Whites, Demographic Change, the Church & Labor

by Michael Sean Winters

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Note to Readers: I apologize for this morning's post being late. I neglected to log it into "Distinctly Catholic" properly.

The divisions within American society and politics are usually attributed to the force of ideas, and I assuredly believe that ideas matter, that they drive political debates and shape societal attitudes. But, in this morning’s Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham examines data of another sort that explains the divisions: Many white Americans are nervous at best about the prospect of the country becoming increasingly less white, and that demographic fact is driving their social and political attitudes.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll found that one-third of Republicans agreed with the statement, “the idea of an America where most people are not white bothers me.” And a 2012 Pew survey found two-thirds of Republicans agreeing with the statement, “today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” The new research, from Christopher Parker, looks at the demographic make-up of congressional districts and, unsurprisingly, most Republican-held seats are in districts that remain heavily white.

Race is not always determinative. Some of the whitest districts in the country are in liberal New England and they routinely elect Democrats to represent them in Congress. But, that is the exception that proves the rule. Two-thirds of GOP-held districts have populations that are at least 70 percent white. Only thirty percent of Democratic-held districts have populations that are at least 70 percent white. These demographic facts go a long way to explaining why comprehensive immigration reform has not gained much traction in the GOP-controlled House even while it sailed through the Senate where redistricting is not an option.

I do not share this worry about the nation becoming increasingly less white that seems to animate so many white Republicans. Indeed, just the opposite. I look at our culture, with its hyper-individualism, now coming to full political expression in the rise of a viable libertarian candidate in Sen. Rand Paul, the millions of dollars spent bankrolling the CATO Institute and the Acton Institute and certain business schools to spread the heterodox gospel of neo-liberal economics, and I think that the increasing number of Latino citizens and voters may be the only thing that can save America from itself. For them, at least, family still means extended family, solidarity is not a cuss-word, and unions are still seen as a necessity in the face of oppressively unjust working conditions.

Let us take each of those three things one at a time. The nuclear family has had a rough time of it. Those on the cultural right blame the loss of moral fiber. Those on the left blame the economic challenges families face. Neither side is wrong, but I think one issue that gets over-looked is that for most of human history, “family” did not mean one man and one woman with 2.4 kids, it meant grandma and grandpa and Uncle Bob and Aunt Albina and cousins Paul and Deb. In some families that is still the case: Uncle Bob lived across the street from us growing up and I learned so many things from him, Aunt Albina lived two doors down and took care of me when I was very little and my mom went back to work, and cousins Paul and Deb came to the hospital to keep me company the night of my parents’ accident. But, Uncle Bob and Aunt Albina have gone to God, Paul and Deb have moved to New Hampshire. My extended family is a lot less extended than it was even a few years ago. This seems not the case with my Latino neighbors here in suburban Washington. Every Sunday afternoon, a large group of teenagers assembles at my neighbor Tony’s house for dance practice. On the next block, Oscar and AJ and his family often have large BBQ’s with lots of family coming from other parts of the burbs. I will bet there is never a shortage of babysitters in those families. I know, from watching, that all the women over a certain age do not need to ask anyone permission to correct a badly behaving child. I am betting that the older members of these families will either not go into a nursing home or will only go in very late in life.

Solidarity, for a Catholic, is an idea so foundational to our understanding of society and politics, yet in our Calvinistic culture, solidarity has never enjoyed the luster that self-determination and grit have enjoyed – and American Calvinism, in its cultural and political expressions, was strangely untouched until recently by Abraham Kuyper’s development of ideas of social solidarity within European Calvinist thought. Here, in the U.S., it had long been obvious that libertarianism would grow in the highly individualistic cultural soil, but I never thought it would flourish or even find much in the way of public approbation. But, then, there was that awful moment during the 2012 GOP presidential primary debates when a questioner asked if someone who lacked health insurance should be allowed to die at the hospital, and the crowd erupted in applause.  At that moment I realized that unless more Latinos come to America, and keep their Catholicism, and the Church, led by its bishops, pushes back and pushes hard against this libertarianism, our nation’s future could be coldly framed by a social Darwinism that is frightening.

  I can think of no better development in American society and politics than to see the labor movement gain renewed strength, especially unions in the private sector. In this country, labor remains deeply rooted in Catholic social thought – sometimes it seems more than the fifth floor of the USCCB! And, for organized labor, like the Church, Latinos are the future. No, that’s not right. For both the Church and for organized labor, the Latino future is already here, we are ahead of the rest of the culture. At last week’s meeting of the Catholic Conversation Project, Hosffman Ospino told me that 62% of all Catholics under the age of eighteen are Latino. Think about that for a moment. Then, think about the growing problem of income inequality, which worsens every other problem in society and could, if unaddressed, create an even more vicious politics than the one we have today. How do we address that inequality without a stronger labor movement? I am not allergic to government intervention in the economy, but I would prefer to see a civil society actor like a union take the lead in reducing income inequality and increasing social mobility. Latinos today, working in hotels and restaurants, like the Irish and Italians and Germans working in coal mines one hundred years ago, are subject to the kinds of injustices that will demand a response. That response can be peaceful, channeled through labor unions, informed by the teaching of the Church, as happened in the late nineteenth century, or it will be violent, but the response to injustice will come.

The prospect of a less-white America, which seems to scare so many people, is to me one of the only truly happy developments in U.S. culture. There is a great deal of work on the part of the Church if we want to help our Latino immigrants retain the cultural heritage the U.S. needs. Groups like the Knights of Columbus, movements like Cursillo, theologians like Ospino, all are needed to help carry on this work. I am optimistic it can be done: In those areas where the Church’s ministry to Latinos is well resourced, the churches are packed, the children are catechized, and the schools would flourish if there were resources for them. I believe the Church must work hand-in-glove with organized labor, to keep solidarity a living word not just a word on a page within the Latino community. Otherwise, our nation will be further polarized by demographic change, its attendant prejudice, and those politicians who are morally corrupt enough to exploit that prejudice.


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