Take Care and Protect Democracy are pleased to present this symposium on building a truly inclusive and multi-racial American democracy.
By Jennifer A. Richeson | Yale University
At present, we are witnessing a wholesale return to policies that entrench legalized racial hierarchy. The Trump Administration and Congress have moved to reduce the overall number of legal immigrants and refugees, and floated the idea of limiting birthright citizenship. The Department of Justice is investigating anti-white discrimination at elite universities, while reducing its scrutiny of racially-biased policing. And, of course the Supreme Court is actively limiting the avenues through which government can guard against racial discrimination in housing, employment, and voting rights.
In an increasingly diverse United States, these policy shifts could result in legalized minority rule. In other words, the growing diversity of the country may break America and Americans’ commitment to democracy.
So, what can activists, citizens, and government do in the wake of these demographic changes and the anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian reactions they often engender? To respond, we first need to understand the growing appeal among Americans of policies that are anathema both to racial equality and to democratic principles.
The political psychology of this phenomenon is clear. For many White Americans, the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States is a source of alarm. The prospect of a United States in which White Americans no longer constitute more than 50% of the national population is psychologically distressing. What will a new more racially diverse America mean for them? Will Whites no longer be culturally dominant? What about politically? And, what could it mean to suddenly be a “minority” group in the United States?
Decades of research in sociology and social psychology has documented the backlash that can come when concerns about the material, cultural, or political status of one’s group are triggered by growth in the size of a different societal ethnic or racial group. Group status threat often results in increased racial animus, greater support for policies that maintain the dominant position of the group, and even active efforts to undermine the acquisition of power by members of the minority group.
In other words, the prospect of a decline in group status, real or imagined, is disquieting. It is, metaphorically, a psychological altitude adjustment—and not an easy one. The urge to defend the group at all costs is powerful.
Members of current racial minority groups—Black Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx Americans—may also find the nation’s increasing diversity destabilizing, if not threatening. Black Americans, for instance, whose population is not growing, may be concerned that their status and political power is at risk. In other words, changing demographics may increase perceived competition and, thus, conflict among these groups.
Activists, citizens, and government officials alike must participate in the effort to help all Americans recognize and then move through these discomforts.
Perhaps the first step is to assuage White Americans’ group status threat. One obvious action is to set the record straight; in reality, White Americans will continue to be both the numerical majority and the most dominant racial group in the United States for the foreseeable future. The popular rhetoric around the so-called “majority-minority” shift is misleading at best and decidedly inaccurate.
Similarly, we must acknowledge the actual status of members of different races in terms of health, wealth, access to quality educational opportunities, and overall well-being. The perception that White Americans are now discriminated against as much as, if not more than, racial and ethnic minorities is not true. Indeed, it is objectively not true that our society has achieved racial equality in most domains. In fact, in many economic domains, there has been little to no progress in 50-some years.
In essence, we must fracture the nation’s egalitarian self-image and acknowledge that White Americans, on average, remain markedly ahead of most racial minorities in almost every area of life.
Second, it is important to actively cultivate and promote the idea of an America that is diverse and not the sole, primary, or ancestral province of White Christians. A nation that is inclusive of multiple racial, ethnic, and religious identities. One that lives up to its democratic principles.
This means, in part, assuaging concerns that a more diverse United States will exclude or discriminate against White Americans. But it will also require sacrifices from some White Americans, such as relinquishing honorific, nostalgic images of a past wherein White supremacy reigned.
This effort will not go unchallenged. There will be activists, citizens, and government officials who are ready to affirm, if not ignite, the impulse to defend the cultural and political dominance of White Americans. But silence in the face of those seeking to exploit these feelings of psychological vulnerability to generate racial, ethnic, and religious animus is not sufficient.
Third, the zero-sum thinking that fuels political polarization and racial polarization must become unacceptable. We must require more from our elected officials, media, neighbors, friends, and ourselves. Wins for Democrats are not by definition losses for Republicans and vice versa. This is certainly not the case for the diverse population that calls this nation home. And, elected officials—the public servants of the American populace—should be held accountable for the well-being of all of us, not just those they consider their own team.
A common identity as America, such as Ted Johnson describes in his post, is indeed one antidote to polarization. A second route is through the highlighting of shared experiences, despite membership in what appear to be opposing, if not adversarial societal groups. For instance, one inspiring response to the current attacks on Latinx refugees, some of whom are being sent to detention campus, is the expression of solidarity by many Jewish and Japanese Americans. The marginalization of one’s own societal group—be it current or historical—can be leveraged to engender greater empathy for other groups. Activists are especially well-positioned to stand for and model this type of cross-group solidarity in the service of fostering a shared identity as Americans.
The nation is becoming more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse. The way forward is not easy. It will require a commitment to the American democratic project that has not been observed for some time, if ever. Indeed, only the most courageous and prophetic Americans have come close to embodying this level of commitment. Many were martyred for it.
Activists, citizens, and government officials have important roles to play in navigating the psychological threat and resultant behavioral and socio-political impulses that we will face during this transition so as to afford the emergence of a nation that is both diverse and democratic.