Responding to the “White Anxiety Crisis”

It’s now widely known that by 2050 white folks will not represent a majority of the overall U.S. population.  Changing demographics are nothing new but this impending shift has generated a whole lot of interest and eye-catching headlines.

I’ve been thinking about these numbers and wondering how we currently in the majority will respond.  Recent talk in the media by some majority folks about “our country,”  “our values, “our culture” and “our history” has increased my curiosity about the ways the changing ethnic makeup of America will be experienced and interpreted by white folks.

My assumption is that, for some of us white folks, these changes stir up fear and anxiety.

In a Time article last month Gregory Rodriguez takes note of “The White Anxiety Crisis.” According to Rodriguez, the coming changes are particularly significant given America’s history regarding race and ethnicity.

As much as Americans pride themselves on the notion that their national identity is premised on a set of ideals rather than a single race, ethnicity or religion, we all know that for most of our history, white supremacy was the law of the land. In every naturalization act from 1790 to 1952, Congress included language stating that the aspiring citizen should be a “white person.” And not surprisingly, despite the extraordinary progress of the past 50 years, the sense of white proprietorship — “this is our country and our culture” — still has not been completely eradicated.

The tendency of the majority culture is often to gloss over these racist elements of our nation’s past, pointing instead to perceived examples of a new, post-racial landscape.  And what happens when, glossing over history, white people react to demographic changes?  Rodriguez points to the example of California- “Anglos dropped below 50% of the population there in 2000”- in the 1990’s.

In 1996, California’s white voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 209, a ballot initiative that sought to eliminate state-sponsored affirmative action, because many of those voters felt that the playing field had begun to tilt against them. That decade, California also passed two other ethnically charged ballot measures, against illegal immigration and bilingual education. It’s difficult not to conclude that these initiatives were part of a white backlash against the state’s ethnic transformation.

I was in high school in southern California during these years and remember well the fear and anger surrounding the debates over Proposition 209.  I recall also that my Christian community seemed to have few creative ways to engage this debate.  The same fears that affected the wider majority culture seemed to frame our opinions as well.

Though the nation’s ethnic landscape is changing, California’s experience may be the exception.  This is because, according to Rodriguez, the ethnic demographics of individual states will “probably remain majority white.”  In other words, for most white Americans, the changing landscape will remain entirely outside of their personal experience.  The lack of contact and relationship with the people who represent the changing statistics could have troubling implications.

A strong white-minority political consciousness is most likely to arise in regions that are nowhere near actually becoming majority-minority. It is in these regions, where white-minority status is more phantom than reality, that politicians and demagogues can best employ the rhetoric of white ethno-nationalism. This won’t take the form of a chest-thumping brand of white supremacy. Instead, we are likely to see the rise of a more defensive, aggrieved sense of white victimhood that strains the social contract and undermines collectively shared notions of the common good.

Is Rodriguez correct about the ways people’s fears will be exploited by “politicians and demagogues?”  Given what we already read on opinion pages and see on the news networks, I think we ought to take his prediction seriously.   Which leads me to wonder about the role of  majority culture churches attended by those who look at America’s future with anxiety.  How will these churches respond to narratives of fear and loss promoted by those seeking to take advantage of these developments?

I hope majority culture churches will have the wherewithal to look at the future through a lens uncolored by anxiety and ethnocentrism, though I worry about fear’s ability to influence even those who confess that only the God who loves us is worthy of our fear.  As the Apostle Peter puts it, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’  But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.”

There will be amazing opportunities for predominately white churches to courageously demonstrate the Gospel of Jesus to a fearful culture.  Time will tell whether the opportunity is seized or ignored for a predictably disappointing outcome.

At some point I’ll write about ways I think majority culture churches can proactively face this changing demographic landscape in ways that honor our Christian identity.  But I leave it here for now and solicit your perspective. However you self-identify ethnically, I’d be curious how you’ve interpreted the coming demographic changes.  Do you see majority culture churches poised to engage these changes graciously and proactively or do you believe fear will be the dominant impulse?  As always, your charitable comments are much appreciated.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

8 thoughts on “Responding to the “White Anxiety Crisis””

  1. wow; attention-grabbing title. Wonder what thoughts there are on the recent Sojourner’s cover story backlash which there have been on quite a few prominent blogs by Caucasian bloggers…

  2. 1. I don’t think the anxiety level is nearly as high and as common as some who are eager to label whites as racist would like to make it sound. A little fudging on reality is okay for journalists or those trying to gain attention for themselves with their writing. Bogus broad generalizations make some people feel good – like they’re smarter or more godly than others. I have little confidence in the accuracy of anything that comes from Time.
    2. I would guess that if a color shift was happening in any country of the world, there would be a certain amount of anxiety among the nationals.
    3. I would guess that the real anxiety is not about the shift in color of skin but shift in philosophical and cultural assumptions by the entering people that are different or considered lower levels of thinking.
    4. Within any large scale shift in the cultural make up of a people group, there is a mixed bag of both positive and negative dynamics. It is easy for any color of skinned people to enlarge the negatives and minimize the positives and either see or not God’s hand at work or Satan’s world system at work. Usually both are at work.

  3. I don’t know what how all white majority churches will respond to the coming demographic shift, but as a white person who was raised in them in the Deep South, I yearned for an ethnically diverse church (and world) almost from the time I realized this wasn’t the case. I saw as much racism in my church as I did outside of it. This was a big factor in my walking away as a teenager.

    I no longer live in the South, but I understand white Southerners. I do not see a mass shift toward diversity anytime soon in that part of the US. Racism is passed from generation to generation down there, and not too much has really changed since I was a child in that regard – folks are just quieter about it in public. Once the current generation is stained by racism, it seems likely we will have to wait for the next one to find out whether the light will shine through them. But the pattern is entrenched.

    As a middle-aged adult, God led me back to church – a church that fulfills my lifelong wishes to be in community with people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Regarding kingdom living, I believe that it is far more likely that ethnically diverse churches will demonstrate the gospel to white majority churches than that white majority churches will demonstrate the gospel to white people at large. Really any white person who is dissatisfied with the status quo has options now – no need to wait 50 years for a white minority to experience an accurate manifestation of the kingdom.

    As I read back through this, I am reminded that through God all things are possible, so I would not place limits on what He can do in this situation. I believe that anyone who experiences the truth of the gospel can be transported out of their old ideas and transformed into a true citizen of the kingdom. As always though, it will be the work of the Holy Spirit and not our broken selves.

  4. Although I don’t believe that churchgoers are immune to these attempts to stir fear I do think they may impact them less then the public at large. I think the increase in service trips by church goers has had a positive effect on how we look at other cultures. I know several collage age students who have spent a better part of a year in countries like India and Africa. Like wise many adults are traveling on service missions to areas like Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They bring these experiences back to the church and in a small way improve the way we see other cultures.
    I don’t believe that white people own the fear issue. In some ways the tension between different minority groups can be even greater.
    I may have allowed myself to be blinded by the way pundits and politicans strir fear in the “white issue” but I have noticed it in the “green issue”. Extremist have taken a good Biblical principle like being caretakers of the earth and ramped it up with fear that if we do not act now the world will be destroyed.
    I have seen the impact of this fear in my own family when my daughter burst out in tears crying daddy daddy stop killing the trees when I pulled off too much paper from the toilet paper roll. Have no doubt about it the fear in her eyes was real. It wasn’t brought on by Fox News but by watching cartoons.
    I believe the church needs to also address this fear issue with a balanced approach. We need to reinforce the idea that we are to take care of the earth not worship it. That God is in control of our destiny not mankind.
    The church should be engaged in helping us with our fears no matter where they come from.
    Sorry I couldn’t resist pointing out that “white fear” isn’t the only fear being pushed by politicans and pundits.

    1. I completely agree with you Dan that this is not the only fear that is pushed by those in positions of power. In fact, I think it’s a common tactic used to motivate/manipulate folks to act in ways that benefit the interests of those same politicians, pundits, and those they represent. Certainly no political party or ideology is above this.

      My interest in this particular example is related to my own experience along with my sense that this will be a biggie in the coming years. Beyond just this example, I long for our churches to subvert rhetoric of fear for the life-giving and fear-defying Gospel that we’ve been given by the victorious Jesus.

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