As America Changes, Some Anxious Whites Feel Left Behind
Demographic shifts rippling across the nation are fueling fears that their culture and standing are under threat.
Even after the coal mines closed and the factory jobs disappeared and the businesses began taking down their signs on Broad Street, even after the population started its steady decline and the hospital was on the brink of bankruptcy, the residents of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, flocked downtown for the annual Funfest.
For years Sally Yale participated in the fall parade in a souped-up teacup salvaged from a spinning ride at the shuttered amusement park. Tricked out with smoking dry ice, it was the perfect advertisement for her gourmet coffee shop.
Yale is 53, but her angular face lights up like a child’s when she talks about Funfest. The applause from the crowd. The Hazletonians who returned for the celebration. “And the food,” Yale says, lifting her brows and rolling her eyes to mimic pure bliss. The cannoli and pierogi, the sausages and funnel cakes—treats that represented the waves of European immigrants that had settled in Hazleton’s rolling hills.
Then it all changed. Funfest, in Sally Yale’s eyes, became too scary. Too uncomfortable. To be honest … too brown. “You just know if you go to a public event, you know you are going to be outnumbered,” Yale says. “You know you’re going to be the minority, and do you want to go?”
For Yale, the answer was no.
Outnumbered is a word that came up often when I talked with white residents of this eastern Pennsylvania town. Outnumbered in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Outnumbered at the bank. Outnumbered at the Kmart, where the cashier merrily chitchats in Spanish with Hazleton’s newer residents.
Hazleton was another former coal mining town slipping into decline until a wave of Latinos arrived. It would not be an overstatement to say a tidal wave. In 2000 Hazleton’s 23,399 residents were 95 percent non-Hispanic white and less than 5 percent Latino. By 2016 Latinos became the majority, composing 52 percent of the population, while the white share plunged to 44 percent.
“We joke about it and say we are in the minority now,” says Bob Sacco, a bartender at A&L Lounge, a tavern on a street now mainly filled with Latino-owned storefronts. “They took over the city. We joke about it all the time, but it’s more than a joke.”
That dizzying shift is an extreme manifestation of the nation’s changing demographics. The U.S. Census Bureau has projected that non-Hispanic whites will make up less than 50 percent of the population by 2044, a change that almost certainly will recast American race relations and the role and status of white Americans, who have long been a comfortable majority.
Hazleton’s experience offers a glimpse into the future as white Americans confront the end of their majority status, which often has meant that their story, their traditions, their tastes, and their cultural aesthetic were seen as being quintessentially American. This is a conversation already exploding across the country as some white Americans, in online forums and protests over the removal of Confederate monuments, react anxiously and angrily to a sense that their way of life is under threat. Those are the stories that grab headlines and trigger social media showdowns. But the shift in status—or what some are calling “the altitude adjustment”—is also playing out in much more subtle ways in classrooms, break rooms, factory floors, and shopping malls, where the future has arrived ahead of schedule. Since 2000, the minority population has grown to outnumber the population of whites who aren’t Hispanic in such counties as Suffolk in Massachusetts, Montgomery in Maryland, Mecklenburg in North Carolina, as well as counties in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, and Texas.
For decades, examining race in America meant focusing on the advancement and struggles of people of color. Under this framework, being white was simply the default. Every other race or ethnic group was “other-ized,” and matters of race were the problem and province of people of color. In a period bookended by the presidential elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the question of what it means to be white in America has increasingly taken center stage.
On several fronts, there is growing evidence that race is no longer a spectator sport for white Americans: The growth of whiteness studies courses on college campuses. Battles over immigration and affirmative action. A rising death rate for middle-aged white Americans with no more than a high-school diploma from drugs, alcohol, and suicide in what economists are calling “deaths of despair.” The increasingly racially polarized electorate. The popularity of a television show called Dear White People that satirizes “post-racial” America. The debate over the history and symbols of the Confederacy. The aggression and appeal of white nationalism, with its newest menacing chant: “You will not replace us.”
The protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August likely will be remembered as a moment when hate groups, wearing polo shirts and khakis, stepped out of the shadows. Most Americans soundly denounce the message and the methods of the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and white nationalists who gathered at the “Unite the Right” rally to decry the removal of a monument honoring a Confederate general. But matters of race are complicated, and academics and researchers who closely chart the fractious history of race relations in this country note that the Charlottesville demonstrations—though widely pilloried—also punctuate an issue that animates everything from politics to job prospects and even the world of professional sports: the fear of displacement in an era of rapid change.
Just over 10 years ago, Hazleton was thrust into the national spotlight when the mayor, now U.S. congressman Lou Barletta, urged the city council to pass a first-of-its-kind ordinance called the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. It set steep penalties for those who hire or rent to undocumented immigrants. It was accompanied by an ordinance that sought to make English the official language of Hazleton. The laws were introduced amid rising cultural tension in the community, which was seeing an influx of Latinos, many moving from New York and New Jersey. Barletta said the IIRA ordinance—which included the assertion that “illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates”—was aimed at preserving a way of life in “Small Town, USA.” It never went into effect. Federal courts ruled the ordinance was preempted by U.S. immigration law. But the episode still reverberates, says Jamie Longazel, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who grew up in Hazleton and has done extensive research on the demographic changes in his hometown. Longazel said the widely publicized debate over the law amplified tensions and fed what social scientists call the “Latino threat narrative.”
“We know in sociology when community identity is challenged or questioned in some way, the community asserts and defends that identity,” Longazel says. “With Hazleton’s changing demographics and persistent economic decline, the community began to see itself as white. The city reasserted its identity as white.” Longazel thinks that same psychology might be emerging on a national level.
His research found repeated themes. White Hazletonians consistently recalled a city that was “close-knit, quiet, obedient, honest, harmless, and hardworking” and described newcomers as “loud, disobedient, manipulative, lawless, and lazy.” The anecdotes were often similar. Did that many people really witness a Latino family at the grocery store using food stamps to buy seafood and steak, or did the stories spiral forward on their own weight, embraced and repeated as personal observation? And why did so few people in his research reference the new residents who were paying taxes, going to church twice a week, buying sedans on Airport Road, and opening businesses that percolate all up and down North Wyoming Street?
In the end, trying to underscore Hazleton’s status as an all-American white enclave was akin to shaking a fist at a rain cloud. Latinos are now the driving force in Hazleton’s economy, and the city has taken on an increasingly Latin flavor. Hazleton now looks, sounds, smells, and feels transformed.
Over and over you hear longtime residents say they feel like strangers on their home turf. Yale, the coffee shop owner, has watched most of her classmates from Bishop Hafey High School leave Hazleton, mainly for better job prospects. She opted to stay and opened her gourmet coffee shop, called the Abbey, with its gleaming red espresso machine and its home-style meals. Though her café is just up a hill from downtown, she rarely ventures toward the main business district.
Yale pulled out of Funfest years ago. “Too scary,” she says. “If you do go down there, you don’t know who is carrying a gun.”
The irony is evident to Yale. Her grandfather came to Hazleton from Italy in the early 1900s and became an insurance agent and Americanized his name from Yuele to Yale. She knows the same stereotypes were hurled at Italian and Irish immigrants when they first arrived in Hazleton.
Yale is quick with a laugh and punctuates her hellos and goodbyes with bear hugs. Everything about her says cozy. She wears thick-soled tennis shoes and oversize sweatshirts. But sit with her for a spell, and it’s clear that she also has a lot of steel. It’s served her well as a single woman running a business. Once the restaurant clears out, she believes in speaking her mind.
“We have one of us in that White House,” Yale says of Trump. “We are going to make America great again.”
When asked who she means by “we,” Yale pauses. Her gaze hardens a bit. The music goes out of her voice. “The ‘we’ are the Caucasians that built this country,” she says. “Our generation. We’re going to … We’re going to make our grandfathers proud. We have to.”
For eight years I have been listening to Americans share their candid views about race and identity. While on sabbatical from National Public Radio, I started the Race Card Project, an initiative to foster honest conversation by asking people to distill their thoughts on race to just six words. That’s usually just the beginning of a deeper engagement. Tens of thousands of people have participated, often sending pictures, artifacts, and essays to share the backstory behind their six words.
I created the Race Card Project when the word “post-racial” was in vogue, but I knew America was anything but. U.S. voters had just sent a black family to the White House for the first time, and we thought the conversation was over? I suspected instead that it was time to put on our proverbial seat belts and buckle up for a bumpy ride. Most Americans had never had a black boss, and now they had a black president.
When six-word stories first started arriving in large numbers—first as postcards and eventually via digital submissions at theracecardproject.com—I assumed the bulk of the stories would come from those in the minority. I was wrong.
People from all kinds of races, faiths, regions, classes, and backgrounds have submitted stories, but since the beginning, most have come from white people. “White, not allowed to be proud.” “I’m only white when it’s convenient.” “More than just a ‘white girl.’ ” “Yes, it’s ok to be white.” “She’s nothing but poor white trash.” “Gay, but at least I’m white.” “Hated for being a white cop.” “Abuse was invisible because I’m white.” “Not as white as I appear.” “I’m white and not ashamed.” “White privilege? More like white guilt.” “We the people = We white people.” “Other races resent us White people.” “Most white people are not racists.” “White people do not own racism.” “I unpack my white privilege daily.”
White Americans are not traditionally in the foreground of this country’s conversation about race, but the Race Card Project’s archive has become a place where thousands of people have talked honestly about privilege, guilt, rage, myopia, displacement, allegiance, power, romance, or simply the world as seen through a white gaze.
“The whole notion of whiteness as we know it depends on not being a minority,” says Brian Glover, a professor who specializes in 18th-century British literature at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. “In the 20th century, the white man was the best deal that anybody ever had in the history of the planet. I mean, in America you could feel like you were at the center of everything. You didn’t have to justify yourself.”
After hearing a story about the demographic changes, Glover sent these six words to the Race Card Project in-box: “These days, I understand the WASPs.” Glover explains that he was born in the 1970s to a family of mixed European origin—Jewish, Irish, Greek, German, Slovene, people once not seen as fully white by the gatekeepers of social class. But over time they moved into the mainstream. “I definitely felt that I was a white American, which I understood to mean just plain American,” he says.
These new Americans, fueled by waves of European immigrants like Glover’s great-grandparents, were starting to displace the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who had run the country for two centuries. In a short, candid essay he submitted to the Race Card Project, Glover wrote, “We had taken over their colleges, their clubs, and even the White House,” referring to the election of an Irish Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, in 1960.
“Well, now we’re in their shoes,” he wrote. “People of Color are moving into the mainstream now; ‘White’ is no longer the default setting for ‘American.’ And though it’s clear that this process is inevitable—it’s just a matter of numbers and demographics—a lot of the time, to be honest, I’m sad about it. The country is changing in ways that aren’t very good for me, and I’ve got no choice but to adapt. I’m not complaining; it’s only fair that other people get the same opportunity we got. But now I find myself looking back at the WASPs with new respect. Though there were many notable exceptions, for the most part during their fall from power they conducted themselves with quiet dignity. I’m sure it didn’t feel good for them at the time, but for the most part they just got on with their lives. We could learn from their example.”
Glover has been thinking a lot these days about what equality means for white Americans who enjoyed advantages they’ve never fully acknowledged having. He’s an academic who’s used to critiquing an issue from all sides, but this makes him weary. The stakes directly affect him.
“It means that a lot of people are just going to lose materially and are already losing materially,” he told me in a recent conversation. “I can somehow feel more virtuous because it was necessarily built on equality? I just don’t know if that really keeps people warm at night, knowing that there’s equality out there. I think they would rather have privilege.” He’s just being honest about the practical effect for people like him.
Although the Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal,” Glover notes that “America was founded on slavery.” He continues, “So I’m not sure that you can take the abstract principle of equality without the accompanying inequality of reality.” He knows what he’s saying is impolitic and perhaps incendiary. Through my work at the Race Card Project, I know he’s not alone in his angst. For his part Glover maintains that it’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.
So what happens when America crosses that milestone and becomes a majority-minority country? There won’t be any fireworks or bells, and in truth this country’s infrastructure around wealth, politics, education, and opportunity is so entrenched that white people, and white men in particular, will still hold the reins of power on Wall Street and Main Street for quite some time. The change is likely to be more subtle. You will see it at the grocery store, in the produce section and condiment aisle. You will see it in classrooms, where the under-18 population will reach a majority-minority state in just two years. You will notice it in pop culture and in advertisements, where businesses have already figured out that the color most important to their bottom line is green.
While the angst over the coming demographic shift might make for more uncomfortable race relations, it might finally usher in a reckoning in which America faces hard truths: The Founding Fathers built white dominance into the fabric and laws of the nation, and a country that proclaims to love freedom and liberty is still struggling with its roots in the original sin of slavery.
Pride and history stir up a complicated cocktail in New Orleans, where Mayor Mitch Landrieu championed the removal of Confederate monuments throughout the city, including one of Gen. Robert E. Lee, despite vociferous protests and cries of cultural displacement.
“These statues are not just stone and metal,” Landrieu said in a speech that drew widespread attention due to its eloquent call for fellow Southerners to reject a history that many hold dear. “They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy—ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror it actually stood for.”
For some Landrieu emerged as a hero—a white Southerner willing to ask America to atone for its original sin. To others he’s become a pariah and the subject of taunts and death threats. New Orleans businessman Frank Stewart, who took out newspaper ads denouncing the removal of the monuments, said they should have been amended instead of removed. “A monument and a memorial to a wonderful leader, a general, is not a symbol of slavery and discrimination or segregation,” Stewart says. “Those monuments represent the life of people who were very significant in history, and you don’t destroy monuments. You don’t burn history books. You learn from them.”
Stewart accuses Landrieu of rewriting and erasing history and using the issue to make a national name for himself. For a country that has, in his view, moved past enslavement and Jim Crow segregation—something he calls “positive evolution”—the monuments stand as important milestones that remind New Orleans of how far the city and the country have moved forward.
For his part, Landrieu says, “we have a better argument.” He presides over a city that is 59 percent black, and says, “It was absolutely clear to me the majority of the people in this city wanted to take those monuments down, but they didn’t know how to do it, and they didn’t have the political power. But I did.”
Landrieu lost 37 percent of his white support when he removed the monuments, and polls indicate that nearly nine out of 10 white Lousianans opposed their removal.
Every Tuesday, Landrieu has lunch at a local restaurant with his parents, who are both in their 80s. During a recent meal he approached an older couple he knew to say a quick hello. The wife was wearing a scowl as she leaned in close. “You ruined my life,” she said, twice, then added, “You destroyed my life.” “What did I do?” Landrieu asked, revealing a streak of political confidence that dances along the edge of disrespect. “You took the monuments down,” she said. Landrieu replied, “Are you dying? Did it give you cancer?”
He asserts he did more than just take down the monuments. He also took away something intangible and yet just as weighty as all that bronze and marble: pride. “There is a white Christian ethnic identity that people have tied onto and somehow connected to the Confederacy,” Landrieu says. “They feel like somebody has taken something away from them.”
Jason Dougherty, a 38-year-old white Hazleton resident who works in an Italian diner and stunt fights on the weekends at a converted church called the Sanctuary, thinks that the city has never reckoned with its transformation. “People want to say it is not about race,” he says, “but sometimes it is, and what happened in Hazleton is about difference, and that doesn’t mean it is bad. This place has an energy that just wasn’t there before.”
Hazleton’s population is younger, the hospital is no longer in bankruptcy, and major employers such as Amazon, Cargill, and American Eagle Outfitters have opened distribution centers and plants offering jobs that helped attract the massive Latino migration. Longazel says white residents “miss the opportunity to see that the old-timers and the newcomers came to Hazleton for the same thing: They wanted jobs and a better life for their families. They actually have things in common.”
There are groups working to build cultural bridges. It’s not surprising that many of them, such as the Hazleton Integration Project, focus on young people. Rocco Petrone is the principal of Hazleton Area High School, and he says he knows better than to toss around bromides, such as, “Kids today simply don’t see race.”
A recent survey found that young adults overwhelmingly believe that race relations in the U.S. grew worse last year. Young people have inherited a diverse world. They attend school together, listen to each other’s music, and date across the color line. What will it take to actually shift attitudes as young white people march into adulthood?
Kids have found a way to do something that is more rare among adults. They talk to each other. Yes, they roll their eyes and show annoyance, but they engage and they listen. They cheer for each other on the court and the football field, and they take for granted that a blond homecoming queen named Savannah Butala from the advanced math and science program was crowned alongside a star student named Rafael Santos, who came to Hazleton from the Dominican Republic in 2011.
Few communities have seen the kind of rapid change that Hazleton has. It has produced a lot of discomfort and disorientation, and perhaps a good deal of disgust. Longtime residents are angry about crime, overcrowded schools, and the city budget crisis. They are frustrated that those who are bilingual get paid more or have an easier time moving up the management ladder. Dougherty understands that but says if you look closely, you also see that the changes in Hazleton have produced a lot of discoveries and adjustments. He sees it in his own neighborhood, where people are finally starting to talk to each other, and with co-workers willing to share a beer after work or go to a barbershop together. He sees it at the Sanctuary, where he performs; people there are a bit less tribal, a bit more willing to root for someone who doesn’t share their heritage.
On a weekday morning at the A&L Lounge, Sacco, who is 64, tends bar from a sunken galley that resembles an orchestra pit. The regulars always sit at the bar, close to the televisions and close enough to each other to catch up on town gossip. They drink highballs or beer on tap. They wear work boots and plaid. The tables in the back are where Latino men sit in a circle for a cold one after finishing their overnight shifts in local plants. They have high-maintenance haircuts and fancy tennis shoes. They drink Heineken and Corona, pay in $20 bills, and always leave a tip for Sacco.
They also give him tips on how to speak Spanish. He used to find that irksome, but he has warmed to it. “I should have taken those Spanish classes seriously back in high school, but you know, who knew this was coming?” he said.
Immigrants have been flocking to Hazleton for decades. Putting down roots. Working hard. Raising families. Striving. Climbing. Spending money in local businesses. But the word “immigrant” takes on a different tone now. Older Hazleton residents who are themselves the children of immigrants often say the word with a sneer.
Sacco loved growing up in Hazleton and keeps a collection of memorabilia that shows the town as it was in the era he considers its heyday, when Broad Street had supper clubs and theaters with neon lights. He’s angry about the changes in his hometown. Really angry.
And yet, does he resent the men who come to his bar and spend money? After all, they represent the change that chafes so much. “Hard to be angry at them,” he said. “They are just working hard, and I respect that. I guess you have to respect that.”
In 2010 Michele Norris began inviting people to distill their thoughts on race to just six words. Today more than 200,000 statements have been submitted from every U.S. state and 90 countries, often accompanied by essays with sentiments and hard truths rarely expressed out loud. To join the discussion, visit theracecardproject.com.
Gillian Laub drew on more than a decade of photographing lingering racism in the U.S. South for her 2015 book and documentary, Southern Rites.