Bullets, ‘Blurbs, and Backlash: Census 2000 and White Anxiety

Manifestations of white supremacy during a time of growing multiracial reality are examined in light of the 2000 Census.

By Jordan Greene May 07, 2001

We’ve gotten to that point, I really feel, where it’s just time to circle the wagons."

This sentiment was expressed by a white, suburban mother interviewed on NPR in the early ’90s. Unintentionally invoking white settler heritage, her coded appeal against rising crime rates also captures the essence of white anxiety today in the face of head-spinning economic and demographic changes.

Recently released 2000 Census figures show that the number of Hispanics in the United States surged almost 60 percent in the past decade, and that 80 percent of the growth in the U.S. population was accounted for by people of color. White settlement in the United States could be considered under threat. Non-Hispanic whites make up only 47 percent of the population of California, according to the 2000 Census. Texas and Florida, states that are also heavily impacted by immigration, have non-Hispanic white populations of 52 percent and 65 percent, respectively. Nationally, non-Hispanic whites make up only 69 percent of the population, down from 76 percent in 1990.

White supremacists aren’t the only ones alarmed by these trends. As a multiracial reality becomes ever more apparent, their once-fringe rhetoric of "white encirclement" will likely gain more acceptance in the effort to undermine the growing presence of people of color.

White Youth Violence

Within suburban white enclaves, another cause of alarm has been the seemingly intractable phenomenon of white youth violence. Indiscriminate mass killings have bewildered community leaders who assumed their schools were insulated from violence. The media’s obsession with dysfunction and violent pathology has shifted significantly from the multicultural inner city to the monolithically white suburbs and rural areas.

This is not to say that whites are getting their comeuppance for a history of oppression. The demonization of youth of color continues to drive a massive build-up of prisons, unabated racial profiling and unequal sentencing laws. Incidents of random, mass killing overwhelmingly take place in suburban and rural majority-white schools, but an FBI study released last fall stated that there is no profile of the school shooter.

Tim Wise, in a widely discussed editorial on AlterNet.com in March, raised articulate objections to this hypocrisy: "Come again. White boy after white boy … decides to use their classmates for target practice, and yet there is no profile? Imagine if all these killers had been black: would we still hesitate to put a racial face on the perpetrators? Doubtful."

On March 5 in Santee, California, a white suburb in a state where whites are no longer the outright majority, Charles Andrew Williams opened fire on his fellow students at Santana High School, killing two and wounding thirteen. Williams and his victims were white.

On January 27 two Dartmouth College professors, Half and Susanne Zantop, were murdered in their home outside of Hanover, New Hampshire. Two Vermont teenagers have been charged in their deaths. No connection has been revealed between the victims and their alleged killers, who are from Chelsea, a tiny, isolated Vermont town tucked between the Green and White mountains. A representative of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office refuted an ABC News report that Nazi literature was found in the home of one of the alleged killers. The Zantops, German expatriates, were known for their outspoken conviction that Germany should take more responsibility for the holocaust.

The public preoccupation with school shootings climaxed in April 1999 with the Columbine Massacre. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris chose Adolph Hitler’s birthday to gun down fellow students, reportedly targeting "minority" students and jocks. Of all the fatalities, however, only African-American Isaiah Shoels wasn’t white.

Dismay and bewilderment expressed by parents and community leaders in school shooting sites like Santee, California, described by its mayor as "a solid town … with good kids, a good church-going town–an All-American town," is often the overarching aspect of media coverage. These outbreaks of violence are often either seen as abhorrent outgrowths of a violent popular culture, or as random and unexplainable tragedies. But this pattern of violence, even the chorus of denials that seek to gloss it over, is but the latest manifestation of the saga of white supremacy: its victims, perpetrators, and culture of privilege.

A Violent Legacy

American violence is a legacy of the rapacious grasping of natural resources and forced removal of indigenous people for the purpose of white settlement. More recently, the United States’ military economy and global expansion, following World War II, created a widely distributed prosperity that reserved the best jobs for white workers.

Dysfunction and violence within white communities point to the disorienting effects of rapid economic and demographic changes. The bottom is dropping out of white middle class entitlement.

There is much to shake the foundations of white expectations. Unionized manufacturing jobs, which once guaranteed low-skilled white workers a comfortable living, have now been largely replaced by low-wage service jobs. The increasing freedom in which capital crosses national borders has caused a different kind of social upheaval in Latin America and the Caribbean. Structural adjustment programs forced on those countries have dislocated poor people, fueling a surge of emigration to the United States. This in turn has sparked competition for service sector jobs between working class whites and immigrants.

Admittedly, the Columbine Massacre took place in an affluent Colorado suburb at the peak of the longest period of economic expansion in U.S. history. (Other school shooting sites such as Paducah, Kentucky and Jonesboro, Arkansas are not quite so affluent.) The circumstances of this tragedy are misleading though. Columbine happened in the context of an economic boom that featured a grossly widening income disparity in which the majority of workers faced declining real wages and practically nonexistent job security. It was a high tech gold rush that didn’t feel very solid.

School shooters like Klebold and Harris, whether the beneficiaries or the victims of the widening income gap, are affected by the alienation rendered by the class gulf and the workaholic culture of American acquisitiveness.

"The Littleton killers felt robbed," wrote Debra Dickerson on Salon.com. "As white, middle-class males, they understood that they had a certain amount of societal deference coming to them–but where was it? They took their comfort, nice neighborhood, and (until their rampage) safe school for granted; those things weren’t enough. That couldn’t give them the sense of specialness they so clearly craved and felt entitled to. Angry white men in the making, they didn’t feel powerful, they didn’t feel respected."

White Retrenchment

Ultimately, white-on-white violence points to the grimness of North American suburbs and the renewed realization that the promise of multiethnic vitality lies with the cities. The outbursts of neo-Nazi fetishists like the Columbine killers reveal the cracks in the armor of white supremacy. With the beginnings of white demographic marginalization, however, we should be wary of efforts to shore up the institutions of white supremacy.

The Florida electoral disaster shows how willing the political elite is to trash the voting rights of African-Americans and Caribbean immigrants. John Lantigua’s groundbreaking investigative report in The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20010430&s=lantigua) shows that efforts by Gov. Jeb Bush’s Republican administration to strike black voters from the rolls were well underway two years ago when the NAACP launched a massive voter registration drive to counter Bush’s attack on affirmative action in Florida. This was a willfully orchestrated–and successful–operation to neutralize black political power.

Though many black Floridians with no criminal record were blocked from voting, the political elite has been clearly pursuing a strategy of criminalization to maintain white supremacy. Efforts in the Republican-led Florida legislature to extend the number of crimes that can be considered felonies, and thus the number of blacks excluded from the political process, reveals a strategy of containment. The Florida operation was nothing more than a South Africa-style effort to institutionalize the political power of what looks to be a future white minority.

Meanwhile, aggressively racist policing remains a reality across the country, which the Supreme Court blessed with its April 24 decision in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista that allows police total discretion to arrest even for minor infractions. That same day the Supreme Court dealt another blow with its ruling in Alexander v. Sandoval that states and schools cannot be sued for racially biased policies unless they deliberately discriminate.

In California, a campaign is underway to place a "Racial Privacy Initiative" on the ballot. Championed by Ward Connerly and the proponents of the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, the initiative would prohibit the state from collecting data aggregated by race.

Yet aside from their bare-knuckled onslaught, rightwing political elites also show a sophisticated grasp of racial public relations. Members of George W.’s cabinet like Mel Martinez, Spencer Abraham, Elaine Chao, Norman Mineta and Rod Paige are people of color whose ideology more closely reflects the sentiments of white communities than their own. "I’m very concerned about this whole issue about who gets to be let in to whatever program there is. But what happens when good programs in the process hurt other people?" said Chao, who has long touted the virtues of her own by-the-bootstraps success to attack affirmative action.

Voter disfranchisement, legislative crackdown, criminal codes of social control, even shocking and apparently senseless acts of violence–these different phenomena are connected by the thread of a racial anxiety that is only likely to heighten as racial dynamics are reshaped.

How far has this race anxiety spread into the white mainstream? I asked Andi Shively of the Columbus, Ohio chapter of Anti-Racist Action (ARA) to speculate. "I would suggest that while a number of white anti-racists would join the struggle against white supremacy," says Shively, "when it really comes down to asking people to help destroy their own base of power, their dedication to their own privilege is likely to shine through."

The clamor of voices across the multicultural spectrum points to a bruising battle for policy direction, as well as for hearts and minds, that will determine the fate of white supremacy. For white anti-racists benefiting from the tyranny of white privilege, the polarizing rightwing assault against an emerging multiethnic majority offers opportunities for new relationships of solidarity in the struggle to breach the encirclement of white privilege. White anti-racists will have to determine their role in the movements of people of color while confronting racism in their own communities.