Responding to the “White Anxiety Crisis”

It’s now widely known that by 2050 white folks will not represent a majority of the overall U.S. population.  Changing demographics are nothing new but this impending shift has generated a whole lot of interest and eye-catching headlines.

I’ve been thinking about these numbers and wondering how we currently in the majority will respond.  Recent talk in the media by some majority folks about “our country,”  “our values, “our culture” and “our history” has increased my curiosity about the ways the changing ethnic makeup of America will be experienced and interpreted by white folks.

My assumption is that, for some of us white folks, these changes stir up fear and anxiety.

In a Time article last month Gregory Rodriguez takes note of “The White Anxiety Crisis.” According to Rodriguez, the coming changes are particularly significant given America’s history regarding race and ethnicity.

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.

The tendency of the majority culture is often to gloss over these racist elements of our nation’s past, pointing instead to perceived examples of a new, post-racial landscape.  And what happens when, glossing over history, white people react to demographic changes?  Rodriguez points to the example of California- “Anglos dropped below 50% of the population there in 2000”- in the 1990’s.

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.

I was in high school in southern California during these years and remember well the fear and anger surrounding the debates over Proposition 209.  I recall also that my Christian community seemed to have few creative ways to engage this debate.  The same fears that affected the wider majority culture seemed to frame our opinions as well.

Though the nation’s ethnic landscape is changing, California’s experience may be the exception.  This is because, according to Rodriguez, the ethnic demographics of individual states will “probably remain majority white.”  In other words, for most white Americans, the changing landscape will remain entirely outside of their personal experience.  The lack of contact and relationship with the people who represent the changing statistics could have troubling implications.

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.

Is Rodriguez correct about the ways people’s fears will be exploited by “politicians and demagogues?”  Given what we already read on opinion pages and see on the news networks, I think we ought to take his prediction seriously.   Which leads me to wonder about the role of  majority culture churches attended by those who look at America’s future with anxiety.  How will these churches respond to narratives of fear and loss promoted by those seeking to take advantage of these developments?

I hope majority culture churches will have the wherewithal to look at the future through a lens uncolored by anxiety and ethnocentrism, though I worry about fear’s ability to influence even those who confess that only the God who loves us is worthy of our fear.  As the Apostle Peter puts it, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’  But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.”

There will be amazing opportunities for predominately white churches to courageously demonstrate the Gospel of Jesus to a fearful culture.  Time will tell whether the opportunity is seized or ignored for a predictably disappointing outcome.

At some point I’ll write about ways I think majority culture churches can proactively face this changing demographic landscape in ways that honor our Christian identity.  But I leave it here for now and solicit your perspective. However you self-identify ethnically, I’d be curious how you’ve interpreted the coming demographic changes.  Do you see majority culture churches poised to engage these changes graciously and proactively or do you believe fear will be the dominant impulse?  As always, your charitable comments are much appreciated.