Republished with permission from Yes! Magazine, by
The fact that the insurrectionists proudly carried a symbol of a white supremacist, separatist nation ostensibly defeated in 1865 is no coincidence, says historian Steve Phillips, author of the 2022 book How We Win the Civil War: Securing a Multiracial Democracy and Ending White Supremacy for Good. “The Confederates have never stopped fighting the Civil War,” he contends.
That war was fought over the right of white landowners to subjugate and enslave African Americans—and Phillips believes that battle continues today in another guise. Although the modern manifestations of white supremacy have evolved with the passage of time, the flash point fueling racist violence and oppression remains the same as it did 160 years ago, with people of color demanding their full democratic rights.
The U.S. is experiencing a crisis of white folks who are fearful of democracy because they’re fearful of people of color, contends Phillips, who also founded the political media organization Democracy in Color. When given a choice between whiteness and democracy, far too many white people in the U.S. still choose whiteness, adds Phillips.
Author Nikole Hannah-Jones explored these tensions in her acclaimed 2019 essay linking slavery to the contemporary struggle over racial justice as the lead feature in The New York Times Magazine’s seminal publication, The 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones’ work became one of the most widely discussed treatises on race in recent years, challenging the notion that the U.S. is a fully representative democracy.
It’s true that communities of color are increasingly being joined by progressive whites to elect racially diverse representatives at various levels of political office, bringing the United States closer to a multiracial representative democracy. However, this has fueled more fear among self-proclaimed conservative whites and those aligned with them—a potentially explosive trend given that many of them are increasingly armed.
The backlash to a multiracial democracy includes efforts to block race-conscious history education, the preservation of Confederate monuments, and the racist targeting of politicians of color, including former President Obama and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.
It also includes attacks on voting rights for people of color, low-income voters, students, and others. “We see voter suppression bills, we see the gutting of the Civil Rights Act—these things are all implications around trying to limit people’s ability to participate in their democracy,” explains DaMareo Cooper, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a group committed to building a multiracial democracy. Democratic institutions in the U.S. were not built to encompass racial minorities. Anti-racists have had to push these institutions into expanding so that the benefits of full citizenship are available to those other than wealthy, landowning white men.
A Nation in Racial Flux
Demographic data indicates that white people still comprise a majority—albeit rapidly shrinking—of the U.S. population. The 2020 Census found the percentage of self-identified whites fell for the first time in recorded history, from 63.7% in 2010 to 57.3% a decade later.
While experts have predicted this racial shift for decades, it has occurred “faster than demographers were projecting,” says Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California’s Equity Research Institute. He says the U.S. is currently on track to become a majority-minority nation by 2042, six years earlier than most estimates.
Pastor explains that the changing hues of the nation’s racial makeup are being fueled by multiple factors, including fewer white children being born than children of color. This is compounded by the fact that the white population is older, on average, than populations of color, and therefore dying in greater numbers.
Growing awareness of the complexity of racial identity also plays a factor. “There are a lot more white people who are also willing to say that they are mixed-race … who are willing to embrace both parts of their identity,” Pastor explains.
Similarly, increasing numbers of Latinos are embracing their nonwhite identities, which Pastor refers to as “the browning of ‘Brown America.’” Just as in the general population, the U.S. Latino population saw a jump in the percentage of those who identified with more than one race, from 6% in 2010 to 33% of all Latinos in 2020.
“This last decade of xenophobia, of anti-immigrant hysteria, of the othering of immigrant populations and Latinos [has] perhaps basically beaten the whiteness out of a lot of Latinos in terms of the way they identify on the Census,” says Pastor. In 2010, more than half of the Latino population identified as white; 10 years later, only about 20% did the same.
Paralleling the nation’s demographic shift, political representation of people of color is also increasing. According to Pew Research Center, the 118th Congress, seated in January 2023, was “the most racially and ethnically diverse to date.” However, people of color are still underrepresented in Congress, comprising 25% of that body, compared to 43% of the population.
Political Power in Diversity
After a mass shooter in Nashville killed three children and three adults at a school in March 2023, protesters gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol demanding gun control. Two young, newly elected Black Democratic state lawmakers named Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, together with a white Democrat named Gloria Johnson, joined the protesters inside the Capitol. In retaliation, Tennessee’s House Republican supermajority voted to expel Jones and Pearson from the legislative body, while Johnson just barely retained her seat. Cooper and Phillips see the “Tennessee Three,” as they came to be called, as precisely the kind of coalition that the future multiracial U.S. democracy will demand.
Nashville, like many U.S. cities, is becoming more racially diverse—in large part due to growth in the immigrant population. That growth has prompted an uptick in multiracial organizing—which was key to electing “the most progressive [Metropolitan] Council in the history of the city of Nashville,” according to Lisa Sherman Luna, executive director of Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition Votes.
Within days of the representatives’ expulsion, the Nashville council reinstated Jones to his House seat, while the Shelby County Board of Commissioners restored Pearson’s seat. “It is because of that power-building that we are doing in Black and Brown communities that Justin Jones was unanimously reappointed to serve in his duly elected seat,” explains Luna, citing her state’s growing racial diversity. “And it is that exact power that we are building that is threatening the GOP supermajority and the white supremacists in our legislature.”Luna’s organization has invested time and resources into “creating spaces for organizing and power-building that are multicultural and multiracial,” and training immigrants and people of color to run for office. “It’s been incredible to watch the diversity in our movement here in Tennessee and how we have grown that power,” Luna says.
A Numbers Game
People of color have been allying with progressive whites to elect pro-racial justice representatives since at least 1968, when Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman in Congress. But Phillips notes that for most of the nation’s history, even when accounting for obstacles to voting, there simply weren’t enough voters of color to be able to significantly sway elections. “Politics in this country has historically been a battle between white people,” he explains. “It was conservative whites battling with progressive whites over the whites in the middle.”
Phillips began calling attention to the growing political power of people of color in 2016 with his book Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority. Phillips identified Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign as a significant turning point in demonstrating the political power of people of color on a national scale.
Starting out in 1983 with his “Rainbow Coalition”—an apt term for a multiracial democracy—Jackson went on to win nearly 7 million votes in 1988 while competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination. According to Phillips, Jackson “explicitly built his campaign—his Rainbow Coalition concept—on the various communities of color allied with progressive whites,” showing the power and potential of such an alliance.
This was the same formula that won Obama his party’s nomination and the presidency in 2008 and 2012. “Obama would not have won [the presidential] election in 1980—he would not have beaten [Ronald] Reagan,” contends Phillips. “Obama could only win in 2008 because the country was more racially diverse.”
Cooper concurs that demographic change has wrought positive political change. “Everyone saw what happened in Georgia,” he says, referring to the 2021 runoff Senate races, when Rev. Raphael Warnock became the first Black Senator to represent his state, and, together with a white Democrat named Jon Ossoff, beat two white conservative Republican incumbents, flipping control of the U.S. Senate by a razor-thin margin. “Welcome to the new Georgia,” said Warnock after his victory.
“White supremacy is in the death throes and is willing to go to extremes to try to protect itself,” says Cooper. But he later reassures: “We have the numbers to win. … There’s literally more of us than them.”
“They’re gonna try to cheat. They’re gonna try to change laws,” Cooper continues. “They’re gonna make it harder for people to vote and participate. They’re gonna try to kick out young, Black, duly elected legislators.”
A white conservative minority acting out of fear hurts all Americans, explains Cooper: “White folks get hurt as well when we allow racist policies to take away our public goods.” He believes that vigilant, persistent pursuit of democratic representation offers people of color, and the nation as a whole, the best chance for a just future.
Although demographics increasingly support a multiracial democracy and its economic and social benefits, the nation’s partisan duopoly remains a challenge. Broadly speaking, the Democratic Party has embraced multiculturalism on paper. But Phillips worries about people such as Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who complained that slogans like “defund the police,” popularized during the 2020 racial justice uprisings, hurt her campaign because they were perceived as being too radical. Phillips doesn’t buy that: “She got 54,000 more votes in 2020 than she got in 2018. So how was she hurt politically?”
Indeed, the historic movement for racial justice sparked by the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd was notable for drawing significant numbers of white Americans to join communities of color in calling for an end to racist policies. According to a New York Times analysis in July 2020, “Nearly 95 percent of counties that had a protest recently are majority white, and nearly three-quarters of the counties are more than 75 percent white.” Months later, many of those protesting showed up to the polls in November to cast ballots in a way that reflected their positions on racial justice. An Associated Press election poll analysis claimed that “nearly all Biden voters called racism a serious problem in U.S. society.”
What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic starkly highlighted the popularity of a progressive government approach to solving problems. “In the context of the pandemic, we rethought core elements of the social contract and found much greater support for those elements than we’ve realized existed in the first place,” says Phillips. “Yes, we can just send checks to almost everybody within the country. We can suspend evictions, we can suspend student debt payments” as part of “a social-justice-equality agenda.”
Cooper is optimistic that a multiracial democracy is within reach. “People are starting to understand that actually having a multiracial, multicultural democracy is a way for us to keep all human beings thriving.”
Although Phillips believes a civil war has been simmering along racial lines for centuries, he’s convinced that today “there’s a meaningful minority of whites who are supportive of a multiracial democracy and justice and equality.” And that means we might finally see an end to this war in our lifetimes.
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