Take Care and Protect Democracy are pleased to present this symposium on building a truly inclusive and multi-racial American democracy.
By Marcia Chatelain | Georgetown University | @DrMChatelain
On the November 18, 1993 cover of Time, its editors presented the nation with the face of the future. Under the headline, “The New Face of America: How Immigrants are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society,” the magazine used a computer to create a digital visualization that anticipated not only a demographic shift in the U.S., but a new kind of social relation among Americans. The Time-created visage of a woman, who was supposed to represent a fundamentally mixed-race nation, suggested that the country was headed into an era in which there would be no discernible racial indicators of identity. In the 25 years since Time debuted a “future face,” other magazines have used similar technologies and commissioned artists to predict what America will soon look like.
At best, these attempts to visualize the future are merely naïve. At the very worst, these efforts have fueled a deeply racist and ethnocentric anxiety about what has been crudely described as the “browning of America”—an idea that suggests the United States is a fundamentally white nation. Imagining a raceless future has long been the fodder of science fiction novels and movies. Over the past few decades, the reporting and writing on demographic shifts in the nation have served as a kind of racial Rorschach test. In the future face, some may see a promising and dynamic path. Unfortunately, for many others, including the current president, the future face represents the loss of racial privilege and power.
As a historian and scholar of race in America, my classes are devoted to teaching students about the deep gulf between reality and perception. When it comes to imagining and fearing the future, many in the United States have rhetorically and socially used demographic shift as a means of amplifying the tenets of white supremacy.
Since the abolition of slavery, some of the most potent reflections on what the future held were fraught with warnings that a white majority would one day be subject to the rule of lower classes of people. For example, several scenes in Thomas Dixon’s Birth of a Nation portray Reconstruction-era black legislators as run amok, lascivious, and abusive. The prevailing post-Civil War narrative—echoed by Dixon decades later—alerted whites thatif the right safeguards were not integrated into the political infrastructure, blacks would turn against them with the same mechanisms of abuse perfected under the system of slavery.
To be sure, the nation had achieved meaningful progress in the Reconstruction Amendments and their implementing legislation. But the response to these measures—which signaled a shift in power—was frenzied. Scientific racists justified efforts to disenfranchise blacks by claiming that varying birth rates between native born whites and their more fecund immigrant neighbors threatened white rule. Nearly a decade after the formerly enslaved were granted their freedom, campaigns that embraced white nativism, the legitimization of eugenics, and the establishment of Jim Crow offered a resounding response to previous civil rights gains. The codification of laws against inter-racial marriage, the emergence of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and the proliferation of barriers to equal access in public accommodations allowed white Americans of varying levels of power to keep the nation’s vision in their own image.
The second Reconstruction era of the 1960s disrupted nearly a century of racial exclusion. Delivered by the efforts of radical and mainstream civil rights groups, these movements benefited from the nation’s Cold War stresses to secure major gains. Communities of color asserted their ability to demand that the nation actually fulfill the promise of the Constitution.
In the 1960s, the question of what America’s future would look like again revolved non only around the presence of blacks in positions of power, but what would it mean for blacks to have the force of the government behind them. Suddenly, a population that had been left behind by democracy gained legal protections to (supposedly) desegregate public schools in 1954, ensure equal access to public accommodations in 1964, protect voting rights in 1965, and end housing discrimination in 1968. In response, racial anxieties were reignited. Coupled with the expansion of federal resources to alleviate inequality and an end to immigration quotas in 1965, these developments caused some to celebrate, and others to refocus on erecting barriers to equality.
Throughout this period, the future face lurked as a specter over the voters and citizens who determined that they needed to protect their racial purity—and power—by voting for political candidates who supported George Wallace’s declaration, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In particular, they favored candidates who affirmed that a taxpayer’s sole responsibility was to support impenetrable borders, gerrymandered voting districts, school district secession, and the idea that individual rights were the only rights that mattered. Panic about the future face of America resonated in calls to massively resist school integration and to halt the use of busing to end racial imbalances in public schools. Many feared that the future would be a mixed-race one if an earlier generation’s embrace of segregation gave way to integration, in which young people befriended, dated, married, and established families.
By the point at which Time’s model made her debut in 1993, the nation was steeped in a third transitional phase. Observers began declaring that changes to immigration policy would create a ‘majority-minority’ nation. Americans who feted or feared this transition could point to an expanding group of Americans of color and new Americans in business, education, and national leadership. These strides—many of them hard-fought—proved that change could come and stay.
To some, President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 embodied the full potential of the new America to unite the nation and lead it toward the future. This, of course, was as simplistic as saying that a raceless future was possible. The constant reminders that change was afoot not only inspired the very best, but also incited the very worst. Many failed to recognize that demography isn’t destiny, and that the label of majority-minority nation does not indicate that there will be the rule of minority groups. The election of President Trump in 2016 reflected the redoubling of efforts to voice discontent against outward signs of progress.
What must we do to imagine a different future and recognize the importance of the changing faces of America? We can’t realize a truly democratic future without first facing the past. Progressive movements, community organizations, and other collectives seeking social change must understand that history is a functional, practical tool for recreating society. Movements that organize workers, voters, and concerned citizens across racial lines cannot do so without attention to the histories that have constructed and reified divisions. History matters, and without a clear sense of the fears that have animated the backlash against social progress, movements will find themselves unprepared to go beyond fighting for rights—even though they must be fully engaged in strategizing how to protect them.
Once social movements have engaged with the past, they must envision a future that is not dependent on numbers but on the strategic mobilization of those numbers. Now, more than ever, we see that the democratic ideal is in desperate need of resuscitation. Although the currents of racism and white nationalism have always undergirded national policy, we have the greatest capacity today to exhaust the energy that powers them. We have a generation of historians that are telling a more honest story of the nation. We have young activists pursuing a multi-pronged strategy of running progressive candidates in local races, while organizing protests in the nation’s capital. We have a cohort of multiracial and multiethnic families and communities modeling how to stand in solidarity with oppressed peoples around the world.
The faces of our nation have always been represented by many hues, shapes, contours, and textures. We should no longer imagine what the future American will look like, and instead imagine what a democratic America could be like.
Marcia Chatelain is the Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University.