 percent of the popular vote, not even a plurality (Clinton won 48 percent). He won the Electoral College thanks to a series of narrow victories in Rust Belt swing states where his message particularly resonated, and as Kaufmann notes, a lot of his voters were simply Republicans who’d have backed whomever the GOP nominated.

It’s also worth asking how much of the Trump phenomenon was even about race and immigration, as opposed to the famed standard explanation of “economic anxiety” (or more nuanced theories such as Tim Carney’s belief that Trump’s appeal was largely to whites in areas with low social capital). Trump made immigration a major part of his campaign, and to top it off he said such outrageous things about the topic that, in order to vote for him, one almost needed to have “a certain indifference to minority concerns,” as Ross Douthat has put it. Kaufmann goes much further, though, saying that Trump’s core of support (and that for Brexit as well) really just boils down to white anxiety about demographic change. This despite the fact that, in one of Kaufmann’s own surveys, only a quarter of people who rated Trump a perfect 10/10 saw immigration as their top issue.

There are strong signs that economics mattered. An especially interesting and rigorous study — from the economist David Autor and several coauthors, employing a complicated statistical technique called “instrumental variables” — found that places with growing exposure to Chinese imports shifted to Trump, and in fact that Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania would have voted for Clinton had import growth been slowed by half.

How is this study addressed in Whiteshift, which for 500+ pages suffocates its poor readers under a constant avalanche of academic citations? It’s not, perhaps because Kaufmann categorically refuses to look at research that analyzes the geography of the Trump vote as opposed to the attitudes of individual Trump voters, writing, basically, that only idiot journalists draw conclusions based on looking at maps.

Certainly, there are limits to what we can learn from geography, and certainly some geographical patterns (such as the urban/rural split) are far less dramatic when you take individual-level factors (such as education) into account. But there are also limits to how much we can learn from analyzing survey data — i.e., building statistical models, based on questions people may not even have answered honestly, in the hopes of sussing out what truly motivates them deep down. There are even bigger limits to the numerous small-scale social-psychology experiments Kaufmann cites, as well as the opt-in surveys he runs himself. (Again: replication crisis!) You really do need to look at all the evidence available, and the Autor et al. study is strong evidence that economic factors played at least some role.

Trump won fair and square: He got the most delegates in the primary by far, and he won the Electoral College by an enormous margin as well. He might well repeat this performance next year. But his route to victory was quirky, to say the least, and does not force the conclusion that he tapped into a hidden wealth of white-identity-based anti-immigration sentiment lurking in American voters. Most general-election voters, and most Republican-primary voters as well, in fact marked their ballots for someone else — and even his core supporters were not solely motivated by worries about demographic change.

Open White-Identity Politics Are More Plausible Than You May Think . . . but Probably Not the Solution to Much of Anything

Until recently, the split in American politics on racial issues, as played out in the public square, has been between conservatives who insist on colorblindness and liberals who support race-based forms of atonement for this country’s numerous and severe sins against African Americans. But a lot has changed. It has become abundantly clear that growing minority groups, in particular Hispanics and Asians, will be included on both sides of the racial spoils system that liberals have established over the years, most notably including affirmative action — which is of course nonsensical if the purpose of such remedies is to make up for the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Also, as Kaufmann deftly explains, liberals, especially white liberals, have shifted drastically to the left on racial matters since about 2015.

The Right faces a decision: Do we double down on colorblindness, or do we insist that white people should get to have identity politics too? When Kaufmann says whites must be allowed to voice fears of demographic change — and that the anti-immigration arguments they’re using now are merely a cover for those fears — he doesn’t say it’s the Right that should shift its rhetoric. But given where the parties are today on race, it’s really not an open question which side this movement would begin on.

Let’s unpack some of the issues involved and the political consequences of going this route. And since everyone agrees that “racism” is bad, that word is a good place to start.

As Kaufmann explains, the Left has taken the lead in warping the definition of the term in recent years. I have pushed back against many of these efforts myself; for instance, I think it is absurd to label good-faith empirical claims about racial differences as racist, or to insist that race-based antipathy for whites is somehow not racist. Like Kaufmann, I tend to think that “racism” has to involve, at minimum, some type of ill will against a racial group or a creepy desire for racial purity.

But I blanched at Kaufmann’s defense of “ethno-traditional nationalism,” the desire to preserve the ethnic mix of one’s country, which he insists is not racist. I don’t think it’s a problem at all to resist cultural change, to seek to preserve a way of life in the country or neighborhood around you. Indeed this type of argument is openly debated in public, at least on the right. (Just within the National Review family, see Ramesh Ponnuru and Dennis Prager; liberals make basically the same case when they oppose gentrification.) I also don’t see how it would be racist to point out that, as a simple matter of fact, people of different ethnicities often don’t get along — and to assert that it’s a legitimate aim of immigration policy to control those tensions. (This played a role in my own thinking back in my more restrictionist days.)

But opposing immigration because you yourself don’t want more people of other races around? That . . . pretty much sounds racist to me.

Yet most of the public disagrees, at least if you phrase the question gingerly. Kaufmann details a survey that asked the following:

A White American who identifies with her group and its history supports a proposal to reduce immigration. Her motivation is to maintain her group’s share of America’s population. Is this person: 1) just acting in her racial self-interest, which is not racist; 2) being racist; 3) don’t know.

Only 11 percent of white Trump voters, 39 percent of the general public, and 73 percent of white Clinton voters thought this was racist. And Kaufmann further shows that even liberals don’t think race-based immigration preferences are racist if you mess with the question a little, to make it about a minority who wants to increase the size of his own group.

These are fascinating results. On a purely political level, the calculation here is more complicated than I might have thought: An argument that I would consider racist is perhaps not that big of a turn-off to the public, a realization many of us also had when Trump consolidated the support of nearly half the country. And Kaufmann has other data as well suggesting that plenty of whites (and even many conservative minorities) aren’t thrilled about the demographic changes that are taking root.

But wait a minute.

If about 60 percent of the country, including a not-insignificant fraction of Clinton voters, is already willing to say in a survey that this isn’t racist, why do only about half that number say they want lower levels of immigration without having to specify a reason at all? It’s important that the question is whether such an appeal is racist, and thus outside the bounds of legitimate debate, not whether such an appeal is, well, appealing — especially when compared with all the other arguments one might make against immigration, including ones involving general cultural change, which tap into somewhat related concerns; and especially when other surveys suggest that whites really like thinking of themselves as colorblind, a phenomenon that is mostly good for race relations even if it can be tone-deaf to minority-specific concerns. (“Not Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, dammit!”)

In addition, opposition to these appeals rises with education, which could cause issues when it comes to winning the suburbs, and explicitly racial arguments also pose obvious problems for minority outreach (though only 58 percent of minority Clinton voters agree the white person described above is racist). Further, the severe Trump-voter/Clinton-voter gap in Kaufmann’s poll shows that, at a bare minimum, this is a polarizing message rather than a unifying one for a politician to take up, and that it will alienate many voters in the center, too. The leftward drift of white liberals really ought to present an opportunity to seize that center instead.

Meanwhile, at the end of the day, this is a concern that we’re not actually going to address, no matter the norms we build up around those who raise it, as Kaufmann himself notes. Cutting immigration in half, and simultaneously allocating visas based on skills rather than family connections, would merely delay the onset of a nonwhite majority by a few years.

I went into this book thinking Kaufmann’s idea was insane; he convinced me that it’s merely a dubious and unnecessary strategy — even setting aside whether the arguments he wants to see more of are, in fact, racist, and thus something we shouldn’t entertain even if it would work.

Addressing Populist Concerns without Alienating the Middle

One of the more striking patterns apparent throughout Whiteshift is the variation in white opinion across the U.K., America, and Canada — three countries whose whites have an obvious shared history. More than half of whites in the U.K. want to reduce immigration; in the U.S., as we have seen, opposition is far lower; in Canada, despite an immigrant inflow more than twice as big as the U.S.’s in per capita terms, opposition is lower still.

These three countries do have different cultures and different media environments, which Kaufmann emphasizes. But they also have different immigrants: Disproportionately low-skill and Muslim in the U.K., disproportionately low-skill and Hispanic in the U.S., and disproportionately high-skill in Canada. Might it be the case that different kinds of immigrants raise different types of concerns and — rightly or wrongly, but as a matter of fact — end up being welcomed more or less warmly as a result? And what if, instead of seeking lower overall immigration levels or deliberately injecting race into the discussion, America unapologetically took control of its immigration system and focused on getting the immigrants who would fit in the best and contribute the most?

Kaufmann dismisses the idea that white reactions are rooted in much besides race and to some extent culture. (For example, he writes that whites support immigration more after being told that immigrants intermarry frequently, so he suggests basing immigration decisions in part on whether applicants are in inter-ethnic marriages.) But there’s evidence that other characteristics, economic and social, matter a lot more than he lets on.

One recent study found that when an area is exposed to lots of low-skill immigration, it drifts toward the Republicans, the more restrictionist party. The opposite pattern appears with high-skill immigration. These effects stem mainly from the “votes of U.S. citizens,” not from the immigrants themselves, and they “seem independent” of immigrants’ country of origin. Obviously I don’t think driving voters to the Democrats is an end in itself, but this shows an outright positive reaction to the immigrants with the most ability to contribute to a local economy — and what if Republicans were the party of merit-based immigration instead of the party of less immigration?

There’s even a clever psychology experiment with consonant results, if you’re into that sort of thing, as Reihan Salam noted in 2016:

Levy and Wright conducted an online poll of non-Hispanic whites in California in June 2015. All respondents were read a short vignette about a hypothetical program that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants, and then they were asked whether a hypothetical immigrant ought to be included in the program. One-third were asked about a Mexican immigrant (“Juan”), another third were asked about a Chinese immigrant (“Yuan”), and the final third were asked about a German immigrant (“Johan”). In every case, respondents were told that the immigrant in question had lived in the U.S. for two years. But in only half of them, they were also told that he spoke English and had held a steady job for the duration of his time in the U.S.

Levy and Wright posit that if anti-Hispanic bias were at work, respondents would discount the positive information in the case of Juan while taking account of it in the case of Yuan or Johan. The results were revealing. In the absence of information about English-language fluency or work history, respondents were seven to eight percentage points less likely to believe that Juan should be granted legal status. This clearly suggests some degree of bias. When the positive information was included, however, this gap disappeared. Essentially, Levy and Wright’s respondents were operating under the assumption that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. tend to be less educated than German and Chinese immigrants to the U.S., and so, lacking additional evidence, they assumed that Juan would be needier than Yuan or Johan. Once they knew that Juan spoke English and had been working steadily, they were as inclined to help him as to help his fictional counterparts.

In a more controversial piece of work using data from the U.K., Noah Carl pointed out that popular sentiment toward immigrant groups is correlated with the groups’ own arrest rates. This ties in to some other research suggesting that “stereotypes” are more accurate than we’d like to admit, though one rejoinder is that irrational prejudice could cause police to arrest some groups more than others even if they in fact have the same crime rates.

So there is plenty of reason to think that populist sentiment would be responsive to changes in immigration policy that don’t involve reducing numbers (which most Americans don’t want) or deliberately changing the racial composition of the immigrant inflow (with all the issues that entails). Instead we can aggressively tie the privilege of coming here to the skills and behavior of the potential immigrant in question.

As I’ve spelled out before in numerous venues, the current immigration system is a complete disaster. We hand out a million green cards per year, primarily on the basis of family connections rather than skills. We have a “diversity visa lottery” that hands out green cards literally at random to people from certain areas who have at least a high-school degree — and the degree requirement makes it arguably an improvement over the rest of the system. The process for giving out temporary H-1B work visas also runs on a lottery rather than privileging the most skilled or most highly paid applicants. We have failed to police our borders and to find and deport individuals who overstay visas, and while illegal immigration has generally declined in recent years, Congress seems unwilling to fix the fresh crisis brewing as migrant caravans push upward through Mexico. We make a lot of welfare benefits available to immigrants rather than insist that everyone who comes here must support themselves or leave.

It would be possible to overhaul this system in a way that both addresses a lot of populist concerns and avoids alienating the middle. Award green cards through a point system that prioritizes factors like earning potential and English proficiency, limits family preferences to spouses and minor children, and keeps low-skill immigration to a minimum so that native-born low-skill workers experience as tight of a labor market as is possible. Auction H-1Bs. Tighten up border security and require employers to use E-Verify. Ban welfare use for future immigrants. In other words, make it so that immigrants pay lots in taxes and compete with the richest American workers rather than the poorest, and see if attitudes toward immigration don’t improve.

And if Kaufmann proves right and they don’t, some other measures could address cultural and assimilation concerns more directly without having a public debate involving explicitly racial appeals. I’m not averse to giving bonus points for intermarriage, or to requiring immigrants to settle in spread-out locations rather than concentrating in ethnic ghettos, as Lyman Stone has suggested. Other ideas include letting states and localities have some control over how many people can settle there. Adam Ozimek has proposed visas for high-skill workers that would be conditional on their settling in, and hopefully reviving, declining communities in the heartland (which themselves would voluntarily opt in to the program).

I would do all of this long before embarking on a project to normalize openly racial arguments for limiting immigration.


To end on a more personal note: Since we’re talking about cultural concerns, what about all of the white Americans who internalized the ideal of colorblindness, have tried to live up to it, and see it as a core aspect of the post–Jim Crow American creed — and a logical implication of the highest ideals this country has stood for from the start — even as we realize that ideals are not the same thing as reality? What about all the black Americans who share the goal of colorblindness even if they know it’s still far away? What about all the immigrants who were attracted to the idea of America as somewhere everyone is free to succeed, regardless of race?

My own heritage is some mix of Dutch and German. I didn’t put it together that “Dutch” people come from a place called “the Netherlands” until I was in middle school. (Why are they completely different words and why is “Holland” also a thing?) Despite an acute interest in human genetics, I have never bothered to take an ancestry test. Suffice it to say that not much of my identity is tied up in where my distant ancestors happened to live, and that I don’t really have much to fight for if immigration policy becomes a game of “acting in [one’s] racial self-interest, which is not racist.” Given how common and successful racially inclusive rhetoric is in American politics, I must be far from alone.

Oddly enough, when I think about giving up aspirations toward a post-racial America, I feel the profound sense of loss that Kaufmann imagines white people feel when they see too much demographic change.

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