The foreign-born population of the United States has grown from 9.6 million in 1965 to 45 million persons in 2015. Immigration accounts for the majority of population growth in the nation since the 1960’s and is likely to continue to do so for decades to come. In 2065, the U.S. population is projected to number 441 million with the increase largely due to immigration of the foreign born to its shores.
In its embrace of refugees and the self image cherished by most U.S. citizens as the world’s leading refuge for all people fleeing oppression and claiming their rights as human beings, there are strong undercurrents opposing a multi-racial identity. Foremost among them is the current of fear of “the other” centered historically on the African slaves imported as a critical contributor to the nation’s economic growth. Since the worldwide outrage in response to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, the country has explored more deeply than at any time the dimensions and effect of the legacy of white supremacy in our history and culture. Most of the immigrants to our shores since 1965 are non-white.
Even among U.S. adherents of the Christian religious traditions, very few persons claim as ancestor the middle Eastern Semite identified in this familiar biblical passage: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous”. (Deuteronomy 26:5 in NRSV translation). White citizens’ resistance to acceptance of our common ancestry with Jewish or Semitic Muslim immigrants, much less the entire human species, is fed by many sources in U.S. history. While complicated and diverse these diverse sources can be summarized in the phrase “fear of the other”.
As a people settling on non-white persons’ land who then forced black Africans to work in their fields and factories, we have relied on guns and an ideology of legitimate white rule to defend and develop as our own a land of great abundance. And that “we” has historically been identified as the land’s white Christian inhabitants.
By the year 2055, non-Hispanic “whites” in the U.S. will be in the minority. No racial or ethnic group will be in the majority but the fact that the white population will lose its dominant presence is testing the nation’s institutions and its coveted status as the world’s leading democracy as never before. The challenge of the last presidential election results is but one of the threats posed by the historic increase in diversity of the nation’s population base.
Once he entered politics, the former President was careful to avoid blatant appeals to people’s racial prejudice, lack of understanding of other cultures, and fear of “the other”. Looking back at his pre-campaign public stances, it is preposterous to claim he eschewed racist attitudes or positions. In 1989 the former President paid $85,000 for front page ads in all the New York City newspapers, including The New York Times in response to his hometown’s hysteria over the charging of five black teenagers for a rape they did not commit. His stoking of the fear of black youth among the City’s white population is but one evidence of the man’s racism now denied by most of the future President’s supporters.
Not to be ignored however in our focus on race as a cause for the country’s division is the lack of understanding and acceptance of other religions. While Muslims in the U.S. still account for fewer than 2 % of residents, the number of mosques has more than doubled since 2000. A reminder of conservative Christian support for beginning the war in Iraq as a modern Crusade has come with the efforts to resettle Afghans following the Taliban take over last summer.
Here in Kansas City, a new “Ambassadors” program for resettling refugees has been started. In its description of purpose the organizers state, “Ambassador Teams come alongside our new-American neighbors so that they might flourish in their new country and follow Jesus into His Kingdom”. U.S. conservative Christian vision of triumphal nationalism has been fed by our wars in the Middle East since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The former President encouraged and benefited from the vision’s anti-Muslim distortions as he did from the nation’s original sin of white racism. Whether the nation’s politics and self image as a nation of immigrants will overcome the division and damage caused by our history of ignorance and fear of the other will be determined by the nation’s young civic minded activists of the present and future.