Could America Become Mississippi?

The country’s demographic trends could lead to racially polarized electorates akin to the Deep South.

Polling Place, Miami
The racial polarization of the recent elections—where the large majority of whites voted for Republicans, and majority of minorities voted for Democrats—could continue for decades.

Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Does a dramatic change in your social environment make you more conservative, and if so, what kind of change would it take?

Working at Northwestern University, psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson apply that question to demographic change, and, in particular, to white Americans vis-a-vis the prospect of a United States where the majority of Americans are drawn from today’s minorities. Does a threat to one’s status as the demographic “in-group” increase political conservatism? The answer, in short, is yes.

Using a nationally representative survey of self-identified politically “independent” whites, Craig and Richeson conducted three experiments. In the first, they asked respondents about the racial shift in California—if they had heard the state had become majority-minority. What they found was a significant shift toward Republican identification, which increased for those who lived closest to the West Coast.

In the second experiment, they focused on the overall U.S. shift with census projections of the national population. Again, they found that white Americans became more conservative—and more likely to endorse conservative policies—when they were aware of demographic changes that put them in the minority.

The final experiment—where questions were further refined and targeted—saw similar results. As Craig and Richeson write, “Perceived group-status threat, triggered by exposure to majority-minority shift, increases Whites’ endorsement of conservative political ideology and policy positions.” What’s more, this held true even after they told respondents “whites are likely to remain at the top of the future racial hierarchy.”

The study is fascinating, and the empirical data is worthwhile. But if you’re familiar with our history or politics, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Last year, for example, Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling firm, did a series of focus groups with conservative Evangelicals, Tea Party voters, and moderate Republicans. The goal was to “understand the government shutdown and crisis in Washington” and try to “get inside the base of the Republican Party.” To that end, pollsters would sit down with various kinds of Republicans and figure out their concerns and fears.

Near the top of the list, they found, was a deep consciousness of being “white in a country with growing minorities.” One participant described his town as such:

Everybody is white. Everybody is middle class, whether or not they really are. Everybody looks that way. Everybody goes to the same pool. Everybody goes—there’s one library, one post office. Very homogenous.

For most of their lives, these people could ignore the country’s demographic change. But the election of President Obama was a clear sign that things were different.

The result was fear and anxiety. A fear, for instance, that comprehensive immigration reform would begin a tidal wave of dependency, as Democrats won their votes with the allure of government programs such as Obamacare. “Every minority group wants to say they have the right to something, and they don’t,” said one Tea Party participant. “There’s so much of the electorate in those groups that Democrats are going to take every time because they’ve been on the rolls of the government their entire lives. They don’t know better,” said another.

It’s this type of conservative feeling that drove support for the suicidal obstructionism of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his House Republican acolytes. Conservatives may never win the war against government spending, the argument went, but they could gum up the works as much as possible.

As a political strategy, it didn’t make sense—if not for the initial failure of healthcare.gov, it would have tanked the GOP’s standing—but it fits perfectly with the results of the Northwestern study. Resigned to the majority-minority future, these voters rejected compromise and doubled down on their conservatism.

Of course, the single best (and most extreme) example of this demographic fear comes from our history of slavery and apartheid. More than almost anything else, it animated the antebellum South. In the Alabama and Mississippi of the early 19th century, for instance, whites were the minority, outnumbered by a large—and growing—population of slaves. The result was paranoia. Obsessed with the prospect of slave revolts—and terrified by the example of Haiti—whites worked to eliminate the threat of rebellion with slave patrols and draconian laws forbidding the distribution of learning or literature to enslaved blacks.

In the Reconstruction era, fear of black dominance—Southern Democrats riled crowds with charges of “black supremacy”—drove race riots, anti-black terrorism, and the successful violence of the “Redeemers,” former Confederates who sought a return to black peonage. In an echo of the past, “Redemption” was often bloodiest in places where blacks were a majority of the electorate. In 1872, whites armed with rifles and a small cannon overpowered blacks as they defended Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish, La. In the aftermath, some 50 blacks were slaughtered by the vengeful white mob that ignored their surrender.

This dynamic carried into the Jim Crow era, where the lynching epidemic was most virulent in places like Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Florida panhandle. Indeed, as Douglas Blackmon details in his book Slavery by Another Name, this area was ground zero for the “convict leasing” system that forced bondage on tens of thousands of black Americans, and killed many others. Not incidentally, it was also a key “feeder” for the Great Migration of blacks to the North, as explained by Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of the Other Suns.

None of this is to say that we’re on our way to a world of racial violence and strife. These are examples to illustrate the broader phenomenon at its worst.

To return to the research on white fear and demographic change, there’s no guarantee that the United States becomes a majority-minority country. As I’ve written before, one possible path for some Latino and Asian immigrants—especially those with upward mobility—is that they “become white” like their European immigrant forebears.

But even if there’s no minority-majority it’s still true that the United States is becoming browner, with whites making up a declining share of the population. And if this Northwestern study is any indication, that could lead to a stronger, deeper conservatism among white Americans. The racial polarization of the 2012 election—where the large majority of whites voted for Republicans, while the overwhelming majority of minorities voted for Democrats—could continue for decades.

That would be great for Democratic partisans excited at the prospect of winning national elections in perpetuity, but terrible for our democracy, which is still adjusting to our new multiracial reality, where minority groups are equal partners in political life. To accomplish anything—to the meet the challenges of our present and future—we’ll need a measure of civic solidarity, a common belief that we’re all Americans, with legitimate claims on the bounty of the country.

With extreme racial polarization—and not the routine identity politics of the present—this goes out the window. We would fracture like the Seven Kingdoms, with a politics governed by mutual suspicion. And you don’t have to imagine this future. You can see it right now, in the Deep South, where our history weighs heaviest. In Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, elections are polarized by race: Whites vote one way, blacks the other. The result is constant acrimony, huge disinvestment in public goods like education and health, and a political culture where the central question isn’t “how can we help each other” but “how can I stop them from taking what I have.”

It’s destructive, dangerous, and—as far as America’s future goes—more likely than you think.