The white anxiety behind Steve King's remarks

Lawmaker's tweet called 'white nationalism'
Lawmaker's tweet called 'white nationalism'

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Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: Steve King's tweet reflects some white's private thoughts
  • King tweeted about not wanting "to restore our civilization with somebody else's babies"

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)First came the tweet: "Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."

Issac Bailey
That was Steve King, a US Congressman from Iowa, tweeting over the weekend in agreement with Geert Wilders, a right-wing extremist, nativist candidate for Dutch prime minister. Twitter outrage ensued ... and King defended his tweet on TV.
    There is something important to understand and acknowledge about all of this: What King said out loud, about not wanting "to restore our civilization with somebody else's babies," is what many white Americans, on some level, think privately.
    This is a simultaneously disturbing and understandable reaction to a rapid demographic shift under way that will likely transform the US into a majority-minority nation sometime mid-century.
    Many white people are anxious about the browning of America. Demographer William Frey found that only 23% of those born in the Baby Boom generation, which is overwhelmingly white (the American population was 85% white in 1965, and is less than 60% white today) believe the change in diversity is for the better, compared with 42% who believe it worsens the country.
    Some of that fear is reasonable and is simply evidence that the unknown scares us, whether we are discussing race or contemplating a major change in some quarter of our lives. But some of that fear is the surface expression of an ugly white nationalism that makes the heart of white supremacists flutter.
    Senator: King is leader of 'Make America White'
    Senator: King is leader of 'Make America White'

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    If Americans are to handle this massive demographic shift rationally and properly, we must resist the urge to conflate those distinct reasons at the root of white America's anxiety. Not everyone who is uneasy about the receding white majority is a David Duke or even a Steve King.
    Granted, it's hard to accept that not all white angst is malign at a time when there is a top adviser in the White House who once bragged about providing a platform for the so-called alt-right, when the President himself used open bigotry to get elected to the most powerful position in the world -- and when white supremacists gleefully cheer on King's words.
    "God bless Steven King!!!" tweeted David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
    White nationalist Richard Spencer put together a four-and-a-half-minute video response to King.
    "Very true words, words that were spoken from the heart ... words that are going to be controversial precisely because they are true and they are powerful," he said. "Steve King is getting at a root nationalism, a nationalism in a real sense of the word, and I am very proud of him for doing that. If this is a signal that conservatives are moving in the right direction under Trump, that they're getting at something real, then I am very happy."
    When white supremacists are happy, it means the awful legacy of America's original sin remains active, infused with ugly new life. No one should underestimate the danger that poses. It's real, as evidenced by recent attacks on brown-skinned people. That idea must be confronted and defeated before it metastasizes any further, which is why King's comments should not be given a pass, just as Trump's use of bigotry during the 2016 presidential campaign should not be forgotten.
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    Yet it's dangerous to not allow other white Americans, who don't believe in white nationalism and supremacy, to grieve for the traditional America they see dying all around them. Like it or not, and for right or wrong, this country has long provided one big safe space for white Americans. That didn't guarantee them a life free of challenge or unfairness. It meant whatever they were most comfortable with -- music, social customs, language, religion, principles, leadership styles, heroic figures -- became some kind of American "gold standard." As a result, whatever they believed and practiced felt not only natural, but correct.
    People of color aren't afraid of the demographic shift because they've long had to make adjustments based on societal trends beyond their control. They are accustomed to navigating classrooms and workspaces in which most of their colleagues are white. It's all they've known. Most white people have known -- and still know -- only the opposite.
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    They can sense that that reality is slipping away and wonder what it means for their children. It's why some Americans get flustered when they are told to press 1 for English, favor a national language (even though dozens of languages have always been spoken here) or have a knee-jerk response upon finding out a Mosque might be built across the street.
    Being a minority, a state in which your most cherished ideas and ideals are always challenged by the ideas and ideals of others who don't look like you, is uncharted territory for white America. Great change, whether good and necessary or painful and negative, brings great stress.
    It won't be easy, but we must find a way to resist the white nationalism of Steve King, while at the same time making room for other white Americans to come to terms with a new reality -- that what once was will no longer be, and what will be can make us greater than we've ever been.