What's Tony Thinking

Immigration: A Different Perspective


As I read Tom Edsall’s most recent column on voter attitudes about immigration I recalled an earlier piece by Andrew Sullivan at New York magazine. 

Both Edsall and Sullivan draw from the work of London based scholar, Eric Kaufmann, a Hong Kong born Canadian and author of Whiteshift. 

Edsall quotes Kaufmann, “Immigration attitudes are the fulcrum around which the politics of western societies are realigning.”

Edsall goes on to trace the growing numbers of Americans, largely but not only white and Republican, who have taken an increasingly conservative position on immigration. He suggests this may be the Trojan Horse that could cost the Democrats the 2020 election. Democratic liberals, who regard their own attitudes toward immigration as self-evidently correct, are increasingly occupying a bubble not shared by most Americans.

Here’s Edsall drawing from another study of the issues titled Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide.

“Marc Hetherington — a political scientist at the University of North Carolina and the co-author of ‘Prius or Pickup?’ — believes Democrats may be walking into a trap. Hetherington wrote, ‘Liberal Democrats don’t seem to realize they are out of step with the rest of the American public when it comes to immigration and racial attitudes.’

“There is ‘a human tendency for people to think most others see the world more like they do rather than how their opponents see it,’ Hetherington continued:

“‘Most consequentially, liberals seem to think that surely most Americans are fine with more porous borders. It would be cold and heartless for people to believe otherwise, not to mention economically shortsighted.’

Hetherington argued that the research he and his U.N.C. colleague Jonathan Weiler did in writing ‘Prius or Pickup?’ shows that liberal faith in support for open immigration and porous borders ‘is not even remotely true.'”

At this point someone like me is likely to conclude that this is yet one more confirmation that America has completely lost its way, forgotten its origins and is irredeemably racist. Not so fast.

And this is where I go back to the Sullivan piece in which he too draws from Kaufmann’s work in order to come to a more complex perspective. Here’s Sullivan:

“Maybe this [immigration] is, in fact, the single most powerful force in Western politics. That’s the really engaging thesis of Eric Kaufmann, whose new book, Whiteshift, is by far the most thorough and scholarly treatment of the politics of white majorities I’ve read. Kaufmann is a professor at Birkbeck, University of London; a Canadian born in Hong Kong and living in England, one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Latino, he passes as ‘white.’ And what’s so refreshing is that Kaufmann is not afraid to go there. He’s candid about race and identity — and how they fit into any immigration debate — and argues that much of the right’s gains (for decades, in fact) have come from a white majority witnessing its own decline and even disappearance, and freaking out. In this, Kaufmann echoes in some ways the critique of the left: that all that’s really going on right now is white fear of a nonwhite future. But that’s a whole lot going on!”

But Kaufmann and Sullivan suggest that simply condemning this conservative shift as racist may obscure understanding. Back to Sullivan:

“The difference is that where the left regards ‘whiteness’ as a form of unending oppression, Kaufmann sees the potential for a kind of inclusive liberation. Yes, white racism is still around. Perhaps a good deal. And it’s vital to call that out. But what Kaufmann insists on is that much of the resistance to mass immigration is not so much racist as merely conservative, emerging not from generalized loathing of others but from attachment to one’s own in times of rapid change. He makes a distinction between ‘racism’ and ‘racial self-interest,’ the first abhorrent, the second understandable. No one objects to nonwhite groups defending their self-interest. So why not whites as well, Kaufmann asks? I learned from Kaufmann’s book, for example, that in the 1990s, Congress granted five territories — including American Samoa, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands — the right to control immigration to maintain their ethnic majorities.

“The lack of outrage at that policy, Kaufmann argues, is due to something he calls ‘asymmetrical multiculturalism.’ That’s a definition of diversity that does not include white people (i.e., the current definition of ‘diversity’). And if your model of society uniquely excludes white people from the rights and privileges of being an ethnic group, or denies them the right to express their racial self-interest like every other ethnicity, then whites will begin to push back. And, when they push back, they are called racists, or deplorables, or bigots, and they tend to double down. That’s what’s behind increasing numbers of Americans, specifically most Republicans, telling pollsters that white people are more discriminated against in America than black people. That’s absurd in almost all cases, but I suspect it’s more of an expression of frustration at being left out of the future than an accurate view of the present.”

Kaufmann/ Sullivan are suggesting that the left and liberals need a more nuanced attitude toward the shift toward conservative views with respect to immigration. That what I am tempted to dub “racist” may be a more natural human tendency in times of rapid change to have an “attachment to one’s own.”

Recently I wrote a piece about the gentrification of Seattle’s historically African-American Central District and suggested that some linkage can be made to the theme of that story and the current protest movement in Hong Kong. Both that documentary and the Hong Kong protests are a defense of a particular and unique culture in the face of a tsunami of culture-destroying homogenization. The issue isn’t simply race, but cultural identity and coherence.

As Sullivan wrote, “White racism is still around. Perhaps a good deal. And it’s vital to call that out. But what Kaufmann insists on is that much of the resistance to mass immigration is not so much racist as merely conservative, emerging not from generalized loathing of others but from attachment to one’s own in times of rapid change.”

This more subtle and less moralistic view of the issues deserves attention. After the Democratic debate in which Julian Castro and a couple other presidential candidates called for completely “decriminalizing illegal immigration,” then candidate, Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado, wryly observed that if you actually want to get something done on immigration the Castro position, while appealing to the left, is a total non-starter.

One of leadership expert Ron Heifetz’s maxims is that, “Change is not the issue. Loss is the issue.” People do not oppose change, per se, but loss. He advises leaders advocating change to consider the losses you are asking people to sustain when asking them to embrace a particular change. He’s not saying don’t advocate change, but be mindful of the costs, of the losses entailed and of who is sustaining them.

For all sorts of people in the U.S. and across the world globalization and the world-altering technological transformations of the last thirty years have meant the loss of coherent culture and communities in which they know and are known. Instead of labeling it all “racism” or “xenophobia,” or “fear of the other,” maybe label it “loss” and consider the grief that is the powerful undertow in contemporary politics and society.





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