Christian Worldview

Demographic Anxiety


Roberto Rivera

Sometime between 2013 and 2016, the majority of children born in the United States ceased to be what the Census Bureau calls “non-Hispanic Whites,” and, instead, belonged to racial and ethnic minorities.

Similarly, it’s estimated that by 2020, the same will be true of all American children, i.e., people under the age of eighteen.

Then came the news that “for the first time since the Census Bureau has released  , , , annual [race and age] statistics, they show an absolute decline in the nation’s white non-Hispanic population.” What’s more, “the new numbers show that for the first time there are more children who are minorities than who are white, at every age from zero to nine.”

Ezra Klein  thinks that understanding these numbers and what they portend is the key to understanding what he calls “the central question of American politics in the coming years: How do you hold together, much less govern, a country undergoing as much demographic change as our own?”

He’s probably correct. What is certainly true is that you cannot understand what’s happening at our southern border and the issue of immigration more generally without understanding the emotional salience of these numbers and, to borrow another expression from Klein, the “demographic anxiety” they induce among some Americans.

Talking about “demographic anxiety” is not a way to call people “racists” or “bigots” on the sly. It’s a way of talking about the response to the rapid demographic and cultural change we are undergoing as a society without impugning people’s motives.

The anxiety-producing change isn’t limited to changes in our “racial” — yes those are scare quotes — and ethnic makeup. It also includes things such as the increasing number of the religiously unaffiliated, a.k.a, “nones,” and the increased visibility of lesbians and gays.

Complicating the matter even further is the fact that this demographic shift is being felt in places where it hasn’t been before. Once concentrated in about a dozen states, Latinos now live, well, everywhere. There are now nearly 200,000 Latinos in Iowa and that number is expected to double within the next twenty years.

In Iowa, “there are places like West Liberty (pop. 3,730) that are majority Latino, and other small towns like Columbus Junction, Denison, and Storm Lake that are approaching that 50-percent mark.”

While the Atlantic Monthly may be correct when it says “In many ways, Latinos saved Iowa,” a lot of Iowans disagree. And while some of them are undoubtedly bigots and racists, most of them aren’t. What they are is anxious and unsettled.


When it comes to immigration, what we think is an argument about enforcing the law, economics, security, and assimilation is more often than not an argument about what we are becoming and what, if anything, should be done about it.

That’s why, for all the talk about border security and enforcing immigration laws, the distinction between legal and illegal immigration has all-but-collapsed in public discourse. A deal which exchanged increased border security and even funding for “The Wall” for permanent legal resident status for DACA recipients has been on the table since the beginning of the year. The hold-up has been the insistence that any deal include cuts in legal immigration.

Likewise, when people in Hazleton, Pennsylvania fret about being “outnumbered” at the city’s Funfest, they’re not drawing a distinction between illegal and legal immigration. Their concerned about presence, not papers.

You can also see demographic anxiety at work in the way that many arguments about immigration seem to be impervious to data. Much of what Americans think they know about immigration is wrong: a much smaller percentage of the population is foreign-born than they believe; immigrants, both legal and illegal, are less likely to commit crimes than native born Americans; immigrants do not receive welfare; and they are assimilating, especially linguistically. 

But as Jonathan Swift wrote, “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.”


The most ironic thing about this episode of demographic anxiety, which, once again, is not the same as calling someone a “racist” or “bigot,” is that it may be based on a faulty premise: that “whites” are becoming the minority.

This point is unintentionally illustrated in this photo from the aforementioned article about Hazleton, Pennsylvania that shows a person with an Italian last name standing in front of a Confederate flag.

The last time demographic anxiety led to a change in American immigration law, The Immigration Act of 1924, the people causing the anxiety were Italians, along with other Eastern and Southern Europeans.  The Klu Klux Klan attracted support with images like this one.

Stated differently, the ancestors of the anxious folks in Hazelton weren’t regarded as white by previous generations of the demographically-anxious.

The point is not to play “gotcha!” The point is to remind us that who is and isn’t regarded as “white,” at least in the United States, has changed over the years. Are we sure it won’t change again?

Richard Alba of the City University of New York, Kenneth Prewitt of Columbia University, and William Darity, Jr. of Duke University believe that it will.  Alba and Prewitt argue that the “majority-minority” projection is, at least in part, an artifact of how the Census Bureau defines “non-white.”

A lot of the people who are counted as “non-white,” especially Hispanics, and to lesser extent Asian-Americans, have a parent or at least a grandparent who is a “non-Hispanic white.” A personal example would be my nephew, several of my nieces, and my son.

Given the increasing rates of exogamy — marrying outside your group — it’s reasonable to infer that by the time frame predicted for this “majority-minority” transition arrives, the process of what’s been dubbed “ethnic attrition” will be even farther along. That’s certainly the case linguistically: Fluency in Spanish (or Korean, Chinese, etc.) is largely lost by the third generation, i.e, the grandchildren of immigrants.

Alba believes that the “most likely result will be to enlarge the [demographic] mainstream and alter the circumstances under which individuals are seen as belonging to marginalized minorities.”  In many ways, it’s already happening. As Alba writes “many partly white adults appear to have been integrated into largely white social worlds.” If that is true today, how much more will it be true twenty years from now?


I confess that I’m ambivalent when it comes to the issue of demographic anxiety. As a Christian, I am called to, as Arlie Russell Hochschild put it in “Strangers in their Own Land,” “scale the empathy wall.” Like St. Francis, I should seek rather to understand than to be understood.

Sometimes, I can. I know that a lot of people living outside my D.C. bubble are hurting. Economically, they are between a rock and a hard place: their incomes are, at best, stagnant; their hometowns are unrecognizable; they and/or their kids face the dilemma of leaving friends and family behind in search of some fleeting opportunity or deteriorating in place.

I am grateful that I have been spared this, at least at this stage of my life, and I wish I knew what to do about their plight. I bend over backwards not to equate their anger with animus.

At the same time, I get tired of being told that people who look like me are the source of their problems. We are not. West Liberty, Iowa and Hazleton, Pennsylvania were already on a downward trajectory before anyone name “Chavez” or “Robles” moved into town.

I have no desire to make anyone feel uncomfortable in my presence. As my friends will tell you, I’m very polite. Practically southern in that regard. But if someone is triggered by hearing “para Español oprima el número dos,” I’m not sure that anything short of apologizing for our presence will assuage your anxiety.

And if your anxiety prompts you to cheer when entire nationalities are called “rapists” and described as “infesting” the country, I’m commanded to pray for you and bless you. But nothing prohibits me from working to make sure that your anxieties are not translated into policy.

After all, even a cursory reading of the Pauline corpus will reveal that ethnic homogeneity wasn’t high on the list of the Apostle’s priorities. On the contrary, much of his writing is devoted to working out what it means to say that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

During his lifetime, the Church was making the transition from a Jewish sect to a universal faith containing people from “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” It didn’t always go smoothly.

The New Testament is filled with examples, both implicit and explicit, of demographic anxiety at work. Paul’s response ranged from the magisterial (Romans 1-11) to the exasperated (Galatians 5:12). But he never validated the anxious or their anxiety.

Neither should we.


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