A year ago, as the 1900s drew to a close, there was the big brouhaha about Y2K. Major computer meltdowns were predicted as governments and corporations rushed to kill off the millennium bug.
Far right fear mongers and end-of the-world doomsayers urged everyone to stock up on canned food and water. They told us that nuclear power plants and missile systems were poised to go haywire when the clock struck midnight at the turn of the century. Western civilization as we know it was about to come to a screeching, apocalyptic halt.
But on Jan. 1, 2000, nothing much happened.
Although it turned out to be a big dud, Y2K was a lucrative moneymaker for white supremacists, militia hucksters, mail-order survivalists, and fundamentalist preachers.
Now the radical right and the racist movement have seized upon a new date 2050 to rally the troops. That's the year demographers say non-Latino whites will become a numerical minority in the United States.
White supremacists are yowling mightily about this. They claim that United States Census Bureau projections validate what they've been maintaining all along that "native" whites are in danger of being bred out of existence. What's at stake, they insist, is nothing less than the survival of America's core national identity, its essential whiteness, which is fading from within as the U.S. becomes ever more "mongrelized."
At present, 72 percent of the U.S. population is classified as white. But this percentage is declining due to lower birthrates among Caucasians and the sustained immigration of non-European foreigners during the past three decades. Today, newcomers to the U.S. are mostly Asians and Latinos.
With little hope for appreciable improvement in life chances in much of the southern hemisphere, the influx of immigrants is not likely to abate any time soon. The gap between haves and have-nots will grow during the next 15 years, according to a recent CIA report on global trends. Chronic financial volatility and social dislocation wrought by free-trade policies will continue to foster mass migration.
California, a land built by immigrants, is the most populous state in the U.S. and the runaway leader in the ethnic mixing of North America. In 1970, 8 out of 10 Californians were non-Latino whites; as of last August, the heavy flow of migrants from Latin America and Asia had reduced the percentage of Caucasians to 49 percent. California was the first big state to cross the rubicon, joining the ranks of New Mexico and Hawaii, wherein white people are not a majority.
California lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamente highlights the positive aspects of this shifting demographic. "If there are no majorities," he asserts, "then there's no minorities." But there are certainly lots of different cuisines to choose from, many languages spoken, more variety and excitement, and fresh perspectives, along with other intangible benefits.
Crunch the numbers, and you'll find that diversity strengthens a country. Few would dispute that the surge of immigration, legal and undocumented, has contributed greatly to California's recent economic boom. Supplying cheap labor and foreign capital, these hard-working newcomers have established thousands of small businesses throughout the Golden State.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the changing face of America. The arrival of large numbers of foreigners has triggered a xenophobic backlash that's likely to get worse as the economy weakens. Oftentimes, nonwhite immigrants are the targets of racial abuse. Reported hate crimes in California have increased 11 percent since 1995, mirroring a nationwide pattern.
Some right-wing extremists prophesy the cataclysmic breakup of the union. Thomas W. Chittum, a New Jersey-based Vietnam veteran, proclaims in his book Civil War Two, that the U.S. will go the way of Yugoslavia, splintering into ethnically-based national regions. "America was born in blood. America suckled on blood. America gorged on blood and grew into a giant, and America will drown in blood," Chittum declared.
White separatists have set up groups such as Americans for Self-Determination. One of that group's founders, Jeff Anderson, urged that "the U.S. be partitioned into states for blacks, whites, Latinos, and so on, along with the multiracial states for those who wish to continue with this experiment. Now is the time to begin such a multiracial dialogue about separatism before a storm of violent racial conflict rages."
Far-right demagogues always need a visible bogeyman, a symbolic target to fixate upon. "The Y2K craze filled the bill for a while. Today the racist movement is focusing on 2050 to heighten fears and mobilize support for so-called white rights," explains former Aryan Nations officer Floyd Cochran, who now speaks out against hate groups.
Cochran currently directs the Education and Vigilance Network (www.evnetwork.org), an antiracist information and resource center. He anticipates that the theme of protecting white rights will become a major election issue in the years ahead.
Attacking nonwhite immigration as "out of control" has long been a tactic of fringe groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1970s, David Duke and other KKK leaders engaged in theatrical stunts, waving rifles at the U.S.-Mexican border to emphasize their militant opposition to would-be non-European residents. But it wasn't until the cold war ended that immigration became a hot-button issue, and mainstream U.S. politicians, eager to find scapegoats for their own policy failures, frantically jumped on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.
Ruth Conniff of the Progressive remarked on the political sea change: "[W]hat were once considered right-wing views on immigration that the United States is being 'invaded' by the Third World, that immigrants pose a threat to the American economy and way of life, and that the borders need military fortification have become part of the accepted wisdom."
For evidence of extreme-right encroachment in U.S. politics, consider the ties that bind Republican Party heavyweights such as Senate majority leader Trent Lott and attorney general-designate John Ashcroft, to hard-core, neo-Confederate organizations (the Council of Conservative Citizens and the Southern Partisan, respectively) that equate race mixing with genocide and routinely defend the legacy of slavery.
Today's more image-conscious white-power advocates eschew heavy-handed master-race rhetoric. Couching their arguments in coded language that recasts bigotry as ethnic pride, they claim to be for whites rather than against people of color. They talk about preserving white identity and protecting the rights of European Americans, which are allegedly under assault. Trumpeting what has since become the standard GOP line on "giveaway programs" and "special preferences" for minorities, white supremacists maintain that their deteriorating status in society is primarily a consequence of "reverse discrimination" aimed at fair-skinned folk not the result of global economic forces and social processes that are having a disruptive impact on almost everyone.
Xenophobic campaigns spearheaded by far-right activists culminated in draconian legislation enacted during the Clinton administration, which sharply curtailed federal benefits and legal protection for immigrants and asylum seekers. Passed in 1996, the new laws amounted to "the most sustained attack on immigrants rights in modern times," according to Lucas Guttentag of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Two years earlier, the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched Operation Gatekeeper, which entailed a $300-million technological overhaul in an effort to create an electronic wall along the entire Mexican border to keep undocumented foreigners from entering the United States. Stepped-up border patrols forced many émigrés to seek entry under life-threatening conditions, resulting in over 600 deaths since the operation began.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has condemned abusive practices by the U.S. Border Patrol, charging that many detainees are beaten, raped, and denied food, water, warmth, and medical attention for long periods. It's a rather sobering testament to how far we've come as a country since the Statue of Liberty was built to welcome all immigrants.
Martin A. Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of The Beast Reawakens, a book about neofascism.