Nativist Backlash Happens Amid Progress on Diversity


Barack Obama, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Africa, is a symbol of the rich diversity of our nation, his election a sign of how far our nation has come in embracing that diversity.

But there are other signs of just how far we have to go.

The wave of Latino immigration that began in the 1990s and continues today has sparked a white-hot nativist backlash that is largely responsible for a more than 50% jump in the number of hate groups operating in the United States since 2000. As outlined in this issue of the Intelligence Report, that number hit a record high last year, 926. The best government study suggests that some 210,000 people a year are victimized by hate crimes, the vast majority of them motivated by race or ethnicity. Vicious denunciations of brown-skinned immigrants are everyday occurrences, and hate crimes against Latinos have jumped 40% since 2003.

What's going on? How is it that, at this moment of triumph for diversity and multiculturalism, racial and ethnic anger seems so intense?

Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor of political science, has for more than a decade explored the consequences of diversity on American society. His controversial conclusion, most recently enunciated in a 2007 article in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies, is that, in the short to medium run, immigration and ethnic diversity "tend to reduce social solidarity" and trust in one's neighbors. For example, in highly diverse Los Angeles and San Francisco, about 30% of inhabitants said they trust their neighbors "a lot"; in ethnically homogenous areas of North and South Dakota, 70-80% said the same.

But in the long run, Putnam argues, immigration greatly strengthens societies. It fosters and enhances creativity. Contrary to the propaganda of the anti-immigrant lobby, it increases the net income of native-born Americans. It helps offset the looming fiscal effects of the aging native population. And, it leads to greater economic development in the home countries of immigrants.

Getting past the backlash to diversity — so that we can enjoy its long-term benefit — poses difficult challenges for our country. As Putnam explains, we need to put the era of "us" and "them" behind us and "create a new, broader sense of 'we.'" An essential first step, in our view, is exposing the false propaganda that emanates from the far right and continues to divide us.

One of the most recent examples, recounted in this issue, is the nativist fairy tale alleging that "illegal aliens" hold 5 million bad mortgages in the United States — and are therefore, presumably, responsible for the subprime banking disaster and subsequent economic crisis. This utterly false claim originated on KFYI-AM in Phoenix, was fired into cyberspace by The Drudge Report, and was then carried to hundreds of thousands of television viewers via CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" show, which has specialized in this kind of material.

Hate propaganda has consequences. That was demonstrated again on Jan. 21, the day after Obama was inaugurated, when a 22-year-old white man in Brockton, Mass., allegedly stormed out of his house and killed two black people and raped and gravely wounded another. Later, the man told police he'd intended to invade an Orthodox synagogue and kill as many Jews as possible. The reason, he said, was that he'd spent six months perusing racist websites and concluded they "spoke the truth about the demise of the white race," according to court filings.

We are living in difficult and contentious times. And, perhaps, more difficult years lie ahead. Tough economic times provide fertile ground for those who would foment hate against minorities by scapegoating them for our problems. In addition, demographers are predicting the loss of a white majority in 2042 — an eventuality that is likely to further anger whites who see this country as their own.

At the same time, the possibilities before us have never been greater. The shattering of glass ceilings — whether they're related to race, ethnicity or gender — is letting our country draw on the talents of groups that have long been marginalized. It is up to all of us, as a nation, to remain alert to the dangers but dedicated to building a better future.

As The New York Times editorialized this February: "It's easy to mock white supremacist views as pathetic and to assume that nativism in the age of Obama is going away. … But racism has a nasty habit of never going away, no matter how much we want it to, and thus the perpetual need for vigilance. … [I]t takes only a cursory look at a worsening economic climate and grim national mood to realize that history is always threatening to repeat itself."