Demographic Change Doesn’t Cause Racism, Racists Do
By Noah Berlatsky
No one is denied rights because of skin color. People are denied rights because racists decide to use skin color as an excuse for hatred and violence.
“Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people,” Laura Ingraham declared in a now-infamous rant on Fox News, “and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.”
America has more people of color than it used to, and for Ingraham, the natural result of that demographic change is anger, resentment and anxiety.
The truth, though, is that racism is not natural. It is an ideology cultivated by propaganda and designed to subjugate, terrorize, control and exploit marginalized people.
Claiming that racism is natural, or implying as much, as Ingraham does, is itself a powerful means of spreading and legitimizing racism. Because, if racism is natural, then white people aren’t to blame for it. Instead, they can blame “demographic change.”
Which is to say, they can imagine that racism is caused by the existence of people of color ― and that the solution to racism is to remove those people, in one way or the other.
Ingraham’s rhetoric is extreme. But the belief that racism is normal, expected and understandable is actually quite common. In their book Racecraft, Barbara Fields and Karen Fields point out that writers on racism frequently use phrases like, “black people are denied rights because of the color of their skin.”
No one is denied rights because of skin color. People are denied rights because racists decide to use skin color as an excuse for hatred and violence. Blaming racist acts on skin color, Fields and Fields write, “transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is.” It is, they write, “a sleight of hand that is easy to miss.”
There’s a similar sleight of hand in blaming racism on “demographic change,” which transform racism into a natural disaster, like a flash flood or an earthquake. A recent Washington Post report on white workers at a chicken plant in Pennsylvania, for example, argues that “demographic anxiety is contributing to many of the social fissures polarizing the United States.” That’s a nicer way of paraphrasing Ingraham: White people aren’t racist, they just react helplessly ― and understandably ― to the experience of working alongside brown people.
Similarly, New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat recommended restricting immigration because “increased diversity and the distrust it sows have clearly put stresses on our politics.” And social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote in 2016 that “those who dismiss anti-immigrant sentiment as mere racism have missed several important aspects of moral psychology related to the general human need to live in a stable and coherent moral order.”
Haidt, in particular, has argued at length that resentment of immigration or diversity is not racist. He argues that nationalism and love of a particular country and a particular culture is a valuable moral commitment. A shared sense of self or culture leads to lower crime rates and greater generosity, he says.
“People don’t hate others just because they have darker skin or differently shaped noses,” Haidt insists. “They hate people whom they perceive as having values that are incompatible with their own, or who (they believe) engage in behaviors they find abhorrent, or whom they perceive to be a threat to something they hold dear.”
That may well be true, but where do Haidt’s reasonably moral nationalists get the idea that certain people’s values are incompatible with their own?
The Spanish-speaking people at the Pennsylvania chicken plant are doing hard work of the same kind and in the same place as their English-speaking co-workers. What’s the difference in values supposed to be? For that matter, Spanish-speaking people have been in the Americas longer than English speakers have been here. The idea that the United States is somehow essentially English-speaking not a permanent, inviolable truth ― it is a myth.
Human beings are quick to organize in-groups and out-groups. And human beings also have huge latitude in how they conceptualize the membership of those groups. At one point in the United States, white American Protestants considered Irish Catholics to be dangerous outsiders whose traditions were fundamentally opposed to democracy and reason. Now, St. Patrick’s Day is seen as a celebration of quintessential American-ness. Irish people didn’t change; they were human beings then and they’re human beings now. White Americans just decided to start including the Irish in their in-group.
Deciding that someone is part of an out-group because they speak Spanish is a choice. Deciding immigrants don’t share “our” values is a choice. Insisting immigrants are criminals despite all the evidence to the contrary is a choice.
“These moral concerns may be out of touch with reality, and they are routinely amplified by demagogues,” Haidt admits. But if your “moral concerns” are based on lies amplified by demagogues, maybe those concerns aren’t really “moral” at all. They certainly are not natural, unstoppable and unchangeable.
Thomas Jefferson, as was his wont, outlined the logic of natural racism with unusual clarity. In explaining why he didn’t believe white people and black people could ever live together, Jefferson pointed to white prejudice and to black people’s resentment for years of oppression. But, tellingly, he also cited “the real distinctions that nature has made.” Jefferson believed white people hated and disliked black people because white and black people were fundamentally different from one another. Natural difference produces natural animosity. Racism, for Jefferson, is inevitable because race is real.
But Jefferson was wrong. Race isn’t a biological fact; humans are all the same species. There’s no instinctual demand that white people panic when someone with a different skin tone moves in next door. There’s no universal cultural imperative that says that English speakers must be filled with rage and fear when they hear someone speaking a different language.
“Difference” doesn’t make us hate. In fact, Ingraham and her ilk have it precisely backward: It’s the choice to hate that defines other people arbitrarily as “different.” When Ingraham says that “massive demographic changes” have made Americans angry, she’s blaming the victims of that anger.
But the existence of people of color is not the cause of racism. The cause of racism is racists like Laura Ingraham.
Noah Berlatsky is the author most recently of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.