White majorities feel threatened in an age of mass migration – and calling them racist won’t help

Today, borders are secure but populations are in flux.

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Is it racist for a white Briton to object to a few non-white immigrants entering Britain because she is attached to its ethnic composition? What about 5,000 a year? A million (including descendants) in five years? Ten million over 50 years?

The answer changes as the scale increases. Wanting to keep a country ethnically and racially “pure” is racist. Seeking to slow down an ethnically different inflow so as not to disrupt radically the sense of ethnicity and nationhood of large numbers of people is not, on a dictionary definition, racist – though it becomes so if the reason for restriction is hating or fearing the newcomers.

Decades of social psychology research have shown that being attached to one’s “in-group” doesn’t make a person more hostile to “out-groups”, except in situations of violent conflict. The Chinese person who moves to Chinatown is not doing so out of malice towards non-Chinese; the black resident of Brixton who wishes white hipsters would stop moving in is doing so out of attachment to a neighbourhood, not because she dislikes young whites. The American National Election Study shows that white Americans’ warmth towards other whites does not predict coolness towards blacks or Hispanics. But it is linked to support for immigration restriction and Donald Trump.

We are in an age of unprecedented long-distance migration and ethnic transformation known as the “third demographic transition”. With current levels of immigration, Canada will shift from being approximately 80 per cent white in 2006 to around 20 per cent white in 2106. The white population in western European countries such as Britain will hover around the 50 per cent mark at the end of the century.

The mixed-race population will be trailing this transformation by a half-century. Even if immigration ground to a halt tomorrow, today’s white majorities will undergo what I term “whiteshift”, absorbing non-European ancestry through intermarriage. Three-quarters of people in Britain in 2150 will, like myself, be mixed-race.

In the British empire, people moved relatively freely between Britain and its overseas colonies. But high death rates resulted in limited population increase and few had the means to move to Britain. This began to change after 1945. Between 1955 and 1962, half a million people arrived from the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent. When the Conservatives tabled the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1961 to control the flow, it was attacked by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell as a “plain anti-colour measure”. Yet Labour’s base, like the British population, favoured immigration control. In 1962, Labour quietly dropped its opposition to the measure without retracting the comments.

The US moved in the other direction, from closed to open: a series of restrictive measures from the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 essentially cut off non-white immigration. When ethnic criteria were lifted in 1965, Bobby Kennedy assured Congress that few non-whites would arrive. In reality, Mexico and Asia’s population boom significantly altered, and will continue to radically shift, the ethnic composition of America.

Western political philosophy is blind to population shifts because it was conceived at a time of ethnic and demographic stability between the 18th and mid-19th centuries. Even in 1900, no more than 1 to 2 per cent of west Europeans were foreign-born. The ideas of liberalism and democracy, and the notion of civic nationalism, presume a secure ethnic majority.

It’s time to rethink our concepts. Civic nationalism describes an inclusive nation defined on the basis of political principles. In ethnic nations, only members of the ethnic majority can be citizens. This dichotomy made sense in 1944 when the pioneering nationalism scholar Hans Kohn formulated these ideas because civic nations such as France formed out of secure dynastic states, while nations such as Ireland or Germany had to define themselves ethnically to make territorial claims. Borders were insecure but populations were rooted. Civic nationalism meant including longstanding minorities, such as the Corsicans, Jews or Basques.

Today, borders are secure but populations are in flux. Few wish to restrict citizenship to the ethnic majority, but many are uncomfortable with a wholesale transformation of their societies – even over generations. The European Social Survey and surveys of British Leave voters suggest that no more than 10 to 25 per cent of voters for populist right-wing movements in western Europe believe minorities cannot be true members of the nation and that immigration should be cut to zero. Yet they wish to slow the change in their country’s ethnic composition.

A review of public opinion research shows that opposition to immigration has a strong basis in cultural factors. For instance, I find British people become 25 percentage points more restrictive when rates of immigration are linked to the share of white Britons in the population in 2060. Insisting that whites’ ethnic attachments are racist results in far worse effects – giving power to right-wing populists such as Donald Trump – than conducting a reasoned debate about the appropriate pace of ethnic change. When whites can’t express their sense of ethnic loss, they turn to the seemingly more “respectable” alternatives of demonising Muslims, criticising immigrants who live in minority neighbourhoods, or voting for Brexit (a result of diverting concerns over ethnic change into hatred of the acceptably “white” EU). Few things have contributed more to today’s populist blowback than the demographic blind spot in Western political thought.

Eric Kaufmann’s book “Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities” is published on 25 October by Allen Lane

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck University of London. He tweets @epkaufm.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war