Cities are supposed to be the antidote for America’s growing racial divides. But diversity isn’t enough.
The Census estimates that children in America will be majority minority by 2020, with the overall population becoming majority minority in about 25 years. “No other advanced, populous country will see such diversity,”notes demographer Joel Kotkin.
One might hope that a nation that has historically lauded itself as a “melting pot” would take this as a point of pride. But for many white Americans, clearly, it’s not. Demographic change is viewed more like an existential threat, inciting what often gets described as “cultural anxiety” about the nation’s future. One recent study found that 55 percent of whites feel they are victims of discrimination.
This anxiety is broad enough to have helped put Donald Trump in the White House, according to a recent analysis of voting patterns by the Public Religion Research Institute, and it has fed the rise of the loose confederacy of neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and so-called alt-right groups. Speaking to CNN a few days after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Jared Taylor, editor of the far-right website American Renaissance, said the anxiety of whites has spurred a “white advocacy” movement whose constituents “speak up for the legitimate interests of white people.” The essence of those interests is naked in aim: a rejection of a multicultural America and return to an era of unquestioned whiteness. It’s a view he bills as “race realism.”
Clearly, the notion of race realism flies in the face of the Obama-era illusion that America was on track to become “post-racial.” But regardless of the most recent election results—optimistic liberals are now celebrating the fact that Virginia voters rejected a GOP candidate for governor whose campaign relied heavily on Trumpian talking points like MS-13 gangs and kneeling NFL players—a post-racial America is not arriving anytime soon. In fact, divisions may worsen as America’s colors blend.
Yale psychologist Jennifer Richeson has been examining the thinking of whites when presented with the nation’s minority-majority statistical fate. In a study, she found that the unfolding demographic scenario leads white Americans to express a greater racial bias—one that was pro-white, with more negative attitudes toward Latinos, Blacks, and Asians. “Taken together,” Richeson and co-author Maureen Craig conclude, “these findings suggest that rather than ushering in a more tolerant future, the increasing diversity of the nation may actually yield more intergroup hostility.”
The psychological mechanism for this divide is one of a threat-induced bias—when people fear that the rise of one group will mean a decline in their own. Such threat-induced racial prejudices are found elsewhere in the psych literature, with past studies showing people are likely to display racial bias after receiving a blow to their self-esteem, or being reminded of their mortality. In other words, when threatened with loss, our walls go up, inciting a kind of “what’s mine is mine” mentality that gets expressed antagonistically at the “other,” with “other” most readily differentiated by the color of skin.
Ideologically, the ramifications of the rising threat-induced bias are significant. A recent study called “On the Precipice of a ‘Majority Minority’ America” suggests that—regardless of party affiliation—the threat of potential loss of majority status has shifted white Americans’ political thinking rightward.
The point here is not that liberals are “good” and conservatives are “bad,” or that most whites are inherently racist. Rather, it’s the chords being played to organize people for the sake of power. In today’s America this means trying to unify a declining white majority for the sake of power maintenance. This is done by fanning the flames of threat—hence the culture-war attacks on black athletes and the nativist efforts to demonize immigrants.
That fear is the play being made isn’t all that surprising. After all, life largely comes down to fear and hope. Each exists equally. Each is as old as thought. Today, fear is the glue, and with that arrives policy prescriptions absent of aspiration. Yet we’ve been here before.
“Maybe he was just held in line by fears and by habit,” John Steinbeck wrote in 1947, an era fomenting McCarthyism. “When people got old they grew frightened of smaller and smaller things. Her father was frightened of a strange bed or a foreign language or a political party he didn’t belong to… He was afraid of his friends and his friends were afraid of him.”
The difference this time around is that Steinbeck’s America is gone. Soon, whites will be the minority. The question becomes, then, whether the principles upon which America was founded will be worth more than the paper they were printed on.
Cities are often seen as the source of a solution to such fear-mongering—the place where Americans of all stripes mix and match, learn to resolve their many differences, and create new ideas and new ways of living. That evolutionary process, in turn, will lead us back to policies of aspiration. Hope.
In many big cities, majority-minority America arrived long ago. But while population centers are increasingly diverse, they are hardly fulfilling their roles as crucibles of tolerance and integration. A recent study called “Together but Apart: Do U.S. Whites Live in Racially Diverse Cities and Neighborhoods?” found an “extraordinary rise in exposure of whites to racially diverse metropolitan cities and suburbs” since 1990. But there was a catch. Most whites live on all-white or mainly white blocks. “Here, income matters,” the authors write, as it “buys residential isolation from minorities in diverse cities and suburbs that is even expressed at the block level.”
That reality is increasingly bubbling up in urbanist circles. At the recent CityLab Paris conference, for instance, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie challenged the notion that the mixing of race and class in urban areas is a recipe to mending the fissures that so often break America. “We have to be careful not to romanticize cities,” said Adichie.
That’s because the romanticizing of the “back to the city” movement neglects the reality that so much that’s wrong with this nation isn’t where we live or how we live. It’s on the inside: in our fears, and inside the systems that simultaneously placate and preen them. To that end, placemaking can only do so much. Power and politics make places, not the other way around.