The (Partial) White Backlash
By Nayyer Ali MD
Across the Western world, we are seeing a backlash of some Whites against what are perceived as outsiders or people who are not fully entitled citizens of these nations. This backlash is visible in the British vote in favor of Brexit, in the surge of popularity for far-right parties in countries such as France, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and Holland, and most prominently, in the election of Donald Trump.
What is behind this pattern? It is a mix of racial and economic anxiety that is bubbling up into a toxic brew. But it is not universal. There are many Whites, both in Europe and the US, that are not suffering from anxiety over the presence of “others” in their societies. It is this split, between those who are comfortable with a multicultural future, and those who find it profoundly threatening to their way of life, that is dominating politics in Europe and America.
Fifty years ago, both America and the nations of Western Europe were pretty homogenous. America was 90% White, and the rest were overwhelmingly marginalized African-Americans, with a smattering of Latinos in the southwest, and small Asian communities in Chinatowns and Little Tokyos mostly along the Pacific Coast. Since then, both Europe and the US have been transformed by immigration.
In America, the immigration system was completely changed in 1965, allowing immigrants from Third World countries a chance to enter if they had skills. This led to the first of many waves of doctors and engineers coming to the US from China, Philippines, India, Pakistan, and the Middle East. In addition, millions of illegal immigrants entered across the Mexican border to take menial jobs that Americans wouldn’t do at the low wages they paid. Fifty years later, Whites now make up less than 70% of the population, and among children under the age of 5, they are less than 50%.
Europe also attracted waves of immigrants, but the key difference was that in Europe, the immigrants were mostly unskilled taking factory jobs that needed to be filled in the booming postwar economy. They came in large waves in the 1960’s and 70’s. North Africans to France, Turks to Germany, and Indo-Pakistanis to Britain. So many came, that in these countries the Muslim population reaches 5-7% of the total. To be more precise, it is 5% in the UK, almost 8% in France, 6% in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Sweden, 5% in Greece, and 4% in Italy. There have also been significant Hindu populations in the UK, and Black African Christians in France and Britain.
The response of the natives to this massive change in one generation has been mixed. Among older, poorer, and less educated groups, this is seen as threatening the essential nature of their countries. For Europeans, the national identity is rooted in a shared ethnicity that has ancient roots. The UK has its English, Scots, and Welsh, but they have formed a whole for centuries. They share a common culture. The new immigrants do not. Is a Pakistani born in Britain a Pakistani, a Brit, a Muslim, or some combination? Are German Turks “German”, and if not, what are they?
Now the real history of Europe is not so neatly separated. Much of Europe has been an interethnic melting pot, and immigration and emigration have jumbled things up for centuries. But because everyone was White and Christian, within a generation of moving, they were often absorbed into the dominant group. In cases where ethnic groups retained their distinctive identities, these were ethnically cleansed after World War II to create the homogenous states of Eastern Europe we now have. 25 million people were pushed across borders to achieve this in the years after the war. The violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s was the last spasm of this process.
But with the new immigrants, this is not so easily done. They look physically different, they have a different religion in most cases, and they have a distinctive culture and food and dress in many cases. This is profoundly disturbing to many Whites, and hence we see the rise of right-wing parties whose main focus is to stop immigration.
The forces behind the Trump election owe a lot to similar fears that White Americans have. The election of an African-American President with a funny name galvanized this sense that “their” country was being taken from them. This is the real meaning of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. His voters want the country to be like it was in the 1950’s.
While these trends have disturbed some Whites and given rise to fears that their country is slipping away, other Whites on both sides of the Atlantic enjoy this new world. Immigrants make city life much more interesting. New cultures mean new foods and styles. Curry is a British staple now, as much as fish and chips, and couscous is a prominent part of French diet. Highly educated urban Americans live and work with people of all sorts and don’t think twice about it. This dichotomy shows up in how voters split by education and age. The most educated and the young are now becoming more and more liberal in their outlook and voting, while the least educated and the older voters are gravitating toward conservative and hard-right parties as they are not equipped to compete and prosper in this new reality. They sense a deep unfairness when immigrants and their children seem to prosper, while they are left behind.
In the end conservatives cannot stop the tide of history. The world is changing, and a Brexit vote or a Trump Presidency might slow down that change, but can’t stop it. National borders are artificial human creations, they can’t be seen from space. As long as there are people desperate enough to move for a better life, immigration will continue. It is only when living standards in the poorest countries become high enough to keep people at home will these waves of immigration slow down. Already this is happening at the US-Mexico border, where a more prosperous Mexico is no longer sending large waves of new workers to the US.
But the perspective of those Whites who feel left behind should not be dismissed. Large-scale changes in the makeup of these countries occurred without any real chance for democracy to decide whether that was good or bad. If reality was reversed, and it was the Muslim countries that were prosperous and Europe impoverished and unstable, how welcoming would Pakistan be to millions of White Christian immigrants, who want to become citizens and be given voting rights and equality with other Pakistanis? Would such a situation not invite some backlash?