We Are in the Midst of the Third Bogus 'White Extinction' Panic in Just as Many Centuries

Anti-immigrant fearmongers of demographic doom proved wrong in the 19th and 20th centuries, and today's will be no different.


Pavel Iluykin/Dreamstime

Over at The New York Times, Charles M. Blow in his column, "White Extinction Anxiety," cites reactionary provocateur Patrick Buchanan's recent warnings against the menace that immigrants purportedly pose to the survival of our Republic. The first comes from his interview last week on the Laura Ingraham Show:

"This is the great issue of our time. And, the real question is whether Europe has the will and the capacity, and America has the capacity to halt the invasion of the countries until they change the character—political, social, racial, ethnic—character of the country entirely," said Buchanan.

Over at his blog, Buchanan asserted, "The existential question, however, thus remains: How does the West, America included, stop the flood tide of migrants before it alters forever the political and demographic character of our nations and our civilization?"

Sadly, this is not the first time in our history when bigots have urgently prophesied that America would soon be destroyed by a rising tide of allegedly unassimilable immigrants. We are now in the midst of the third such anti-immigration panic.

Sentiments very similar to Buchanan's were expressed in 1850s by the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party's newspaper American Patriot: "American Citizens! We appeal to you in all calmness. Is it not time to pause? Already the enemies of our dearest institutions, like foreign spies in the Trojan Horse of old, are within our gates. They are disgorging themselves upon us, at the rate of HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS EVERY YEAR! They aim at nothing short of conquest and supremacy over us."

The American Patriot further warned: "We are burdened with enormous taxes by foreigners. We are corrupted in the morals of youth. We are interfered with in our government. We are forced into collisions with other nations. We are tampered with in our religion. We are injured in our labor. We are assailed in our freedom of speech."


The threat of tides of national-character-altering immigration as a political bogeyman has a long and undistinguished history in America. Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, foreign-born immigrants comprised just over 13 percent of our nation's population—about what it is today.

A bit of historical sleuthing turned up the below nuggets of insight about the deleterious effects of the tide of Irish and German immigration in the 1840s and 1850s from Massachusetts Governor Henry J. Gardner in his annual addresses to that state's legislature. At that time, more than 20 percent of Massachusetts' residents were foreign-born. Today 16.2 percent of folks living in Massachusetts are foreign-born.

From Gardner's 1857 address:

Born and brought up under totally dissimilar principles of government, and accustomed to be led by the clannish influences which surround them rather than by enlightened individual responsibility, aliens are unfitted to appreciate or rightly use the great trust, in the exercise of which they are unwisely permitted to participate. …we may properly, and should necessarily, remember that the class of aliens, to whom we specially refer, are blindly attached to a religious faith whose cardinal principle is implicit obedience to its temporal head, and that temporal head a foreign potentate, which forbids independence of action and the right of private judgment; which claims not only the power to inflict temporal ills on those who dare question its infallibility; but also entail future and eternal vengeance; whose prelates notoriously coerce politically as well as spiritually its followers; and which arrogates to itself, and actually exerts, a potent and malign political influence at war with the teachings of our Constitution and the essence of our government. …

Witnessing this vast influence of evil, which is continually swollen by accessions from the old world, and seeing, year after year, the manifold dangers which not only threaten the future but are pernicious to the present, it seems strange that all who value the exhortations of the fathers of our country, the teachings of past history, or the repeated warnings of the present, do not unite to counteract this acknowledged danger….

From Gardner's 1855 address:

The present European immigration is deeply prejudicial to the fair remuneration of American labor. The mechanic, the artisan, the agriculturalist, daily suffer from its influence. There is no statement in political ethics more palpable or fundamental than that honest industry should receive its due reward. Those who hourly feel the oppressing competition of alien labor, depreciated under the taskmasters of the old world, and schooled in self-denials and modes of existence there so universal, properly believe that their own elective franchise should be exercised for the protection of American labor. …

The report of the Secretary of the Treasury, recently transmitted to Congress, shows that our imports, during the past year, have exceeded our exports twenty-six millions of dollars. … Thirty-eight millions of dollars in gold – over nine-tenths of all our receipts from California during the year, as officially reporte – have simply passed through the country, in transit, and have been shipped away to for imported products of European labor, and the interest on our European debt. …Had this golden gift of Providence been retained at home to enrich the American artisan and tiller of the soil, instead of having been squandered to purchase foreign luxuries and the products of alien labor, we should this day, as a nation, doubtless have enjoyed prosperity in every branch of industry….

The periodic panic over "white extinction" reached a second peak in the decade before 1920 when the foreign-born population stood (as it does today) at about 14 percent. One of the most notable expressions of this racial anxiety was the classic 1922 anti-immigration screed by Saturday Evening Post correspondent Kenneth Roberts, Why Europe Leaves Home: A True Account of the Reasons which Cause Central Europeans to Overrun America. "The American nation was founded and developed by the Nordic race," asserted Roberts. "If a few more million members of the Alpine, Mediterranean and Semitic races are poured among us, the result must inevitably be a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and Southeastern Europe." They came and then became Americans.

In his blog post, Buchanan specifically worried, "The U.S. Hispanic population, already estimated at nearly 60 million, is predicted to exceed 100 million by 2050, just 32 years away." So what? Recent reports find that Hispanic immigrants and their children are assimilating into American culture at least as fast as earlier groups of immigrants did.

To the extent that there is actually such a thing as "white extinction anxiety," a new study by two political scientists, Dowell Myers and Morris Levy of the University of Southern California, finds that using an inclusive definition that "counts as white anyone who so identifies (even if they also identify with another race or ethnicity), the white population is not declining; it's flourishing. The Census Bureau's inclusive projections show a white population in excess of 70 percent of the total for the foreseeable future." They note that when white folks are exposed to the actual facts of ethnic melding and assimiliation, concerns over an allegedly minority-white future are greatly abated.

The two researchers correctly conclude that "stories about the impending demise of white America are rooted in outmoded notions of racial exclusivity. These stories of white decline obscure the ongoing changes to America's color line, and they serve only to divide. Fortunately, the white American public seems far more content with the more inclusive future that is actually destined to emerge."

And this process is already well under way. A recent Pew Research Center study, "Hispanic Identity Fades Across Generations as Immigrant Connections Fall Away," finds that lots of people with Hispanic heritage do not identify themselves as being Hispanic when filling out Census survey forms. By the third generation, 56 percent of respondents simply identify themselves as American.

Depressingly, it seems that white extinction panics have occurred each time the foreign-born population of the United States has risen above 13 percent. Donald Trump is just the latest demagogue to rise to power by stoking white folks' ethnic fears.

Buchanan's assertions amount to a kind of blood-and-soil tribalism that is simply un-American. I'll say it again: Americans of whatever ancestry living in 2050 will look back and wonder why anyone cared about the ethnic makeup of our country's population. America is an ideal, not a tribe.

Anti-immigrant fearmongers of demographic doom proved wrong in the 19th and 20th centuries, and today's dire prognostications will turn out to be just as wrong in the 21st century.