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White Racial Anxiety and the Changing Demographic Tide: Legitimate Concern or Illogical Worry?

An american suburb. (Photo: / Flickr)

Census projections show that by 2042, the majority of the American population will consist of people identified as “non-white.” In other words, in about 30 years, whites will no longer make up the majority of the American population. But before we actually get to that point when whites indeed become a quantitative minority (whereby some of them will begin to claim to be the “new” racially oppressed minority group in America), let’s analyze exactly what this demographic shift entails.

Usage of the terms “majority” and “minority” has always been a misleading and inaccurate way to describe racial groups in America. These terms typically signify a quantitative phenomenon, which implies that groups with a numerical majority gain dominant status simply by virtue of their relative population numbers. Using quantifiable terms such as these actually does very little to describe and understand contemporary and future racial dynamics in America. In fact, using these terms to describe racial dynamics will invariably lead to greater misunderstandings about race and racism; which will in turn lead to greater tensions among different racial groups.

Racial supremacy or racial dominance exists as a social and systemic phenomenon; and is not based on relative population. A dominant racial system reveals itself as an ideological and systemic arrangement of various institutions, policies and procedures that constantly aim to maintain the racial status quo. The prevailing system of racial supremacy is also characterized by the social and material benefit it affords to those who are members of the dominant racial group. Racism is then described as a form of discrimination that may systemically, institutionally, or ideologically disadvantage those groups of subordinate status, while those of the dominant group gain disproportionate advantage. Racial privilege then describes all the ways in which dominant group members actualize their disproportionate social and material benefit (i.e. increased access to resources, better hiring potential, elevated social desirability etc.).

Therefore, it may be more accurate and pertinent to use terms such as dominant and subordinate, or privileged and disadvantaged when describing groups that operate within a particular racial system. In this way, it is not the population numbers of dominant racial members that dictates racial supremacy; but rather, it is the established system of racial supremacy that assigns racial privilege and advantage to its quantifiable, dominant members (regardless of their number).

We currently live under a system of white supremacy whereby white persons enjoy white privilege. While many white Americans are indeed well-meaning and well-intentioned people, they typically view the world through a “normalized” lens as opposed to a “racialized” lens (since white privilege affords white people the luxury of not having to really think about race or think about themselves as “racial agents” in the first place). So, when some people observe growing multicultural populations in their communities and hear about demographic projections that indicate a major shift in the years to come and see a black man currently residing in the White House, combined with the fact that the economic recession has particularly affected working class whites, it should come as no surprise that white racial anxiety is growing more intense by the day as white folks are finally becoming forced to view their existence as a racial one.

It is also quite understandable this new realization may be uncomfortable for a lot of white folks. It’s almost comparable to “The Matrix” when Neo asks Morpheus, “Why do my eyes hurt?” Morpheus responded, “Because you’ve never used them before.” In a similar sense, if some people are being confronted by the reality of race for the first time in a very significant way, then it should be expected that they may not understand much about the nature of racial dynamics in America. So, when some white people begin to classify themselves as a “racial minority” given the pending demographic shift, we must be ready to have an open and honest dialogue about that topic. Some people will essentially claim that the smaller numerical status of whites in America will actually signify a racially subordinate status and that they should be entitled to affirmative action programs, minority scholarships etc. Or as Tim Wise put it, “In a nation where white folks have been able to take for granted [their] normalcy and actually have to share the designation of ‘an American’ with people who you could always exclude previously, it’s sort of like having a private club where all of the sudden you gotta let other people in.” However, they will fail to realize that the demographic shift will not necessarily infringe upon “the club” itself, or the system of white supremacy. A growing multicultural population may make some white people feel threatened, but in no way can it actually threaten and dismantle the system of white supremacy on its own.

In fact, concerned whites shouldn’t be that concerned at all. They should actually be very content with the changing demographic reality. Why? Because prevailing systems of power never concede power; they simply acclimate all dominant and subordinate members of the system in different ways. In effect, the growing demographic change is signifying a multiracial system of white supremacy. Or as Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva put it, “The dominant race in this society (whites) will no longer work alone in preserving the racial order as ‘honorary whites’ and some individuals in the collective black space will help them maintain the coordinates of the [racial] order.”(1) White supremacy may very well strengthen itself by utilizing the complicity and consent of all “new” members that enroll themselves into the system. There is no reason that “new” black and brown bodies (or non-white bodies) couldn’t aspire to white ideals, as well as simultaneously still be subjected to systemic discrimination and disadvantage.

Need more convincing that prevailing systems of power do not sustain their power through quantitative means? Consider the system of capitalism. The dominant class (or the capitalist class) represents the top 1% of the American population, yet it controls 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. The bottom 80 percent controls 15 percent of the nation’s wealth. So, the dominant class actually exists as an extreme quantitative minority, while the subordinate classes exist as an absolute and significant majority. It would be incorrect to say that the top 1% is economically oppressed since there are so few of them. It would also be erroneous to say that the top 1% should then be compensated through measures that aim to level the economic playing field since they are economically disadvantaged. In reality, the top 1% enjoys great social and material benefit. So, why would we conceptualize the system of white supremacy any differently when it essentially exists in very similar fashion to the system of capitalism (at least as it pertains to the distribution of power). White folks claiming to be racially oppressed due to shifting demographics is analogous to billionaires claiming to be poor. It is not only preposterous, but also another means to sustain prevailing power.

These are issues that shall continue to confront us all in the years to come. While sociological analysis seems to also point toward the strengthening trends of prevailing power structures, the future is always subject to change. In order to actually dismantle a system like white supremacy, we all need to collectively and actively challenge and contest it on a daily basis. That includes subordinate and dominant group members alike.

While demographic shifts can be accurately predicted, shifts in consciousness cannot. No one is betting on or expecting a mass shift of consciousness (regardless of demographic change). No one is expecting a mass understanding of racial dynamics to occur anytime soon. No one is expecting a mass movement that can actually bring about true equity and change. No one is expecting longstanding systems of power to come to a halt. In this way, the more people who can become educated about the social environment that they find themselves in, the greater the chance is that that environment is subject to change. We cannot wait for anyone to change oppressive systems out of the goodness of their hearts or the sheer gravity of numbers. We have to demand equality and change and not settle for anything less. The future does not have to be built on a multiracial system of white supremacy; but rather, we can transform that possibility into a multiracial system of equality.

A multiracial system of equality is actually something that white anxiety has a reason to be anxious about. However, if anxious white folks develop a keen understanding about race and racial dynamics, they, too, may begin to notice the self-destructive and unsustainable nature of an inequitable system such as white supremacy, and discover a clinching reason to abandon it.

Frederick Douglass is ever apt, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”


(1) Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2010. “Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary America.” Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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