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Is Demography Really Destiny?

As the country rapidly diversifies, our history reveals two different paths Americans have taken in reaction to demographic change — one filled with hate, and one with hope.

One of the main reasons for the rise of Donald Trump, the electoral success of his bigotry and our country’s rising white supremacy is this: Trump has activated a growing fear in many white Americans who view their power as threatened by our country’s rapidly changing demographics. He is taking advantage of their rage against change. Trump tests us nearly daily with his racism, nativism and hateful policies. And as we explore in this issue of the Intelligence Report, the surge in white supremacy and hate-driven domestic terrorism is slowing our progress toward a vibrant, multicultural democracy.

The American population is moving toward a minority-majority future, a shift the Census Bureau predicts will occur sometime in the 2040s. Nativists, racists and our president are taking advantage of the browning of America, contrasting it with nostalgia for a perceived better, whiter past, and using that idea to activate citizens into white nationalist thinking.

The Southern Poverty Law Center releases "The Year in Hate and Extremism."

This political path is not without historical precedent. Our country has been here before.

In the early 1900s, as German, Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants fled their countries for our shores, Americans turned on their new neighbors. And that immigration was accompanied by the migration of black people to the North, all of which roused the Ku Klux Klan from its post-Civil War slumber. The reinvigorated Klan warned that the nation was in great danger, describing immigrants as invaders practicing dangerous “foreign” religions, namely Catholicism and Judaism. The Klan’s message of white supremacy and Protestant Christianity was a winning one, and by 1924, the KKK had nearly four million members.

Politicians at all levels joined the Klan’s ranks, President Woodrow Wilson praised the group, Jim Crow flourished and with support from unabashed white supremacists, our nation passed despicable policies to stop demographic change in its tracks.

Most noxious was the Immigration Act of 1924, which cut immigrants sharply and restricted them mostly to northern Europeans. When President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill into law, the Klan cheered its protection of America’s “purity.”

It took more than 40 years for that racist immigration policy to come to an end. Finally, in 1965, a new immigration bill inspired by the civil rights movement was passed.

But there is another, more hopeful American story about immigration.

In the 1980s, California faced a new demographic shift. As the Latinx population grew, white voters upset by these changes reacted in much the same way anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Trump voters do today. Californians elected rabidly anti-immigrant Pete Wilson as governor in 1990. He railed against immigrants, who he painted with a large brush as being costly and criminal. He also vocally supported the punishing anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which passed by a wide majority in 1994. White Californians voted in huge numbers for the bill.

But a handful of years later, by the end of the 1990s, as California was approaching a minority-majority population, nativism dissipated. In 1999, Prop 187 died in the courts when Gov. Gray Davis refused to defend it. Since then, Californians have moved away from anti-immigrant politicking and the GOP has paid a steep price for its anti-immigrant past. Today, California is one of America’s most prosperous and diverse states.

Californians didn’t wait half a century to make a change — they forced out hate in just half a decade.

These two scenarios, America in the 1920s and California more recently, show that demography is not necessarily a white nationalist destiny, driven by forces beyond our control.

Is our future to be marked by rising white nationalism and its sidekicks, domestic terrorism and racist policies? Or can we build a peaceful, robust and multicultural democracy? Our country has reacted to demographic changes in different ways in the past, and it’s up to us to determine what our future holds.

Photo Getty Images/Andrew Burton