For some of us, the census data released Thursday was fascinating. For others, it was, I would presume, downright frightening.
Much of what we have seen in recent years — the rise of Donald Trump, xenophobia and racist efforts to enshrine or at least extend white power by packing the courts and suppressing minority votes — has been rooted in a fear of political, cultural and economic displacement.
The white power acolytes saw this train approaching from a distance — the browning of America, the shrinking of the white population and the explosion of the nonwhite — and they did everything they could to head it off.
They tried to clamp down on immigration, both unlawful and lawful. They waged a propaganda war against abortion, and they lobbied for “traditional family values” in the hopes of persuading more white women to have more babies. They orchestrated a system of mass incarceration that siphoned millions of young, marriage-age men, disproportionately Black and Hispanic, out of the free population.
They refused to pass gun control laws as gun violence disproportionately ravaged Black communities.
Republican governors, mostly in Southern states, even refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. As the Kaiser Family Foundation points out, “Medicaid is the largest source of insurance coverage for people with H.I.V., estimated to cover 42 percent” of the adult population with HIV, “compared to just 13 percent of the adult population overall.” It adds that Medicaid beneficiaries with HIV are more likely to be male, Black and dually eligible for Medicare. So HIV continues to rage in the South, even though we now have treatments that prevent the transmission of the virus.
On every level, in every way, these forces, whether wittingly or not, worked to prevent the nonwhite population from growing. And yet it did.
As The New York Times reported:
“Hispanics accounted for about half the country’s growth over the past decade, up by about 23%. The Asian population grew faster than expected — up by about 36%, a rise that made up nearly a fifth of the country’s total. Nearly 1 in 4 Americans now identifies as either Hispanic or Asian. The Black population grew by 6%, an increase that represented about a tenth of the country’s growth. Americans who identified as non-Hispanic and more than one race rose the fastest, jumping to 13.5 million from 6 million.”
Meanwhile, the white population, in absolute numbers, declined for the first time in the history of the country.
This data is dreadful for white supremacists. As Kathleen Belew, an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago, told me by phone, “These people experience this kind of shift as an apocalyptic threat.”
Population size determines, to some degree, the power you wield. The only option left to white supremacists at this point is to find ways to help white people maintain their grip on power even as they become a minority in the population, and the best way to do that is to deny as many minorities as possible access to that power.
We are now seeing a shocking, blatant attempt at voter suppression across the country. I believe that this is just the start of something, not the end — that efforts to disenfranchise minority voters will grow only more brazen as the white power movement becomes more desperate.
We are likely to see this trend in full swing as the redistricting process gets underway. As Nate Cohn wrote in the Times, the fact that much of the population growth over the past 10 years occurred in the Sun Belt, where the GOP controls redistricting, gives Republicans, who are overwhelmingly white, “yet another chance to preserve their political power in the face of unfavorable demographic trends.”
It’s particularly important to note that the changes in the nonwhite population will be not uniform but concentrated in particular states. Black people are continuing a reverse migration to the South and threatening to alter the political landscape there. Hispanics account for more and more of the voting-age population in key swing states across the Southwest.
As the nonwhite population grows in these states, so does their political power. In response, many of these are the states now trying to suppress nonwhite votes. This is why the Democratic-controlled Senate’s inability and unwillingness to alter the filibuster to pass voter protection is so maddening. Republicans’ voter suppression is an all-out attempt to shore up white power and diminish nonwhite power, and the Senate has been letting them do it.
The passage of power is not a polite and gentle affair like passing the salt at a dinner table. People with power fight — sometimes to the end — to maintain it. There’s going to be a shift, but not without strife.
Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.