The United States is more diverse than ever, according to the latest census figures released last week.
But in the short-term that might only increase the threat from extremists who want to rewind the clock.
It could also fan the flames of nativism in American politics — a fire that had been kindling for years and has burned brightly since former President Trump began his 2016 campaign with a speech maligning many immigrants.
The white population declined in absolute terms for the first time in U.S. history over the past decade, census figures showed on Thursday.
The total number of non-Hispanic white people was around 191 million last year. A decade earlier, the figure was 196 million. The white share of the population declined from about 64 percent in 2010 to around 58 percent in 2020.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic share of the population edged up 2.4 percentage points over the last decade to 18.7 percent, the Black share of the population remained broadly stable at 12.4 percent and — another striking finding — the number of people who identify as belonging to more than one race soared.
People who identify as biracial or multiracial now account for about 10 percent of the U.S. population.
Those are welcome changes for the tens of millions of Americans who embrace a more diverse nation.
But experts in extremism fear that it plays right into one of the main far-right arguments — that white Americans are under siege, their culture under threat from the rising numbers of immigrants and people of color.
This worldview is expressed in the most lurid terms by overtly racist and nativist groups.
But it also finds expression in Trump’s frequent warnings that Americans are “losing our country” or in remarks by conservative media figures suggesting whites are being intentionally “replaced” by non-whites.
“Unfortunately, the answer is: yes, [the census figures] will add fuel to that fire,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “This has been going on for 20 years — the sense that whites will become a minority. It’s the major fuel to the far-right, to white supremacists, and to people who don’t like immigrants.”
Paul Becker, a University of Dayton professor and an expert in extremism, worried that the census results will swiftly be deployed by far-right elements seeking to add credibility to their cause.
“They can say, ‘This isn’t a biased opinion, this isn’t us, this is coming from mainstream sources.’ That is pretty important,” Becker said.
“Then they are going to take it to the next level, saying that if you do have a majority non-white population, ‘They’ are going to have political power and ‘they’ are going to quote-unquote take revenge on white people, there is going to be reverse discrimination,” Becker added.
Those incendiary appeals will be made against a febrile backdrop.
Hate crimes in the U.S. rose to their highest level in a decade during 2019, the last year for which comprehensive data is available. There were more than 500 anti-Latino hate crimes nationwide that year, including the Latino-targeted killing of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
But it isn’t just the most radical fringes that are worrisome. It’s also the broader political climate.
Trump’s record of inflammatory comments on immigration and race relations is well documented. Immigration in general is becoming a hotter political issue as monthly apprehensions at the southern border have climbed to their highest level in two decades.
Earlier this month, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) claimed during a Fox Business Network interview with Maria Bartiromo that “the anti-American left would love to drown traditional, classic Americans with as many people as they can who know nothing of American history, nothing of American tradition, nothing of the rule of law.”
Tucker Carlson of Fox News has similarly stoked controversy with comments that critics allege amount to an endorsement of the racist “Great Replacement” theory, which holds that there is a conscious effort underway to supplant white people in the United States.
“I know that the left and all the gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term replacement, if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters, from the third world. But, they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true,” Carlson said on his show in April.
Carlson has pushed back on the idea that his comments were race-based, arguing instead that the issue is really one of voting rights. During the same April show, he said, “If you change the population, you dilute the political power of the people who live there.”
Amid the uproar that followed, Fox News CEO Lachlan Murdoch wrote to the Anti-Defamation League, asserting that “a full review … indicates that Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory. As Mr. Carlson himself stated during the guest interview: ‘White replacement theory? No, no, this is a voting rights question.’”
But that cuts no ice with critics like Beirich.
“For me, when I hear The Great Replacement coming out of Tucker Carlson’s mouth, I’m terrified,” she said, “This is a straight-up white supremacist idea that has motivated several attacks. … It means prominent conservatives believe what white supremacists believe.”
Carlson turned to the census figures on his Friday evening show, where he claimed liberal commentators were trying “to encourage people to gloat over the decline of a race. Seriously? Imagine any other race.”
There are, of course, conservatives — usually of the anti-Trump variety — who are appalled by what they consider to be the GOP’s failure to adapt to a changing America.
One such figure, strategist and author Rick Tyler, complained that Trump and others are “short-sighted” in their approach, only caring that they can still, for now, reap a political dividend by hewing to a hard line on immigration and race relations.
“Among people under 18, we are a minority-majority country already,” Tyler said. “So that’s the future right there. We don’t have to wonder about it. It’s there. Now, the question [for the Republican Party] is, what are you going to do about it? We are just appealing to white voters who will never again be in the majority.”