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Diversity and Its Discontents

The public conversation about demographic change is hypocritical and destructive.

· 12 min read
Diversity and Its Discontents
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

The big question of our time is less “What does it mean to be an American” than “What does it mean to be white American” in an age of ethnic change.
~Eric Kaufmann

We need to have an honest discussion about ethnic identity and demographic change. The old double-standards, which once seemed reasonable in a disproportionately white country, are no longer viable. They strike many conservatives and traditionalists not as prudent concessions, but as intolerable hypocrisies. “Whiteness” and white people are often critically examined and even denigrated, while all other ethnic identities are reflexively praised and promoted. Diversity is encouraged with an evangelical fervor, while doubters are denounced as backward racists terrified by the righteous wheel of progress.

The obvious objection to this plea for honest discourse is that we already obsess too much over whites and white identity, and that we already pander too much to the sensitivities and resentments of a population whose bitter resistance to change, although predictable, is a regrettable obstacle to moral advancement. One can hardly deny that we obsess over whites and whiteness, but not in a candid or constructive way. When the media, pundits, and politicians discuss whites’ declining share of the US population (and their population share in the West more broadly), they usually celebrate it or describe it as the inexorable outcome of natural forces. Whites who lament their declining influence are portrayed as either reactionary xenophobes resistant to a more enlightened country or as anxious bumpkins at war with reality itself.

This kind of Manichaean rhetoric might appeal to progressives and cosmopolitans predisposed to welcome diversity, but it is alienating to the millions of Americans—many of them nonwhite—who have different moral priorities and attachments. The Left might consider those priorities and attachments deplorable, but they are widespread, politically consequential, and unlikely to subside. The political scientist Eric Kaufmann, author of Whiteshift, has even argued that they may be morally commendable. At a minimum, denigrating the views of many Americans while suppressing open debate about issues as emotionally fraught as ethnic identity and demographic change is unwise. It results in widespread discontent, distrust, and dishonesty, while encouraging fanaticism, resentment, and conspiracism. This in turn leads to more strident and brazen attempts to suppress and denounce as increasing extremism is seen as a confirmation of the dangers of honest dialogue.

As Charlie Cooke pointed out in a column for National Review published two days after the Buffalo shooting, acknowledging the changing demographic composition of America is only acceptable if one sees it as a good thing. Furthermore, a conspiratorial account of that change known as the “Great Replacement Theory” (GRT) is routinely conflated with any discussion of the negative effects of demographic change. This makes edifying discourse nearly impossible and drives the conversation underground, where it often mutates in monstrous and unpredictable ways.

It is therefore important to distinguish three different claims about demographic change and ethnic identity before proceeding: (1) Jewish and other elites are foisting demographic change upon an unwitting white population as part of a conspiracy to undermine their interests; (2) Democratic politicians are more favorable to demographic change than Republicans because they believe it will help their electoral chances; and (3) Demographic change is happening relatively rapidly and is changing the country. The focus of this essay is on the third claim, but before addressing it, a few brief remarks about the first two.

The first claim (the GRT) should be rejected because it is obviously false and because it is used to promote racist hatred of Jews. Responsible conservative and progressive outlets have, in fact, denounced this theory, generally in unequivocally harsh language.

The second claim is often confused with the first by mainstream media outlets, but it is both demonstrably true and perfectly reasonable to discuss. Examples abound of liberals cheerfully anticipating the effects of increasing diversity on their electoral prospects. For example, in 1998, the one-time Democratic consultant Patrick Reddy wrote:

The 1965 Immigration Reform Act promoted by President Kennedy, drafted by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and pushed through the Senate by Ted Kennedy has resulted in a wave of immigration from the Third World that should shift the nation in a more liberal direction within a generation. It will go down as the Kennedy family’s greatest gift to the Democratic Party.

In 2002, John B. Judis published a bestselling book advancing this argument titled The Emerging Democratic Majority, while phrases such as “coalition of the ascendant” and “demographics are destiny” have been popular in the political world for many years now. It is dishonest to applaud the political effects of demographic change while accusing concerned conservatives of promoting pernicious conspiracism. When demographic change is related to political change, parties will inevitably see it through a self-interested political lens.

The third claim, that demographic change is happening and that it is altering the country, is indisputable. In 1965, the United States was roughly 85 percent non-Hispanic white; by 2015, that number had dropped to 62 percent—a precipitous decline. But the change for many modern citizens was even faster than this suggests because the rate of demographic transformation accelerated after 1980. This transformation was not the consequence of natural forces or native fertility rates; it was the result of policy. Without the immigration that followed the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965, the United States would have been roughly 75 percent non-Hispanic white in 2015.

According to current projections, whites are expected to be a non-majority ethnic group by roughly 2045. As William Frey put it in on the first page of his book Diversity Explosion, “Soon, most children will be racial minorities: Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and other nonwhite races.” By 2060, the estimated composition of children under 18 is expected to be 36.4 percent white, 31.9 percent Hispanic, 16 percent black, 8.1 percent Asian, and 13 percent all others. Additionally, current projections anticipate that by 2060, 17.1 percent of the population will have been foreign-born.

So, it is inarguable that the United States is rapidly diversifying and that the white majority is witnessing a decline in its overall share of the population. This change is unlike anything since the collapse of the dominant WASP identity in the early 1900s. Political observers, on both the Left and Right, have noted that this dramatic increase in diversity is politically important—they disagree about whether it is desirable. A 2016 article at NPR, for example, was titled, “How the Browning of America is Upending Both Political Parties.” In 2018, the popular progressive writer Ezra Klein claimed that reactions to diversity are “the core cleavage of our politics.” Recent books like Ashley Jardina’s White Identity Politics have likewise explored the relationship between mass immigration, populism, and white identity. Few on the Right, however, have been able to navigate the thicket of taboos surrounding this topic to discuss diversity and demographic change in a responsible but unapologetically conservative manner.

Consequently, the discourse is dominated by pronounced double-standards. After the 2020 census revealed a decline in the white population, the radical documentarian Michael Moore gloated on Twitter that it was “the best day ever in US history” and was rewarded with over 1,700 likes. The Late Show host, Jimmy Fallon, reported these same census data as part of a monologue, and seemed to be taken aback when his audience greeted the news with hoots and cheers. In some areas of academia, the double-standards are so egregious they are almost comical. For example, in 2002, Harvard magazine published an excerpt from When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories under the headline, “Abolish the White Race.”

Not only are these examples—and many others abound—morally indefensible, but they also diverge from the attitudes of average Americans, the majority of whom view the decline of the white share of the population as either neutral or bad.

In a 2018 Pew poll, for example, only 35 percent of people (of all races) said it would be very or somewhat good to have a majority nonwhite population in 2050; 42 percent said that it would be neither good nor bad; and 23 percent said that it would be very or somewhat bad. Although this last percentage was higher among whites, some blacks (13 percent) and Hispanics (12 percent) agreed that it would be very or somewhat bad. A 2021 Pew poll reported a similar mixture of reactions to the declining share of white people in the United States. Only 15 percent of people (of all races) said that it was very or somewhat good; 61 percent said that it was neither good nor bad; and 22 percent said that it was somewhat or very bad. As in the previous poll, those who thought it was bad were not exclusively white—21 percent of blacks, 16 percent of Hispanics, and 16 percent of Asians also thought it would be very or somewhat bad:

2018 Pew poll
2021 Pew poll

The best way to think about these data is to understand that, just as there are many legitimate and predictable attitudes to other kinds of cultural change, there are many legitimate and predictable attitudes to demographic change. And just as people can form attachments to religious beliefs, artistic achievements, and even to local landscapes, they can form attachments to demographic patterns. When people think of a nation, they do not simply think of a creed or a piece of paper, they think of symbols, archetypes, and traditions. Some of these are closely related to ethnic identity. If one were to ask a random person to think of Germany, it is very unlikely that he would imagine an Asian. Similarly, if one were to ask a random person to think of Japan, it is very unlikely that he would imagine a European.

Those who value traditions of ethnic identity, and who want to preserve them (with judicious change), have what the scholar Eric Kaufmann calls “ethno-traditional attachments. These can be loosely or tightly held, or they can be completely absent. There is a range of attitudes and reactions to ethnic change, from ethnic nationalism to open borders anarchism:

People with strong attachments to the traditions and symbols of ethnic majorities are demographic conservatives. They prefer order and stability, revere national heroes, and are generally uneasy with rapid cultural and demographic change. Their in-group attachments and sense of national identity are often mediated by ethnic symbols. People with loose or no attachments to the traditions and symbols of ethnic majorities are demographic liberals. They prefer change and novelty, are often skeptical of national heroes, and welcome rapid demographic change and diversity. Between these categories, there are many moderates who share characteristics of both. They may have some attachments to ethno-traditional symbols, but they also champion diversity and change.

Liberal commentators and public intellectuals routinely malign demographic conservatives as white supremacists and white nationalists. But it is important to recognize that most demographic conservatives are not racial chauvinists of any kind; they do not believe that nonwhites should be excluded from the nation, and they do not harbor hostility toward other ethnic groups. Many of them are attached to the prevailing demographic dispensation that includes significant diversity. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, whites currently comprise about 70 percent of the population. A demographic conservative who grew up there would likely be attached to a vision of the country that includes diversity, and might even oppose a demographic shift that resulted in a greater share of white people.

Granting this, one might still object that any concern about demography is ipso facto racist since it reflects an assessment, positive or negative, about ethnicity qua ethnicity. This accusation is common on the Left, but it is not particularly persuasive. If true, it would suggest that it is racist to prefer diversity to homogeneity, since the preference for diversity is a preference for a particular demographic settlement. Yet one very rarely encounters the argument that promoting or celebrating diversity is racist. To the contrary, promoting diversity is seen as paradigmatically anti-racist.

Similarly, few who argue that demographic concerns are ipso facto racist apply this to groups other than whites. Progressives often celebrate black or Asian representation, contending that it is important to promote a diversity of role models. And the Left more broadly has generally promoted, or at least tacitly endorsed a kind of asymmetric multiculturalism in which demographic concerns are perfectly legitimate, so long as they benefit people who are not white. Affirmative action is championed by most leftwing intellectuals and politicians (and the broader left-leaning population), yet it is specifically designed to increase the share of certain ethnic groups, generally at the expense of whites and Asians.

2016 survey data reveal similar double-standards about immigration. Seventy-three percent of Clinton voters, for example, agreed that “a white American who wants to reduce immigration to maintain her group’s share of the population is being racist,” but only 57 percent agree that “a Japanese or Black American who wants to reduce immigration to maintain her group’s share of the population is being racist.” Similarly, 34 percent of white Clinton voters agreed that “a white American who wants to increase immigration from Europe to boost her group’s share of the population is being racist,” but only 18 percent agreed that “a Latino or Asian American who wants to increase immigration from Latin America or Asia to boost her group’s share of the population is being racist.”

Some people do criticize concerns with ethnic identity on all sides of the political spectrum, but it is hard to argue that such an attitude is currently promoted by mainstream institutions. Those who accuse demographic conservatives of racism should also accuse the mainstream media, the political Left, and much of academia of racism. Such accusations would hardly be edifying, for they are often contentious and ruinous of healthy discourse, but they would at least be consistent.

Even if we were to accept the legitimacy or at least the inevitability of demographic concerns instead of casting uncharitable aspersions, it would still be difficult to know what this would entail in a diverse country like the United States. Like other forms of identity, ethnic identity can be healthy and meaningful, or it can promote antipathy and zero-sum rivalries that escalate into violence. The tacit proscription on white identity was not arbitrary, nor was it the result of progressive overreach. It was simply a reasonable attempt to deal with ethnic tensions, both real and imagined, and to expand the inclusivity and tolerance of the United States. But it is difficult to defend such a proscription while simultaneously promoting and encouraging all other forms of ethnic identity, especially as the share of the white population declines.

Perhaps a wiser and more judicious route is to allow ethnic attachments and identities as we currently allow religious attachments and identities, while strictly enforcing non-discrimination policies and diligently promoting race-blind liberalism in the public sphere. In this way, those who are attached to the majority ethnic identity would feel welcome in the mainstream of American politics, while those who promote hateful or exclusivist ethnic ideologies of any stripe would be stigmatized. Instead of operating in codes, the country’s political discourse would at least become more frank and transparent.

Very few mainstream conservative objections to permissive immigration policies cite concerns about ethnic change. Instead, they worry about its economic or (less often) criminal consequences. And while there is lively debate about these effects, the current consensus does not support the conservative position. Nor is it likely that concerns about the economy are what preoccupy most conservative voters. As Kaufmann argued in Whiteshift, they are more concerned by ethno-traditional attachments and fears of rapid ethnic change. Prevailing taboos, however, prevent mainstream conservatives from speaking directly to these concerns. The result is not constructive. For if these concerns could be addressed openly, citizens and politicians alike could strive to find a broadly acceptable political and cultural accommodation. Demographic conservatives would not achieve all their goals; and neither would demographic liberals. Both would sacrifice, but both would likely be more satisfied with the outcome than current discourse allows.

Obviously, this would not wholly solve or eliminate the country’s many contentious disputes about diversity and ethnic identity. Nothing would because there is no perfect future to which the United States is striving, just as there is no halcyon founding from which it is declining. Instead, there is a messy, variegated, and inexhaustibly complicated reality, full of competing interests, conflicts, and compromises. Diversity is the great challenge of this century. If wisdom, patience, honesty, and prudence prevail, then the United States will meet this challenge, not through imposed uniformity, but through the judicious management of disagreement. But if the better angels of our nature are overcome by shortsighted spasms of righteousness and intolerance, the United States will fail this challenge, and the hope of a flourishing multi-ethnic democracy will have been thwarted—not by the unchangeable laws of nature, but by the limitations of the human moral imagination.

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