by Oscar Blayton
White people, don’t take it personally and don’t lose your minds, but the numbers are in and the numbers don’t lie.
For the first time in the history of the U.S. census, the non-Hispanic white population has fallen. With their numbers dropping from 63.7% in 2010 to 57.8% in 2020, white Americans are estimated to become a minority by 2045, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This shift in numbers need not be perceived as a bad thing by white people or anyone else because demographic shifts are not a reflection of merit. While many white people will certainly be cool with these declining numbers, others may not welcome the opportunity to join the community of minorities. They will see this diminution of their percentage of the population as an existential threat.
The long-enforced social order that has afforded white people the lion’s share of the values available to the American community has been dependent upon the ability to visit violence upon anyone who challenged that order. Much like the lion’s ability to remain at the top of the food chain because of its sharp claws and teeth and aggressive nature, Because of its capacity for violence and aggressive nature, Western society has kept white people at the top of the socio-economic heap.
Despite violence being at the foundation of white privilege in America, the notions of majority rule and the rule of law were used to hide the race-based inequities inflicted upon people of color for centuries. It was a very simple formula for justifying the maintenance of power by white people. In a democracy, numerical superiority guarantees dominance. The shorthand version of this reality is “majority rule.” With white people in the majority, the principles of democracy guaranteed that they made the rules, which codified white privilege into laws in many instances. White privilege necessitated the maintenance of democracy and the rule of law.
Prior to the Civil War, the rule of law dictated that enslaved African Americans were chattel, property of the people who enslaved them. If any of these enslaved individuals escaped their bondage, the rule of law required that they be returned to their enslavers. And until the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1868, “[the Negro] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” according to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in his decision handed down in the landmark Dred Scott case. Descendants of Africa were not deemed to be deserving of respect.
This logic was born out of a world view of Western culture that was thousands of years in the making and twisted during the last five centuries into its current manifestation.
Western political structure was based upon notions of meritocracy stretching back beyond ancient Greece to the time of the pharaohs of Egypt. Meritocracy dictated that those deemed deserving by society should make its rules and regulate the allocation of its benefits.
After the collapse of the ancient world, religion was the general measure of merit, as the faithful were doing God’s will. Christians, Muslims and Jews all claimed the path of righteousness as theirs and theirs alone, and enslaving pagans was justifiable on the grounds of religion.
During the Renaissance in Europe, as the enslaved began to convert to Christianity, it became difficult to justify enslavement based upon the lack of Christian values. At this point, religion gave way to race as the justification for the enslavement of people of color and numerous inferiorities were ascribed to them as justification for the continuation of their enslavement.
Even after the American Civil War and passage of the 14th Amendment, African Americans and other people of color were relegated to a lower status in this country, entitled only to those crumbs of life and liberty that white Americans deemed to allow them. The rule of law democratically enacted and enforced by the political majority was a bulwark against any loss of privilege by white people.
On the other hand, when superior numbers fade, so does the utility of democracy. Then democracy is scrapped for expediency.
In the wake of the rise of Black political power during Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and extreme violence arose to enforce a new unwritten rule of law – a law of white supremacy at any cost. And as always, the justification for violence against people of color was that they were a threat.
The shrinking of the white majority in America has agitated a certain portion of the population that sees a threat in the rising tide of black and brown people. They realize that if the demographic trends continue, they no longer can rely on their superiority in numbers to guarantee them advantages in life.
A great deal of rhetoric is being espoused by white alarmists denying that their raising a red flag signaling the loss of numerical superiority in America has anything to do with white privilege. But just as Confederate lovers claim the Civil War was about state’s rights without specifying that the right the states were primarily fighting for was the right to own slaves, these demographic alarmists do not reveal that the increasing percentages of people of color threatens white dominance.
Historians today tell us that the Germans who followed Adolph Hitler believed they were facing an existential crisis and had to fight for their very existence. Additionally, Hitler offered the majority population identifiable minorities asscapegoats. Germany’s descent into Nazism did not work out well for Germany or the world at large, and it was thought to be common knowledge around the globe that such desperate attempts to maintain cultural or ethnic dominance were bad ideas.
The rest of the country, and indeed, the rest of the world are watching tensely to see if that restive portion of America’s white population further loses its grip on reality and strikes out in fear with destructive consequences. But the global community will not tolerate a hateful America motivated by grievance politics and behaving like a schoolyard bully to maintain the status quo. Even if America is not able to prevent its own descent into authoritarianism, the community of nations will not stand for it.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.