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When the United States Census Bureau released its 2020 census on August 12, 2021, the news media highlighted two important trends in race and ethnicity: a drop in the number of white people and a rise in the number of people who identify with more than one racial group. Both facts represent some of the American nationalist Right’s worst fears: that racially mixed people and immigrants of color are “replacing” whites.
But this isn’t new. The census has a long history of shoring up and promoting white supremacy. Furthermore, the new statistics on race in America were released in the midst of an anti-critical race theory movement that demonizes (and in some states bans) classroom instruction about race and racism on the grounds that its only purpose is to make white people, and especially their white children, feel guilty and inferior.
In reality, the opposite is true: for centuries, laws, court decisions, and social institutions have upheld unearned and cumulative advantages for white people. Whiteness, like race itself, is an invention, but throughout much of American history Americans have been taught—deliberately and by default—just the opposite, that whiteness is inherently real, meaningful, and special. This lie was believed to be so pervasive that the oral argument in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling stated, “to separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”
Brown did what segregationists knew it would do: promoted racial mixing on both a social and intimate level. And the cultural power of the white supremacist narrative has survived alongside that. It should be no surprise, then, that anxious newspaper headlines about race and ethnicity in the 2020 census data emphasize competition and use loaded language about these demographic changes.
Dismantling the white supremacist narrative is difficult, as modern headlines that emphasize racial competition of all kinds reflect an older time when races were depicted as biologically distinct and hierarchically ranked. In March 2001, when the Census Bureau released its 2000 results, the New York Times ran the headline: “New Census Shows Hispanics Are Even with Blacks in U.S.” Similarly, the Washington Post’s banner read: “Hispanics Draw Even with Blacks in New Census; Latino Population Up 60% Since 1990.”
Interestingly, race is a relatively small part of the questionnaire most United States residents fill out, though a question about race has been included on every census since the first one in 1790. The 2000 census, like the 2010 census and the 2020 census, included a single question about Hispanic ethnicity (a yes/no question) and another about race that does not use Hispanic or Latino as an option. In fact, for decades, the federal government stipulated that Hispanics and Latinos “may be of any race.” Despite the fact that these questions represent separate data sets, the mainstream news media often lumps them together, presenting the results as a demographic contest that one race is “winning” and others are “losing.”
In this scenario, immigrants become racial reinforcements and a way for one race to rig the system. While the 2001 New York Times headline doesn’t explicitly reference how the Hispanic population increased, the article’s second paragraph does: “the soaring Hispanic population was driven largely by waves of new immigrants, legal and illegal.”
If there are winners, there must be losers, and the losers tend to be white—or so the thinking goes. The New York Times followed up this Hispanic population story with articles emphasizing the decline of white populations in specific locations that have always been racial borderlands: Texas, California, and the “largest cities.” Each article’s headline emphasizes how “whites” are now, or will soon be, a “minority” in these areas because they are “losing white residents.” In 2003, the New York Times announced this racial competition. “Hispanics Now Largest Minority, Census Shows,” read the headline of an article that reported “explosive growth in the Hispanic population results from higher birth rates and from the huge wave of immigration.”
Furthermore, such headlines in a national newspaper also influence how white Americans think about race. In 2008, headlines like this one from the New York Times were common: “In a Generation, Minorities May Be the U.S. Majority.” Worse, when the paper cited 2042 as the moment when white people will be a statistical minority is, in the words of Kathleen Belew, an “apocalyptic threat” to people in the white power movement.
White supremacists who are anxious about what they call “replacement” have long been able to point to stories in mainstream news that support their fears. On August 12, 2021, when the Washington Post reported on the newest census data, it initially did so under the headline: “Census data shows the number of White people in the U.S. fell for first time since 1790.” Because 1790 was the first year a census was conducted in the newly formed United States, you don’t have to be an extremist to imagine that this news is historic, and perhaps something to be feared. Now the headline reads, “Census data shows widening diversity; number of White people falls for first time.”
However, headlines like this ignore an important aspect of the data. As NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang makes clear, what is overlooked in these headlines is how the census really works and, more importantly, how people self-identify racially. If you take into consideration the number of people who identify as white and as another racial category, then the number of white people went up significantly, an almost 316% increase.
Examining these newspaper articles and their headlines is not just an intellectual exercise. Language has an impact on how people think, and mainstream rhetoric plays a role in white supremacy too. As Charles Blow recently wrote about the 2020 census data, “It was a terrifying census for white nationalists.”
White supremacists are driven by hate, but they are motivated to act by fear. Analyzing research about the 377 Americans who were arrested and/or charged in the January 6th attack on the Capitol, Robert Pape writes, “by far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges.”
Many of these insurrectionists saw Donald Trump standing between them and a world where they thought they would be diminished. These views are also driven by right-wing media, of course. When Tucker Carlson discussed the 2020 census results on his August 14, 2021 Fox News show, he portrayed CNN commentators of color as “cheering the extinction of white people” and making “evil” comments to “encourage permanent racial division.” CNN pundits, he implied, were speaking on behalf of other Americans like them.
While the extremism of right-wing media is a problem in promoting white supremacy, we also need to recognize that mainstream newspapers reproduce these fears too. Whiteness is not special, nor is it in need of protection: instead, we should celebrate the multiracial democracy we want to live in.
Karen Gaffney is an English professor at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, the author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), and creator of the website Divided No Longer.