Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Scenarios for the future of racial politics in America

If you don't live in a sensory deprivation tank, you probably noticed that the 2016 presidential election was rather racially charged. Many on the Democratic side charged Trump and his voters with racism, white supremacism, etc. Political scientists found that Trump's most ardent supporters were especially likely to score high on what they call "racial resentment" - their term for the belief that black Americans are getting more than they deserve. Meanwhile, the election results were very polarized by race:

Trump's victory was almost entirely furnished by the white vote, while Clinton overwhelmingly won all minorities. This repeated the pattern of 2012.  

Race has always been important in American politics - except for a brief period in the mid 20th century, blacks and Southern whites have always been on opposite sides of the partisan divide. The 1964 Civil Rights Act is widely acknowledged to have spurred the shift of Southern whites from the Democrats to the GOP. Meanwhile, "ethnics" - East and South European immigrants of the early 20th century - voted reliably Democratic until they merged with whites into the modern version of the white racial group.

Many (myself included) also believe that race is important to U.S. political economy. I buy the story that racial divisions are one of the big reasons that America doesn't have as big a welfare state as Europe. One big example of this is the way the GOP has profited from the "line-cutting" narrative - the idea that black Americans (and possibly other groups as well) are getting more than their fair share, "cutting in line" in front of more deserving whites. That narrative has probably damped white support for social safety nets.

So race is really important. But there are three big reasons why racial politics aren't set in stone. First, racial coalitions can change, as when Southern whites and blacks briefly united to support FDR. Second, racial definitions can change, as when "ethnics" joined the white race in the latter half of the 20th century. And third, the salience of race in politics can increase and decrease. So predicting the future of racial politics in the U.S. is no easy task.

Here are the possible scenarios, as I see them. These are extreme scenarios, of course; reality will probably be a lot messier, just as saying "Hispanics vote Democrat" ignores the 29% who voted for Trump. But anyway, here are five futures I can imagine:

1. Scenario 1: Race Loses Salience

This is not a future in which racial divisions vanish or America becomes "colorblind". It simply means that racial divisions would no longer the main dividing line in American public life. People would largely stop defining their political interests by race. The GOP starts appealing to more nonwhites, and the Democrats start appealing to more whites - maybe because the parties shift their ideologies, or maybe because the racial groups themselves change what they want. Intermarriage helps by blurring the boundaries between races. In this scenario, Americans go back to fighting over economics, or perhaps national security or religion, instead of about race.

(There's a very extreme form of this scenario where race does vanish, and "American" becomes a catch-all racial group that absorbs all the groups. But I consider this extreme version to be pretty unlikely.)

2. Scenario 2: White Expands

This would be a repeat of what happened in the 20th century. Just as Italians, Jews, and Slavs became "white", Asians and Hispanics could come to be regarded as part of the same group as whites. In this scenario, high rates of intermarriage between whites, Asians, and Hispanics, combined with the fact that many Hispanics already identify as white, blur the distinction between the three groups. The new group might be called "white", or it might be called something else.

In this scenario, blacks would be the odd group out, as they ended up being in the 20th century. Since black people are expected to stay at only around 13% of the American population, even with continued African immigration, this means that there could be no winning coalition that did not include a very large piece of the new racial majority. Race would lose some (but not all) salience, as it did in the late 20th century, when economic issues joined racial issues as the dividing lines between Republican and Democrat.

3. Scenario 3: All Against Whites

In this scenario, tensions between whites and the other racial groups continue to rise. The GOP gains an increasing share of the white vote, while Asians and Hispanics become even more overwhelmingly Democratic. Asians, Hispanics, and blacks might or might not start to consider themselves a single race, but they would be united politically by their opposition to whites. Since other races are approaching demographic parity with whites, this scenario might see an increasingly racialized but still even split - whites could desert the Dems at about the same rate that they lost demographic heft, leaving the two parties still roughly equal for decades.

4. Scenario 4: White Splits

This is similar to Scenario 3, except that the white racial group would split in two. The dividing line might be education, or perhaps just politics itself. Those who left the white race would simply stop self-identifying as white. They might go back to identifying with their national ancestries ("German-American", "Irish-American", etc.), they might combine with Asians, Hispanics, and/or blacks into a new racial group, or they might create some new category for themselves. Meanwhile, the rump "white" race would simply be the GOP-voting part of the current white race, and would continue to identify as white. The dividing line would still mainly be race, but now the Democrats would have a structural advantage as the percentages of Asians and Hispanics increased.

5. Scenario 5: Politics Becomes Race

This is the weirdest scenario. It's a bit similar to Scenario 4, except that some Asians and Hispanics also leave their races and join the GOP-voting whites both electorally and racially. The nation would still have two big racial blocs, and the electoral dividing line would still be race - so this is different than Scenario 1 - but the American races of the future would in no way resemble the ones we see today. Politics and race would fuse into a single concept. Democrats and Republicans would become like Hutus and Tutsis, Bosniaks and Serbs - not necessarily able to tell each other apart visually, yet deeply believing themselves to be two totally different peoples. As you can see from the aforementioned analogies, I consider this to be a pretty pessimistic scenario.

These five scenarios don't exhaust the possibilities (everyone could start to identify as black!), but they're the only ones that seem to me to have any chance of happening. Actually, I'm not sure about Scenario 1 - it's kind of wishful thinking on my part.

Scenario 2 has the weight of history on its side - it's happened twice before. The white race in America has proven very capable of expanding to take in new entrants, as it did with Germans and Swedes in the 19th century and East and South Europeans in the 20th.

Scenario 3 is most similar to the recent electoral outcomes, so it's sort of a straight-line trend projection of increasing racial polarization. I also consider this to be a pretty pessimistic scenario.

Scenario 4 is a projection of a somewhat less prominent trend - the increasing polarization of the white electorate by education. College has emerged as one of the key institutions of American society, if not the key institution, and there's a chance that skill-biased technological change will make that situation irreversible. A combination of progressive education and the venom of GOP-voting whites could cause liberal whites to simply decide that the white race isn't something they want to be a part of anymore.

Scenario 5 is the projection of yet another trend - the Big Sort. Like-minded Americans are already moving near each other and marrying each other. Social media, and the splintering of mass media in general, could accelerate the trend. Partisanship is virulent in America at the best of times, and it does seem conceivable that it might eventually be even more powerful than race.

So what do you think? Did I miss any plausible scenarios? Which scenario do you think will come to pass? Which will be best for the Democrats, and which will be best for the GOP? How can the parties nudge American society toward their desired scenario? And what would be the consequences of each scenario, for policy, for people's lives, and for the integrity of the nation-state? How should we intellectuals try to steer the populace, if indeed we have any ability to do so? These are the big questions, and they're all beyond my ability to answer just yet.


  1. You forgot one scenario which is already playing out in universities today.

    Whites, Asians (East and South), and Hispanics of European descent become a big blob in the middle, upper middle and upper classes. Other Hispanics and African Americans each in a category of their own.

  2. «This would be a repeat of what happened in the 20th century. Just as Italians, Jews, and Slavs became "white"»

    They really were not considered "white", or what happened in the past was a version of the "Scenario 4", where Irish, Italian, Jew, WASP, etc. were a more strong identity than "white"?

    Btw, even today, perhaps, at least in political terms, the Jews were not yet merged with the other "whites"? Or the apparent leftism of jews (compared with the regular whites) disappear if we control for education?

    "Democrats and Republicans would become like Hutus and Tutsis, Bosniaks and Serbs - not necessarily able to tell each other apart visually, yet deeply believing themselves to be two totally different peoples. "

    Perhaps the historically division between yankees and southerners is already a case of that (or it is a variant of scenario 4?). Note also the popularity (specially in the alt-right mileau) of Albion's Seed, with its theory that many cultural and political differences in USA are a result of different settlers (today is becoming popular the theory that progressives derive from Puritans and Quakers and conservatives and libertarians derive from Cavaliers and Scot-Irish, or something like that; btw, perhaps even the popularity of "scots-irish" as a way to conceptualize the white working-class of Appalachia is a sign of "ethnicization" of socio-political differences?)

  3. Scenario #5 is already happening. The concept of "blackness" is becoming an ideology. Rachel Dolezal is black, because she adheres to the NAACP ideology. And because she adhered to the ideology, they did not even consider her actual racial heritage. Whereas Ben Carson (and quite a few others) is a considered race traitor, because he's Republican. Se he is clearly white, due to ideology. Of course we have Bill "Bubba" Clinton, who everyone knows was the first black President. There are lots of other examples.

    In my mind scenario #5 is a necessary precursor to scenario #1. People will stop defining their political interests by race, but in the interim period there will be a lot of cognitive dissonance because people always need a side to root for. In that interim period you will see a lot more Rachel Dolezals and Ben Carsons,

  4. Some combo of 2 and 3 seems most likely. History for 2 plus the fact that 3 is happening already suggests each party will continue to win half of all future elections. Also Republicans are much more pro univeraal welfare than they were 30 years ago as a result of these demographic transitions (northern uneducated whites). However they are less likely to support redistributive policies. So while I imagine a bright future for SS and Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps will certainly be on the GOP chopping block.

  5. Most likely is 4 as it already exists to greater or lesser degree. Politics is rarely down wind but ever tacks, driven most by opposition, not that hope is not motivating but is most credible in opposition. The opposition only need abide their time and let disappointment and excess wreck their havoc and be prepared to say they told you so.

  6. Anonymous2:07 PM

    Scenario 4 really is where class and race intersect--class becomes salient in some manner. Perhaps you should throw class back in--racialized class, perhaps.

  7. I don't think this adequately deals with what we mean by "race," in particular in scenario one where we "go back to fighting about economics..."

    Fighting about race is very much fighting about economics. Race is the tool that the powerful use to convince the less powerful to side with them instead of each other. It's the concept that's used to justify a permanent underclass.

    "At least you're better than them" and "if we do more for the poor, blacks will benefit" are deeply powerful political messages, as was just reinforced in the last election. It's not going away until it stops working.

  8. Colorism:
    In places like South America and India, Colorism is the rule of the day. I envision the same thing happens to a more diverse America. In thes places dark skin, whatever ancestry, is associated with poverty and violence whereas light skin, whatever ancestry, is associated with wealth and control.

    In this way racial inequality becomes folded into class inequality. The urban (Dems) party may have some of the lightest and darkest constituents; the rural (GOP) party may get browner even while maintaining a higher anxiety about their racial/economic status.

  9. A possibility is that the mostly Spanish origin hispanics could split with the mostly non-spanish hispanics. You see some of this in Latin America.

  10. Anonymous7:14 PM

    Probably Scenario 1 will occur. I think it has to do a lot more with the economic impact on each wealth class rather than race. I think a lot of it also depends on where work is shifted because there seems to be herding in some locations.

    I think a majority of America is in the middle between the Democratic and Republican Party and the most middle-like candidate won. If Trump's policies end up working, I expect a shift in red among all voters (all races follow equally). If they fail, I expect all voting races to shift to the right.

    Usually I'd expect the media to have a bigger impact on shifting these demographics but they tried to be overly persuasive which turned into manipulation. A majority of people saw this which lowered the amount of influence they can have in future years. I predict it will take some time before some people trust the media with future information.

  11. Anonymous11:54 AM

    European immigrants have always been considered white in the US. Don't forget we had a legally explicit racial caste system, and the very first Congress passed a naturalization act limited to free white persons. See Fox & Guglielmo's "Defining America's Racial Boundaries"*
    *Non-gated copy at http://dl.dropbox.com/u/85192141/2012-fox.pdf

    Understanding what US history was actually like will lead to more accurate predictions of how it will be in the future.

    1. Richard11:52 PM

      Well, consider them white if you like, but some whites were discriminated against by other whites. Jews and Southern & Eastern European Catholics were not imagining that the Ivies has a quota that limited their entry. Those quotes did exist, and before that, you had job ads that said no Irish need apply.

      So certainly, not all whites considered all whites equal to themselves.

      In fact, if I read right, Trump's club in Palm Beach was the first one in that city to admit Jews, and that is definitely within our lifetime.

    2. Yes, the salience of race was lower when only whites were citizens, and intra-white distinctions correlated more with partisanship. I hadn't heard of quotas restricting non-Jewish whites in colleges, because unlike Jews (or asians today) their performance would not have put their numbers out of proportion to their share of the population.

    3. MaxUtil12:48 PM

      There were never "quotas restricting non-Jewish whites in colleges" because the education and associated systems were controlled by non-Jewish whites. Many colleges and other institutions absolutely had numbers of non-Jewish whites well out of proportion to their share of the population because they admitted few or no people who were not of that background.

  12. "Intermarriage helps by blurring the boundaries between races."

    Miscegenation is a one way street - sort of like entropy.

  13. Regarding Scenario 5, perhaps one variant is something that looks like Catholics and Protestants in early modern Europe?

    As an innocent, optimistic 20-something in the 1990s, I remember there was a lot of talk about the internet as the biggest change in information technology since the printing press. As a bitter jaded 40-something, I start to remember that the printing press (in addition to many wonderful advantages) also triggered the development of very fired-up Protestant sects, who spent much of the late 1500s and 1600s in bitter bloody fighting with each other and with the Catholics.

    I hope there won't be a similar breakdown, and can think of a million reasons why not...but US partisanship has already got much worse than I ever considered possible and there's no clear sign of it stopping or even slowing down.

  14. What seems likely to me is that Trump fails to make America great for whites and whole return to the good old (white) days thing fizzes out over the next few years. This takes out the heat and a messy version of scenario 1 ensues.

    I don't see that deep racism is all that sustainable in modern society. The trajectory is not smooth but it is wearing down everywhere.

  15. Mix of 2 and 3, mostly 3. "White" expands to include some Asians (primarily Japanese and Chinese descent) - enough to retain a majority. Hispanics, Blacks, Native Americans, and folks from the rest of Asia, as well as Jews, remain non-White. The Democratic Party splits between a largely white Socialist party abandoning "identity politics" in the name of "class solidarity" with working-class racists, and a largely non-white Liberal party which continues to fight for civil rights (while losing). (Which of the two groups retains the "Democratic Party" brand I don't know.)

    The GOP becomes ever more explicitly the party of White Supremacy, suppresses most of the non-White vote, and wins every national election 70/20/10 (GOP/Socialists/the few Liberals who can still vote). The Socialists never do figure out that "class solidarity" is an illusion.

  16. This discussion seems to be missing an obvious point. People very rarely change their world view once they reach a certain age. It's a semi-serious concept in science that theories die with their adherents. It's pretty much a given that short of a depression or world war few Americans are going to change their view of American society any time soon. I concede Trump has changed the odds of that happening.

    So, I assume this discussion is really about the dynamic of who is dropping out of the electorate via death, disability or moving to Canada vs. who is joining the electorate via growing up or moving here.

    So, the short term answer hangs on: what do today's high schoolers think and can they be motivated to vote?

    The other half of the dynamic is easier. I was born in '51 so there is a shot I am one of that number. I grew up on Air Force bases, a source of very early integration, went to a semi-snooty east coast private school and read the econ trinity (Krugman, Delong and Thoma) regularly. Along with Noah, of course. I am the last coding geezer standing, so my political leanings should be fairly obvious.

    So, I think the trend is clear: our fading older cohorts are far more racially motivated in the voting booth but more likely to vote. Race is diminishing as a dividing line for Americans, as is gender. I suspect we will see an out Dem running for higher office very soon, e.g. Mayor Pete.

    So minus politics, scenario 1 wins.

    Unfortunately, the public expression of anti-Semitism is vastly more common today than any point in my life, as is white supremacy.

    I agree with the post above: political partisanship has never been worse. Despite my general optimism regarding race in America, race was clearly used as a wedge in this last election successfully. I fear racial extremism far more now than any time in my life.

    My crude analysis is that Trump won purely on testosterone. The guy is such a colossal bullshitter that it is very difficult to guess what he really believes. I suspect privilege and his successful business career as a bully allowed him to seize the political moment. Race baiting has become an accepted political tactic.

    So, I fear we have a generation ahead of us with some sort of permutation of scenario 5. One of our political parties has discovered there is electoral value in exploiting, even generating racial animosity, and it has been acknowledged a legitimate political tactic. So, expect more.

  17. Anonymous12:04 AM

    Scenario 4. White Splits seems to be what the Clintonite Dems were counting on: the increasing polarization of the white electorate by education, as you say, and by income, geographical residence, and occupation (as you don't say).

    Basically, the Clintonite Dems' strategy was to let American industrial working class rot. They are no longer needed, those working for American industry live overseas.

    It didn't work well this time: educated Southern whites also voted for Trump. It may work in the future, but I wouldn't count on it.

    Besides, in spite of all his racist remarks to Mexicans, Trump got plenty votes from Hispanics. It could be a one off thing, but I wouldn't count on it, either.

    Hispanics are a varied group. It's foolhardy to assume they will simply vote Dem. Caucasian Americans tend to have a distorted idea about Hispanics, and never associate the label Hispanic with people like the highly educated, professional, upper-middle class, white, center-right, of Jewish background Venezuelan-born Ricardo Hausmann.

    I don't know how Hausmann voted. My guess is that he may not have voted for Trump, but I have difficulty imagining him ever voting for Clinton given any other GOP choice.

    My two cents.


  18. 2,3,4,5 and Colorism would happen. with 5 predominant.

    There would be White Race, identified by Christian Republicans, many Hispanics and Asians will be absorbed on this grouping. (Sce 2. White Expands) This grouping would be fairly light-skinned.

    There would be Non-Racial Urban Group, consists of merging of Whites, Jews, Asians, Hispanics, and college-educated Blacks ( Combo of Sce 3 and 5). In this group Education, Wealth, and Colorism would determine status, it would be fairly blend from light-skin to darker-brown. Sub Groups (Jews, Atheist, Service-worker) would be more important than race.

    and there would be Blacks, who would maintain marital-segregation with All, unless they succeed to become college-educated.

  19. Anonymous9:10 PM

    In some ways this is an astonishing conversation.

    Let's exam the initial assumption: Race is important in some kind of fundamental way. Well, yes, that may be true if you look at how people and institutions work in America today. But, it is not true if you look at the capabilities of different races and creeds in any significant way.

    So, the initial assumption is wrong. Race is not important in any fundamental way. It is only important because our institutions have used race to determine winners and losers.

    What we really need to do is move away from race as the ruler for winners and losers and find another standard.

    If we stick with race as the standard, we will continue to be irrational and we will continue to pay the price.

    1. MaxUtil8:59 PM

      I don't think anyone is arguing that race is important in a "fundamental" way as you are describing. The simple fact though is that it IS important in the way that "people and institutions work in America today" and that's what is being discussed.

      Though the notion of some kind of race blind society is theoretically possible, we do not live in one. I and many others I think would argue that even if that were a goal worth fighting for, just ignoring race does not get us any closer. It just solidifies the current divisions and inequities built up around race in our culture.

    2. Anonymous6:32 PM

      Race is used to determine winners and losers. What this means is that if you are of the wrong race then you are subject to pillage and plunder by the reigning race. So if you are black in America, white Americans believe they should be able to exploit you in every way imaginable without penalty. If you look at our history to this present day that is exactly what has happened. Race is an excuse used to allow exploitation. What is fundamental is the drive to pillage and plunder others. Race is just an excuse. It is a convenient excuse because we are hard wired to identify our tribe members and to identify quickly non-tribe members. It can be race or religion or other cultural differences. But it is always a license to pillage and plunder other human beings. If you focus on race, you miss the point.

  20. Race is Yuuuuggge, and will continue to be so -- because the racist Democrats (the Jim Crow/KKK party) do NOT want humans to be judged w/o considering their race.

    But the college educated, high earning City folk Dems, in their populous archipelago islands, will continue to discriminate against Reps, each of which (like Romney, McCain, and Bush) are "as bad as Hitler". The mostly rich white (tho often comfy non-whites, too) grads are hypocritically "in favor" of gov't hand-outs to the poor, as long as high real estate prices (& zoning!) allows them to avoid living near the poor.

    Another big difference is that of religion, where the atheists dominate the Dems, but Trump is a lousy standard bearer for religious Reps. This probably leads the religious non-whites to join the religious whites, #2,especially Asians & Hispanics, tho possibly blacks.

    As long as there is a big behavior difference between races, like 70% black parents not being married vs only 30% of white parents not being married, there will be outcome differences based on the behavior, not race.

    But race will be blamed, allowing an excuse to not change the "inferior behavior". Yes, unmarried parents of children are inferior parents than married parents. Unless we can talk about better and worse behavior, honestly, the PC censors will continue supporting policies that won't work, because their assumptions are not true.

    1. Ah, there it is. The alt-right KGB Troll post that every blog thread needs to have.

  21. As in many ways, look to California as a trend setter. At least in the bay area, I would argue that race loses salience. And this is not a whole lot different from White Expands.

  22. Anonymous7:11 PM

    Scenario 3 is a pipe dream. I can't tell you how many Asians i have met that are totally racist towards blacks (with many Asians viewing blacks as lazy, unintelligent, and violent. A sentiment, i as a white person, do not share).
    As for Hispanics? Well many of them do not particularly care for blacks either though they may be more accepting towards them than Asians would be. Mainly because many white Hispanics are used to growing up and working side by side with black Hispanics. If you've ever spent time in the Caribbean or south America you will find a population that's pretty mixed racially.