Tag Archives: Yascha Mounk

It’s More Complicated Than That!

When I was teaching, my introductory lecture always included something along these lines:  Welcome. We’ll be studying several issues about which Americans disagree, often passionately.  I may or may not share my own perspective on some of those issues, but if I do, let me assure you that your grade will not be affected by whether you agree with me.

That said, there’s one insight I do intend to inculcate and do want you to incorporate in your world-views. I want everyone who leaves this class to use two phrases far more frequently than they did before enrolling: it depends and it’s more complicated than that.

Most issues–in and out of academic life–are less straightforward than politicians and pundits like to insist, and helping students recognize that fact is essential to effective instruction.A recent book written by Yascha Mounk underlines that complexity.

Mounk was addressing the common perception that the United States will soon be “Majority minority,” a perception based upon demographic projections that have been widely publicized. (I’ll admit to accepting those projections at face value.)

For the foreseeable future, the implication goes, America will be characterized by a clash between two mutually hostile blocks—and because of its shrinking size, the group that has traditionally dominated the country will soon lose much of its power.

That very simplified belief has cheered progressives, who believe more people of color will translate into stronger civil rights and a more robust social safety net. It has  triggered a frantic backlash by White Supremicists, seen in the chants of alt-right activists insisting “We shall not be replaced,” and in the overt racism displayed by people who believe that social dominance is a zero-sum calculation.

As Mounk points out, demographic reality is more complicated than that.

But the set of assumptions which underwrites both these hopes and these fears is mistaken. Most developed democracies will never become “majority minority” in any meaningful sense. It is highly premature to assume that the politics of the future will neatly pit “whites” against “people of color.” And anybody who wants diverse democracies like the United States to succeed actually has reason to celebrate the fact that demography, despite the belief that so many parts of both left and right now share, is not destiny.

When the United States Census Bureau projected that the country would become majority minority sometime in the 2040s, its demographic model was presented as an exercise in science, giving the prediction an air of unassailable fact. But this conceals the extent to which the categories used by the Census Bureau to classify Americans as white or non-white rely on highly questionable assumptions about how they identify now—and even more questionable ones about how they will do so in future.

Does the child of two white immigrants from Spain count as white or Hispanic? (According to the United States Census Bureau, the answer is: Hispanic.) Will the child of a white father and a Chinese mother identify as white or Asian? (Asian.) And is someone who has seven white great-grandparents and one black great-grandparent white or black? (Black.) Seemingly scientific, the projections of the Census Bureau assume that all Americans who have either a drop of non-white blood or some distant cultural heritage connecting them to a Spanish-speaking country will be “people of color.”

It isn’t simply that the census bureau’s categories are questionable.  We’ve come a long way from the time when a majority of Americans opposed racial “intermingling” via dating  or intermarriage. The data confirms that change; according to Mounk, in 1980,” fewer than one in thirty newborns in the United States had a mother and a father from different ethnic groups.” Today, not only is the number of people who oppose interracial marriage relatively small, by the late  2010s, one out of every seven children born in the United States was mixed-race.

That’s an astonishing turnaround–and it further complicates those simplified “majority/minority” projections. For one thing, according to newspapers and demographers, every single one of the babies born to these couples is classified as a “person of color.”

That classification is at odds with the self-perception of mixed-race children, many of whom see themselves as White. Similarly, a majority of children with roots in Spain or Latin America who are neither black nor indigenous consider themselves ethnically white rather than Hispanic.

Bottom line: we need to resist the urge to “slice and dice” our fellow Americans into opposing ethnic enclaves. As Mounk reminds us, Americans once feared the conflicts posed by Irish and Italian immigrants, yet today, the “distinction between Americans who hail from Sussex and those who hail from Sicily seems quaint.”

Ethnicity isn’t destiny, political or otherwise. It’s more complicated than that.


On The Other Hand…

Sometimes, this blog focuses so much on the crazy, the hateful, and the depressing that the whole human landscape seems bleak. I’m not going to apologize for pointing to the problems we face, because they’re real and we need to think long and hard about solutions. But an unremitting focus on the “dark side” can be misleading.

There are also bright spots in that landscape.

I’ve been subscribing to a Substack newsletter called PersuasionA recent one consisted of an interview with Yascha Mounk. Mounk is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and the founder of Persuasion. He recently published a book titled “The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure,” and it was the focus of an interview conducted by Ravi Gupta.

Mounk readily concedes that diversity makes democratic government difficult. The very human proclivity to prefer those with whom we share an identity makes civic equality a “really difficult thing to get right.” But then he says

I also want to make people a little bit more optimistic, because I think when you look at the injustices today, and you don’t have that perspective, you might think, “What’s wrong with us? Why are we so terrible?” But then when you compare it to other times and other places, you realize this is just a really, really hard thing we’re trying to do. Yes, we’re failing in certain respects, but we’re succeeding in other respects. We’re doing much better today than we did fifty years ago. We’re doing vastly better today than we did a hundred years ago. That, I think, can give you the hope to build a vision for the kind of society you want to live in, and to make sure that our society doesn’t fall apart, but actually thrives and succeeds.

At the conclusion of the interview, he returns to that optimism.

When I look at what’s actually going on in society, I don’t despair. America has become much more tolerant in the last decades. We have really rapid socioeconomic progress of minority and immigrant groups, in a way that’s rarely appreciated by either the left or the right. The best study suggests that immigrants from Central or South America, for example, are rising up the socio-economic ranks as rapidly as Irish and Italian Americans did a century ago. This shows that the far-right is wrong in believing that there’s something somehow inferior about them. But it also shows that parts of the left are wrong in thinking that our countries are so racist and so discriminatory that nonwhite people don’t have opportunity. Thankfully, actually, people have opportunity. We see that in the way in which their children or grandchildren in particular are rising up very rapidly. Now, there are also all kinds of sensible things we can do in terms of how we think about our country, the education we engage in, the kind of patriotism we embrace, the kinds of policies and acts of Congress that we should pass—and that’s important, too. But fundamentally, my optimism comes from the developments that I already see happening in society.

Mounk rests his argument on verifiable data; my own (occasional) optimism is more anecdotal and scattered. Just a few of my observations, in no particular order:

When I was still teaching, the university students who filled my classes were overwhelmingly inclusive and committed to their communities, the common good, and the rule of law.

The massive demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were multi-racial–the first time I have witnessed widespread diversity in racial protests.

Someone recently reminded me that eighty million Americans came out during a pandemic to vote against Donald Trump.

There’s constant progress on efforts to combat climate change– like recent development of a new, thinner and more efficient solar panel. 

Increasing numbers of out LGBTQ people are being elected to political office, and not just in blue parts of the U.S.

Ketanji Brown Jackson will join the Supreme Court.

For the past week, my husband and I have been on a cruise (we’re headed for Amsterdam to visit our middle son). We have taken previous cruises, and virtually all the couples we met on those trips were devotees of Fox News. I still recall some of the dismissive comments (and worse) leveled by these financially comfortable travelers about poorer (and darker) Americans. I am very happy to report that everyone we’ve had an opportunity to converse with on this trip has at some point indicated strong disapproval of what the GOP has become. Several–like yours truly–identify as “refugees” from the Republican Party.

It’s anecdotal, true…but encouraging.