I read yet another article the other day reiterating some comforting falsehoods that opponents of the US Republican Party like to repeat to themselves.
The argument goes like this: non-white people just don’t vote Republican in large numbers. And because America keeps getting less white, little by little, the GOP will be destroyed by simple demographics. Democrats living in red states like Texas are especially enticed by this line of thought. It seems to offer some kind of permanent future victory that flies in the face of the country’s increasingly conservative turn over the past four decades. This analysis, if it can be called that, has a very serious flaw: it assumes that race is heritable, permanent and unchanging, a belief typically only held by racists. It is a theory that accepts the falsehoods on which American racism is based.
In reality, there is no fixity to what whiteness is in America. With the exception of the Republican lock on black voters from the 1850s to 1930s, the Democrats, since their inception under Andrew Jackson, have been the party of the non-white and the newly white. And it is this second category to which those predicting demographic Armageddon for the Republicans would do well to pay attention.
A century and a half ago, it was impossible to be Catholic and white at the same time in America. More recently, it was impossible for light-skinned people with black parents or grandparents, people like me, in other words, to be white. But this is no longer true.In the mid nineteenth century, the Irish started turning white; a couple of generations later, the Italians did the same, soon followed by the Poles and then other Slavs. The Japanese and Turks were briefly white in the early twentieth century but it didn’t stick. On the other hand, the Jews only turned white about ten years before I did.
Many Latin American immigrants to the US are white in their country of origin and, to their surprise, turn into non-white “Mexicans” after crossing the border, irrespective of their country of origin, people like Florida Tea Party senator Marco Rubio. How hard would it be for America’s ever-changing racial system to re-evaluate their whiteness? Not so hard, I would suggest. Or how about proud members of the Aryan race like Republican governors Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley?
It may be that the prominent place of Jindal, Rubio and Haley in today’s Republican Party is indicative not of the party branching out and seeking support from non-whites but of America’s colour line shifting again. Just as Catholic voters have gradually shifted towards the Republicans the whiter they have become and the longer they have been able to stay white, let us consider the possibility that the increasing number Hispanics and South Asians are emerging into leadership roles in the GOP is evidence of the whitening of subsets of these racialized communities. Similarly, the Republican-Likud bloc among Jewish Americans continues to grow at the expense of the Democrats, a process also intimately tied to the community’s increasing whiteness.
To believe that race has an inflexible and historically consistent relationship to ancestry, skin colour or physical features is to buy into the junk science of racists and to ignore four hundred years of race-making and unmaking in America. Democrats who imagine some kind of triumphant demographic eclipse of the Republican Party are missing the flexibility and dynamism of racism; if racial categories were inflexible, America’s racial hierarchies would have collapsed under their own weight long ago.
Gradually, over the coming decades, not only will Marco Rubio and millions of other Hispanic Americans who would be white in Latin America will turn into white Americans and so will all of their ancestors, just like Nikki Haley’s are about to. And then the Republican Party’s demographic problem will vanish again, just as it has so many times before in the past century and a half.