WASHINGTON — What a weird summer!
Average Americans, normally sober-minded citizens, came undone over exaggerated threats and imagined enemies; rallied here by the thousands to “restore honor;” and denounced mosques, minority rights and the 14th Amendment — all the while demanding strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution.
This is a tempestuous and irrational time, an era of economic gloom, eroding living standards and deep fears about the future. But economic uncertainty alone cannot account for this summer’s strange currents. The runaway inflation and deep recession of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s didn’t produce a similar season of civic craziness.
Our long, hot summer needed another ingredient to induce a fever-like madness in the national psyche: demographic change. Over the last year and a half, many Americans have begun to see a deeper message in President Obama’s inauguration — the end of the white majority. For some, especially those who are middle-aged and older, it’s a jarring and unwelcome message.
Before you assume that I’m stereotyping all of the president’s critics as racists, let me be clear: I’m not. Many voters have legitimate criticisms of the Obama’s policies. I’ m talking about something more subtle and yet more profound: a fear of minority status. (Actually, by the year 2050, demographers expect that whites will be a “plurality,” the largest easily- identified ethnic group.)
Most human beings are more comfortable surrounded by others who look and sound as they do. It’s innate. That’s why most of us attend churches, join clubs and look for friends who reinforce our sense of identity, usually along lines of color and class. Successful black and brown professionals have had to learn to be comfortable in a sea of white faces, but most white Americans have not experienced the reverse. And many are not eager to have that experience.
While some prognosticators were naïve enough to believe that Obama’s election signaled the beginning of a post-racial era, it prompted something altogether different: a backlash against the browning of America. The winds of resentment would have blown in even if the economy were booming, but an anemic recovery provided the perfect fuel for a summer of discontent.
Timing is everything. Just as many Americans came to understand that the nation they knew was undergoing a dramatic demographic change, the economy collapsed. Unable to account for the disappearance of jobs and financial security, they linked those developments as cause and effect. The backlash is now at gale force.
So we’ve seen a summer of fury over illegal immigration, despite the fact that illegal border-crossings have plunged in the last two or three years, according to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Islamophobia spiked as conservatives made a case against a proposed Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero, claiming that it would represent a victory for jihadists. It didn’t seem to matter that the imam proposing the center has publicly denounced jihadists.
The birthers picked up the support of a retired three-star Air Force general, Thomas McInerney, who filed an affadit in support of Lt. Col. Terrence Lakin. Lakin, an Army doctor, faces a court martial for refusing to report for duty in Afghanistan because, he says, Obama isn’t a citizen and, therefore, can’t be commander-in-chief. And, just for good measure, nearly 20 percent of Americans now believe the president is Muslim — despite the 2008 controversy over his then-pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
To drain the vicious energy from the backlash, the nation needs a broad economy recovery — not just jobs but also good wages that will support a middle-class lifestyle. There would still be those among us who resent the changing face of America, but there would be less anxiety, less fear and less anger.
The return of broad prosperity would restore faith in the animating idea behind the American Dream: the promise of opportunity for all. That faith is fading right now, and citizens who ought to know better are looking for scapegoats. Those who call God “Allah” are easy targets. So are those who say “Dios.”