AS I HAVE ARGUED, violence against migrants creates a kind of Herrenvolk loophole for nativists—offering them a legally sanctioned opportunity to impose tyranny over a nonwhite population while still claiming constitutional protections for themselves. Yet despite the damage it does to migrants and our democratic values more broadly, it’s also my contention that anti-migrant violence ultimately fails to satisfy the desire for whiteness as standing. Because today, whiteness no longer possesses the same economic and political guarantees it once did. Indeed, many white citizens (particularly older conservatives) are melancholic over what they perceive as an increasingly dismal and limited future. Once able to contrast their own standing against nonwhite populations (including the collective right to legally enforce segregated spaces and institutions), today, whiteness is not only a less public and participatory practice but also a privilege that occurs at a more aggregate level.1 Despite the fact that whites as a group “are statistically much more likely to go to college, buy a house, and be gainfully employed,” there is no guarantee that any individual white person will personally benefit.2 So while nonwhite populations still experience racial profiling, police violence, redlining, educational inequalities, dramatically higher levels of incarceration, and other race-based disadvantages, today’s white advantage involves “probabilities, not guarantees.”3 Interestingly, as Olson observed, the troubling paradox inherent in the recent shift from white standing to white normalization is that it “perpetuates white advantage while also creating new forms of white insecurity and resentment because such benefits are less certain.”4
Making the racial situation more fraught, this growing sense of white precarity is occurring in the context of four decades of privatization, deregulation, and regressive tax policy. As numerous scholars have noted, the United States has been undergoing the most massive upward transfer of wealth it has experienced since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century.5 Today, more people are working longer hours for less and less and have seen state support in the form of social services evaporate6—a gap that turned into an economic abyss as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown put pressure on low-wage “essential workers,” hospitals, unemployment-insurance systems, and social infrastructure.7 Sustained political attacks have dramatically weakened institutions that traditionally protect the middle and working classes: labor unions, progressive income and wealth taxation policies, social welfare programs, consumer protections, and civil rights and antidiscrimination laws. Finally, changes in immigration policy (such as the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act) eliminated the use of national-origin quotas, moving U.S. immigration policy away from its racialized and restrictionist focus on European immigration and changing the demographic profile of the United States.8 Indeed, the growing economic inequality and stagnation of the neoliberal era have at times been both offset and obscured by the enhanced opportunities of communities that were legally excluded in earlier eras—namely, African Americans, women of all races, and various communities of color. Today, it is communities that have suffered historical exclusions that offer evidence that the United States remains a space of opportunity and upward mobility.
This combination—a legal transformation away from Herrenvolk democracy, a shift in the dynamics of U.S. immigration policy, and a massive upward transfer of wealth away from middle- and working-class Americans—is occurring in the historical context of a nation whose civic identity has long been enmeshed in the politics of whiteness and white supremacy.
Migrants and Movement: Scarcity, Domination, and Foreclosed Futures
Given this confluence of historical and economic forces, it’s no surprise that today, a people who defined freedom through a violent and racialized sense of movement and futurity would view migrants with an intense mix of envy, impotence, and rage. Because today, it is migrants who are on the move, struggling against the forces of limitation, fleeing violence, crossing borders, claiming opportunity, and transforming their futures through movement. Resolute in their efforts to fight for new futures where they can prosper and thrive, today, it is migrants who are widely recognized as engaged in an epic quest for freedom—a group understood to be risking their very lives to begin anew and claim opportunity for themselves and their families. For nativists who understand the right to cross borders with impunity as a prerogative of whiteness, seeing unauthorized migrants depicted in such world-historical terms is particularly galling. It’s fundamental to the nativist worldview that Mexicans and other Latinx subjects should be both removable and disposable—seeing these subjects wield and exceed the law to achieve freedom and escape repression and subjugation is intolerable, especially with fellow citizens viewing such efforts with sympathy and/or admiration.
Indeed, nativists view such actions as a brutal assault on their own futures. Trapped in a zero-sum conception of resources and unable to envision practices of movement into territory outside their own Herrenvolk practices and desires, citizens drawn to the politics of whiteness can imagine cross-border movement only as a form of dispossession and violent domination. Limited by a scarcity logic in which migrant flourishing means citizen hardship, nativists in the thrall of whiteness presume that migrant movement will invert the practices of white democracy, causing whites to “lose their country.” Trapped in their own fears and fantasies of domination and racial terror, nativists can’t help but conjure Latinx migrants as subjects planning to inflict a vengeful politics of invasion, replacement, and reconquista.9
The Great Replacement: Hate Crimes and the Politics of Invasion
As scholars such as Leo Chavez and Otto Santa Ana have shown, threat narratives of replacement, conquest, invasion, and infestation have circulated for well over a century.10 What is new is how this racist rhetoric is being promulgated by a particularly influential set of forces that includes a white nationalist president, a formidable conservative media ecosystem, and an empowered anti-immigrant and alt-right political contingent, often undergirded by a persistent gun culture.11 Together, this nativist assemblage has taken up the white nationalist rhetoric of the “great replacement”—a conspiracy theory in which white people are being systematically “replaced” by people of color through mass migration (possibly orchestrated by Jews and other “globalists”).12 Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham in particular characterize white Americans as being “replaced through immigration to the benefit of Democrats.” Ingraham tells Fox viewers that “the Democrats want to replace many of you . . . with newly amnestied citizens and an ever-increasing number of chain immigrants.” Asserting that “foreign citizens will be electing our political leaders” and characterizing Democrats as “the party of foreign voters now,” Carlson describes Democrats as engaging in “demographic replacement,” using a “flood of illegals” to create “a flood of voters for them.” Speaking to Fox’s disproportionately white and elderly viewers, Carlson has asserted that he is not “against the immigrants” but rather “for the Americans,” because “nobody cares about them. It’s like, shut up, you’re dying, we’re gonna replace you.”13
Pushing a conspiracy theory that Democrats are encouraging noncitizens to vote to win elections, Trump, Fox, and other anti-immigrant forces have created a xenophobic resonance machine that continually characterizes Mexicans and other Latinx populations as an invasive force. Speaking to Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, Ingraham characterized Texas as “completely overrun by this illegal invasion” and said that “calling it anything but an invasion at this point is just not being honest with people.”14 Trump has described an “invasion” of the U.S.–Mexican border “at least 21 times in public speeches, remarks, and campaign rallies in an eight-month period”; at a May 2019 campaign rally in the Florida panhandle, the president “used the word ‘invasion’ seven times in less than a minute.”15 In an effort to mobilize voters for his reelection through fear of a catastrophic takeover by immigrants, Trump’s 2020 campaign purchased thousands of ads on Facebook that included the word invasion.16
At times, Trump’s rhetoric reaches an even darker, more dehumanizing register. On June 19, 2018, he tweeted, “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”17 Repeated characterizations of migrants as an inhuman “infestation” threatening America’s very survival may help explain why a twenty-one-year-old white Texan would drive ten hours to an El Paso Walmart, where he would carry out a mass shooting that killed twenty-two people and injured twenty-four others. Telling the police that he was “targeting Mexicans,” the El Paso shooting was one of the deadliest hate crimes ever committed against Latinx people in the United States.18 In a manifesto posted to the online forum 8chan shortly before the attack, the shooter echoes the rhetoric of Trump and Fox News hosts and contributors, stating,
This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion. . . .
Due to the death of the baby boomers . . . and the ever increasing Hispanic population, America will soon become a one party-state. The Democrat party will own America. . . . They intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters. . . .
Statistically, millions of migrants have returned to their home countries to reunite with the family they lost contact with when they moved to America. . . . This is an encouraging sign that the Hispanic population is willing to return to their home countries if given the right incentive. An incentive that myself and many other patriotic Americans will provide. This will remove the threat of the Hispanic voting bloc. . . . This will also make the elites that run corporations realize that it’s not in their interest to continue piss off Americans.
My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist. The job of my dreams will likely be automated. Hispanics will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas, changing policy to better suit their needs. They will turn Texas into an instrument of a political coup which will hasten the destruction of our country.
America can only be destroyed from the inside-out. If our country falls, it will be the fault of traitors. This is why I see my actions as faultless. Because this isn’t an act of imperialism but an act of preservation.19
I quote this historically inaccurate racist screed at length not only to illustrate its Herrenvolk logics but to highlight how the logic of white supremacy has stunted and deformed America’s political imaginary. Echoing the history of the Texas Rangers, Border Patrol, and paramilitary militias, the shooter approaches the border as a site where one can act with impunity. Moreover, as a white subject, the shooter understands himself as possessing not only a natural right to self-preservation but a natural “right to violence.”20 And like earlier conceptions of the frontier, traveling to the border to engage in mass murder was, for the shooter, an act of “frontier freedom”—a chance to engage in a civilizational struggle characterized by retribution, sacrifice, and domination.21 For the El Paso shooter, Mexican suffering and death represent a form of deterrence, part of a larger effort—one that includes Trump’s violent practices of raids, detention, and deportation—to diminish or do away with the “Hispanic voting bloc” and drive them back to their “home countries.”
Divided Whiteness and the Democratic Imaginary
As scholars of whiteness remind us, white identity has left a tragic and lasting mark on the American democratic imagination.22 Emphasizing standing and status rather than political participation and collective action, white citizenship continually constrains the meaning of both democracy and political freedom.23 Articulating a passive conception of freedom, the white imagination views freedom as “something to possess rather than an activity to practice.”24 Moreover, as Joel Olson astutely observes, “perhaps the most insidious aspect of the white imagination is that it presumes that the system of rights and representation established in the Herrenvolk and post–civil rights eras is the highest political form attainable.”25
Rather than envisioning a multiracial democracy in which we engage in collective forms of self-rule characterized by freedom, justice, plenitude, meaningful work, solidarity, justice, pleasure, and joy, Herrenvolk logics can envision democratic citizenship, freedom, prosperity, and popular sovereignty only through racialized narratives of deprivation, humiliation, exclusion, suffering, and removal. Rather than envisioning and enacting a better and more beautiful world, white democracy’s vision is defined by scarcity. In the logic of racial replacement, nativists imagine social goods within an economy of exclusion and democratic forms of denial; there is no sharing of power; there is only one majority “taking control” from the other. In the white nativist imaginary, there is no expanding or inclusive vision of membership. Latinos being present and holding power marks the destruction of the nation, a “political coup.”
Yet despite all the suffering and violence that the Herrenvolk imaginary generates, nativists cannot reverse the reality of America as a multiracial democracy—or erase visible manifestations of that reality. The United States has, and will continue to have for years to come, a rapidly growing Latinx population, both immigrant and native born. With the decline of its foreign-born share, the steady growth of the Mexican-origin population “is maintained entirely by the birth of US-born individuals,” creating a Mexican-origin population that is young, growing, and not about to be removed or disappeared.26 Notwithstanding Republican efforts to suppress voting and Census participation, the native-born Latinx population will continue to grow, migrants will continue to enter the United States, and their U.S.-born children will continue to lay claim to America’s future.27
Equally important is that fewer white citizens embrace an ideology of whiteness and white democracy. Indeed, whiteness is becoming increasing salient at the same time that it is increasingly divided and pulling in different directions. As Alcoff reminds us, it is “whites themselves” who are “increasingly politically polarized on a number of critical issues,” from guns to health care to race.28
Of course, in analyzing the growing ideological divide among whites, I don’t want to ignore the pervasive and ongoing problem of whiteness and white advantage, nor do I want to downplay the shift in aggregate white partisanship. Trump was elected in 2016 because of the white vote: he won 58 percent of white men and women, whereas only 37 percent voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.29 Nevertheless, while there has been a clear defection of whites from the Democratic to the Republican Party beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, those white voters who do identify as Democrats are becoming increasingly liberal regarding questions of racism and racial justice.
As a 2018 report by the think tank Data Progress declared, “we’re witnessing a historically unprecedented shift left in opinions about race among [white] Democratic voters.” White Democrats “increasingly reject racism” and are “much less likely to endorse individualistic explanations of racial inequality and are more supportive of structural explanations of racial inequality.”30
In sum, we are seeing a growing rupture between white citizens who support the politics of whiteness and those white citizens who are increasingly averse to racist and xenophobic appeals to white resentment. The police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 has only accelerated and intensified this shift in racial attitudes. Across the United States and beyond, increasingly large numbers of white people participated in rallies, marches, and demonstrations, joining with Black, brown, and other nonwhite communities to show their opposition to racist policing. White protesters carried signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” “Racism Is a Pandemic,” “White Silence Is Violence,” “Use Your Privilege to Opt In for Those Who Can Never Opt Out,” “Socially Distance from Anti-Blackness,” “Convict Killer Cops,” and “Confront Your Racist Family Members.”
In addition to the protests, over the course of just a few weeks, monuments to the Confederacy are being taken down in cities across the South, with officials planning to remove many more. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing banned the Confederate battle flag from its venues, and the state of Mississippi voted to retire its state flag—the only state flag left in the nation incorporating a Confederate battle emblem.31 Across the nation, white Americans have been engaging in what has been described as a “wave of self-examination” that has included reading books about racism and anti-racism, watching films and documentaries about African American history, researching their ancestry to learn about family connections to slavery, discussing anti-Black racism and white privilege with nonwhite friends and colleagues, and arguing with family members.32 And while it’s too early to know if this moment will develop into a deep and sustained reckoning with the legacy of white supremacy in the United States, such actions mark a profound shift in how certain white citizens are engaging questions of race. In sum, white nativists’ ability to engage in Herrenvolk practices is threatened not only by the growth of America’s nonwhite population but by the changing nature of white identity itself.
Whiteness and the Taking of Rights
This divide regarding the meaning of whiteness—a topic that until very recently has gone undertheorized in American politics—has important implications for current debates regarding the “authoritarian turn” in American politics. In recent years, there has been a growing discussion regarding the Republican Party’s increasing “disregard” for democratic norms. Current studies by political scientists have been arguing that America’s constitutional democracy is being endangered by what is often described as an “authoritarian turn,” “asymmetric polarization,” “hyperpartisanship,” and “incipient fascism.” Such assessments are not wrong, but their analyses will remain limited and inadequate until they situate this antidemocratic behavior within a longer trajectory of white supremacy and Herrenvolk democracy.33 White supremacy taught white citizens to see themselves as both the defenders and beneficiaries of liberal democracy, claiming the rule of law while disregarding democratic norms and stripping subjects of rights in order to seize and retain power. Theorizing whiteness and the politics of white standing is fundamental to understanding why today’s GOP is reluctant to defend—or openly hostile to—the expansion of the franchise, majority rule, a free press, judicial independence, and the safeguarding of constitutional protections.
Herrenvolk democracy’s deep ideological and historical resources connect citizens who remain invested in white democracy to a politics that sees legitimacy in denying rights not only to people of color but to the white citizens who are now also “anticitizens.” For nativists and the Right, their opponents are not fellow citizens so much as an “un-American left-wing mob” that includes “the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters.” In his July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore, President Trump characterized such people as engaged in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.”34 Calling them “bad, evil people” whose beliefs are “completely alien to our culture,” Trump suggested that such subjects can never be incorporated—they can only be vanquished.35
The Trump administration’s July 2020 assault on predominantly white protesters in Portland, Oregon, vividly exemplifies this dynamic. Characterizing the mostly white supporters of Black Lives Matter as anticitizens—“anarchists and criminals” who “hate America”—the acting director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent federal agents into Portland as part of “rapid deployment teams” that included two thousand officials from CBP and ICE.36 Dressed in camouflage body armor and heavily armed, often with no visible identification, federal agents assaulted protesters, sometimes engaging in “abduction-style” detainments, pulling demonstrators into unmarked vans.37
It should have surprised no one to see federal agencies, with broad support from GOP officeholders, redirect these officers from violently apprehending and abusing migrants to attacking mostly white protesters engaged in antiracist protest and civil disobedience. Nor should we be shocked that the political party most invested in whiteness would be willing to disregard democratic norms in its effort to seize and retain power.
The ability to render certain populations rightless, to deny members of the community equality under the law, and to see them only as an undeserving threat—while still seeing themselves as lawful and honorable—that is the tyranny that lies at the heart of white democracy. The authoritarianism that threatens our democratic ideals is more than Trumpism or some newfound willingness of Republicans to shatter norms. It is the grasping desire of the Herrenvolk.