Bloomberg View (Opinion)
By Francis Wilkinson
June 23, 2015
"You're taking over our country."
That's the lament Dylann Roof reportedly voiced to black parishioners before his June 17 killing spree in Charleston, South Carolina.
Like many people in the grip of an extreme ideology, Roof's grasp of reality appears tenuous. Blacks amount to about 13 percent of the U.S. population, not much larger a share than in 1960, before the federal revolution in civil rights. In South Carolina, blacks are still so politically marginal that it took the massacre of innocents to induce state elected officials to broach, gingerly, oh-so-respectfully, the matter of the white supremacist banner that flies outside the state capitol.
If blacks are taking over the country, they are doing so in very, very slow motion.
Yet it's not hard to imagine where Roof might have been coming from. There is a black family in the White House. Their residency isn't a fluke: President Barack Obama was elected twice. And while the country isn't getting much blacker, it's definitely, inexorably, getting browner. Around the middle of this century, the nation is expected to have its first nonwhite majority.
To run-of-the-mill white supremacists and racial conservatives eager to "take back America" that must seem pretty frightening. And unfair. No one voted (or thought they had) to transform the hue of the country. No president ever campaigned on changing the U.S. from white to brown. No Congress explicitly authorized it.
How did it happen?
The year 1965 is a good place to begin. The U.S. had maintained highly restrictive immigration policies since the early 1920s. A quota system restricted immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Eastern and Southern Europe. Meanwhile, paradoxically, migration from the Western Hemisphere was unrestricted; Mexicans moved easily back and forth across the border on temporary work visas.
In 1965, Congress moved to overhaul immigration law. The timing was significant. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had just been adopted. Reformers wanted the nation's immigration system to better reflect its new embrace of racial justice -- no more excluding Africans and Asians. And the Western Hemisphere would come under immigration restrictions just like the Eastern Hemisphere.
There seemed little intention, however, to radically alter the nation's racial composition. Discussing the legislation, Senator Edward Kennedy echoed many supporters of the bill when he said, "It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society."
Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach similarly testified: "This bill is not designed to increase or accelerate the numbers of newcomers permitted to come to America. Indeed, this measure provides for an increase of only a small fraction in permissible immigration."
But many more immigrants came than anticipated, with arrivals rising from about 250,000 a year in the 1950s to more than 700,000 annually in the 1980s. Secretary of State Dean Rusk had estimated that about 8,000 Indians would immigrate in the first five years; more than half a million immigrated between 1965 and 1993, a rate about 10 times higher.
"Asian and African immigration, as well as southern and eastern European, was sharply restricted pre-1965," wrote Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute, via e-mail. "The Act expanded legal migration limits for those regions, so it's hugely important in explaining rising numbers of Chinese, Indian, Filipinos, Vietnamese, etc. The Act also established the family visa system, including siblings, that much Asian immigration takes advantage of."
Chain migration, the process of immigrants gaining a foothold in the U.S. and using the visa system to bring in a "chain" of relatives, owes its existence to the 1965 law. "More people here means a larger social network attracting more people to come," Rosenblum explained.
During the same period, birth rates among white women declined while Hispanic immigrants had higher fertility. "A good bit of the Hispanic growth since 1965 was due to that act," e-mailed William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "But going forward natural increase is the main component of Hispanic growth." William Logan, a demographer at Brown University, concurs: "The Latino population in the last decade or two has grown more from fertility than from immigration," he said via e-mail.
Altogether, the browning of America, as it's been called, owes a heavy debt to unintended consequences. For cultural conservatives harboring a strong dose of racial anxiety, it's unlikely that "unintended consequences" is a satisfying answer for how the white America that they idolize is being supplanted by a brown America that they fear. Although the demographic wave is too big to ignore, and too entrenched to be reversed, its origins are so muddled and distant that it's hard to know whom to blame for it.
Unless you're a racist, of course, in which case you know exactly whom to blame.
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