Throughout the history of the United States, white people have been its dominant ethnic group. The exact definition of this "race" has changed over time, as successive waves of immigrants (Germans in the 18th century, Irish in the 19th, Italians and Jews in the late 19th and early 20th) worked to be included in the privileged category (as recounted, for example, in Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White). Whatever "whiteness" meant, though, its predominance persisted—both statistically (as the absolute majority of the population) and culturally (as the no-asterisk default definition of American). Even today, long after the legal structure of discrimination was undone, advantages attach to white identity when seeking work, housing, education, or in any encounter with authority. Not unrelatedly, life expectancy for whites is greater than for African-Americans.
But this era of white predominance is ending.
Not long after 2040, fewer than half of all Americans will identify as white, and the country will become a "majority-minority" nation—47 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic, 13 percent African-American, and 11 percent "other," according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. Given this demographic shift, the habits and practices of a white-dominated society cannot endure much longer. Political, legal, cultural, and even personal relations between races and ethnic groups must be renegotiated. In fact, this inevitable process has already begun. And that's news that will stay news, now and for a long time to come. It is driving a great deal of seemingly unrelated events in disparate realms, from film criticism to epidemiology.
I'll begin with the most obvious signs. In the past two years, non-whites have succeeded as never before in changing the terms of debates that once excluded or deprecated their points of view. This has changed both formal rules of conduct (for police, for students) but also unwritten norms and expectations. Millions of Americans have recently come to accept the once fringe idea that police frequently engage in unfair conduct based on race. And many now support the removal of memorials to Confederate heroes, and their flag, from public places.
Meanwhile, campuses host vigorous debates about traditions that went largely unquestioned two or three years ago. (It is now reasonable to ask, if Princeton wouldn't name a library after Torquemada, why should it honor the fiercely racist Woodrow Wilson?) The silliness of some of these new disputes (like Oberlin students complaining that the college dining hall's Chinese food is offensive to Chinese people) shouldn't obscure the significance of the trend. We are seeing inevitable ethnic renegotiation taking place before our eyes, as what was once "harmless fun" (like naming your football team the "Redskins") is redefined as a thing no decent American should condone.
It's nice to imagine this process of political and cultural reconfiguring as a gentle and only slightly awkward conversation. But the evidence suggests that the transition will be painful and its outcome uncertain.
Ethnic identity (like religious identity, with which it is often entangled) is easy to modify over time (again, see How the Irish Became White) but difficult to abandon. This is especially true when people believe their numbers and influence are declining. In that situation, they become both more aware and concerned about ethnicity and more hostile to "outsiders." (In a paper published last year, for example, the social psychologists Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson found that white citizens who'd read about U.S. demographics in 2042 were more likely to agree with statements like "it would bother me if my child married someone from a different ethnic background," compared to whites who had read about 2010's white-majority demographics.)
This sentiment can feed a narrative of lost advantage even when no advantage has been lost. Though whites remain privileged members of American society, they can experience others' gains toward equality as a loss for "our side."
Hence the state of American politics in 2016 is also a part of this story-that-will-stay-a-story. The distress of white people over the loss of their predominance—a sense that "the way things were before was better"—has rewarded frankly xenophobic rhetoric, and the candidates who use it. As the journalist Evan Osnos has reported, outright white supremacists (who usually ignore two-party political races) are delighted.
We should not imagine though that this distress among some whites is written merely in rhetoric. In a recent analysis of statistics on sickness and death rates, the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that middle-aged white people in the United States have been dying by suicide, drug abuse and alcohol-related causes at extraordinary rates. The historian and journalist Josh Marshall has pointed out that this effect is strongest among the people who, lacking other advantages, had the most stake in white identity: less-educated, less skilled, less affluent workers. (Other scholars have disputed details of Case and Deaton's analysis, but not its overall point.)
If the Case-Deaton statistics reflected only economic distress, then middle-aged working-class people of other ethnic groups should also be missing out on the general health improvements of the last few decades. This is not the case. Unskilled middle-aged African-Americans, for example, have lower life expectancy than equivalent whites. Yet their health measures continually improved over the time period during which those of whites stalled.
For this reason, I think Marshall is right, and that the Case-Deaton findings signal a particularly racial distress. The mortality rates correlate with loss of privilege, unspoken predominance, a once undoubted sense that "the world is ours."
What all this suggests is that this ongoing news, over the next ten or twenty years, could turn into a grim story of inter-ethnic conflict. There is a reason those white supremacists, eager for a conflict fought on race lines, are taking a new interest in conventional politics.
Can scientists and other intellectuals do anything to help prevent this inevitable ethnic reconfiguration from being interpreted as a zero-sum conflict? I think they can.
For one thing, there is much that is not known about how the psychology and even physiology of loss of ethnic advantage. There is probably much that could be learned by systematic comparative research on societies in which relations among social groups were swiftly renegotiated, so that one group lost privilege. South Africa after the fall of apartheid is one such place; perhaps Eastern Europe during and after the fall of Communism is another.
We could also sharpen up our collective understanding of the slippery psychology of ethnic threat, with an eye toward finding methods to understand and cope with such feelings. To do that, we need to take people's perceptions about identity seriously. Happy talk about the wonders of diversity and the arc of history bending towards justice will not suffice. We need to understand how, why and when some people on this inevitable journey will experience it as a loss.