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Former City Council President Nury MartinezAl Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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After Intersectionalism

As ideology takes a back seat to intergroup competition, the future of ethnic conflict in America is going to look more like the past

Joel Kotkin
November 21, 2022
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Former City Council President Nury MartinezAl Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The divisive racial ideology that dominated American politics for the past decade is dying. Led by minority activists and white progressives, “woke” ideology promoted a Manichean struggle between a coalition of the BIPOC, an acronym for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color” (assumed to be natural allies) against what the BIPOC Project calls a hegemonic system of “white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism.” But this vision of Black and white racial conflict, while still influential in universities and elite institutions, keeps getting rejected by American voters—as happened in political referendums on issues like policing and immigration, and most recently in the triumph of “normies” and centrists in the midterm elections.

Does this mean that Americans should expect a new era of kumbaya racial harmony? Not likely. Rather, the future may look more like the past, as America reverts to an older style of ethnic politics in which ideology takes a back seat to practical concerns and different groups compete over resources like jobs and the spoils of government spending.

A recent example: Last month, LA’s Latina City Council president, Nury Martinez, was caught on a leaked audio recording making racist comments about Black people, Jews, and Armenians. Martinez, who has since resigned, described a white council colleague’s adopted Black son as a “parece changuito” or “like a monkey.” The recording, which was anonymously leaked online shortly before an election, had captured a private conversation between Martinez and other powerful Latino Democrats in LA that took place in the headquarters of a powerful labor group, and centered on how to shore up their power.

In trying to fortify her own ethnic bloc, Martinez saw Black voters, as well as Armenians and Jews, as potential threats. She grouses about “judios” who “cut their deal with south LA”—the complaint being that LA’s Jewish officials have aligned themselves with Black politicians (an alliance that helped Tom Bradley become the city’s first Black mayor in the early 1970s) to the detriment of the Latino political bloc. Martinez had previously complained that her district, an area long populated by Jews but becoming increasingly Latino, was misrepresented by “the Katzes of the world, the Bermans of the world. I never saw them in the community or at the grocery store with us. I just saw them on TV.” Following the classic pattern of urban American ethnic political jostling, Martinez’s rant was largely about traditional issues of redistricting and the awarding of valuable money-generating assets to Latino, as opposed to African American or Anglo, districts.

This jostling reflects the shifting ethnic makeup of LA, where Latinos now constitute nearly half of the population while the share of Black Angelinos has dropped to less than 9%. That is part of a longer term trend: “Between the 1980 and 1990 censuses,” notes a New York Times article from 1995, “the Black population of Los Angeles County dropped to 11% from 13% of the population, while the Hispanic and Asian populations swelled.” The article pointed to the South Central area of LA as an exception that was still “predominantly Black,” but even that has changed. 80% African American in 1970, South Central LA is now two-thirds Latino. There are more taco stands than barbeque joints, the vibe more East LA than old South Central.

Rather than a united uprising of “people of color,” what happened in Los Angeles—and what will happen soon across the country—was a conflict caused by the complex and shifting landscape of ethnic politics in America.

The future may look more like the past, ideology taking a back seat to practical concerns.

Ethnic political conflict is nothing new in the United States. Coming from distinct backgrounds and enjoying different levels of success, ethnic groups have always competed for political influence. In the late 19th century, Boston’s James Michael Curley waged a successful campaign that allowed the Irish to supplant the city’s Anglo elite. In New York City, William R. Grace became New York’s first Irish Catholic mayor in 1880, beating mainstream Protestants opposed to both his ethnicity and faith. In melting pot meccas like New York and Chicago, Jews, Italians, and other minorities struggled for dominance, either through Tammany Hall or the Daley machine, both long dominated by Irish political bosses. Describing the New York City of his upbringing, Gen. Colin Powell recalled that it was not sharply divided along Black and white Lines, but rather was “a mélange of numerous often competing” ethnic communities.

While some conservatives fret about the growth of nonwhite populations allegedly undermining the nation’s key institutions and giving Democrats a permanent majority, America’s history shows that ethnic politics are, if nothing else, mercurial. Populist conservatives, meanwhile, fervently hope minorities like Latinos and Asians will go wholesale to the right, as many white ethnics did, becoming Reagan Democrats or Trump supporters. This may be wishful thinking, but in 2020 when Donald Trump—a man routinely labeled “racist,” along with his tens of millions of voters, by the mainstream media—gained a significantly larger share of the Latino vote than his predecessors, particularly in Florida and Texas, and picked up some support among African Americans as well. This pattern appears to have continued in the 2022 midterms, at least according to exit polls, with the GOP winning upwards of 40% of the Latino vote.

Equally intriguing has been the evolution of the Asian American community, with 27% of Asian Americans supporting Trump in 2016 and 31% in 2020. Some of this shift may be a reaction to the wave of violence inflicted upon Asians, often by African American assailants, whose actions, in the bizarre BIPOC formulation, are based not on interracial tensions but rather “white nationalism.” Many Asians also own small businesses vulnerable to the current crime wave, and San Francisco’s large Asian population played an outsize role in recalling the city’s prosecutor, Chesa Boudin, signaling their opposition to liberal policies like bail bond reform and softer sentences for criminals.

Indeed, Asian voters in California have shown their increasing—and increasingly independent—voting power in recent years. They were crucial in rejecting 2020’s affirmative action measure despite significant pressure from progressive activists. In heavily Asian Orange County, where Biden won comfortably, the affirmative action measure still lost 2 to 1, and two Korean American women scooped up Democratic congressional seats.

The affirmative action measure was also defeated in California’s heavily Latino interior counties, as Latinos have emerged as another ethnic group not neatly allied with the BIPOC order. While progressive activists have long decried the enforcement of immigration laws as oppressive and racist, most Latino voters do not share that view. With illegal crossings hitting record highs, mass undocumented immigration is decidedly unpopular among Latinos, especially those living near the border.

Even less popular among Latinos are progressive social orthodoxies—gender fluidity, new pronouns, sexual reassignment surgeries—which are not issues of concern for most minority working families. Latinos have certainly not taken to being called “Latinx,” with barely 4% of them embracing the term despite the academic-media duopoly’s best efforts to foist it upon “Latinx” people in the interest of gender politics.

The Democrats are now starting to take notice of Latinos’ growing support for Republican candidates and policies. Longtime Democratic analyst Ruy Teixiera recently argued that the party would do better addressing the everyday concerns of working-class Hispanics than litigating the legacy of January 6. Minorities make up over 40% of the U.S. working class and will constitute the majority by 2032. Such a shift in strategy would require a swing in Democratic messaging away from race, climate and abortion to focus instead on issues like inflation, rising crime, poor schools, and the threats to stable working and middle-class livelihoods posed by draconian green policies.

Evident in the changing politics of the Asian and Latino communities is the fact that America’s diversity is, well, diversifying. By 2050, according to Pew, Latinos will account for 29% of the American population, more than twice the Black share. Asians, meanwhile, will grow from a population of almost 12 million in 2000 to more than three times that number by midcentury. Taken together, Latinos and Asians will account for 40% of Americans and the vast majority of nonwhites, and while Black voters have been taken for granted as permanent Democrats by both parties, Latino and Asian votes are up for grabs. In places like Texas and Florida , where immigrants have higher rates of homeownership and business ownership, Latinos and Asians tend to split their votes more evenly between the parties.

On the ground level, meanwhile, immigrants are finding success in America—and this despite the fashion among racial activists to denounce things like hard work, punctuality, individualism and the nuclear family as “white.” Contrary to the talking points issued in colleges and corporate diversity seminars, many minorities embrace the capitalist work ethnic and “European” discipline with enthusiasm, as evidenced by their greater proclivity to start businesses than other Americans. In the United States, where roughly 14% of the population is foreign-born, immigrants represent 20.2% of the self-employed workforce and 25% of startup founders.

These minority entrepreneurs and those they employ are also unlikely to share the views espoused by progressive intellectuals that crime is an expression of injustice and that the looting that took place during the summer of 2020 should be excused or even celebrated. After all, many victims of the rioting and destruction were minority businesses. It is “communities of color” who face the greatest threat from renewed levels of violent crime in cities such as New York, Baltimore, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Poll after poll has shown that most Black voters and other minorities do not favor defunding the police, even as these policies are pushed in their name. Last year, New Yorkers, and New York’s African American community in particular, voted in a former cop, Eric Adams, as mayor. Minority voters have also backed more conservative candidates in Buffalo and Seattle. Similar shifts have taken place in Virginia, which saw the election of a West Indian as lieutenant governor and a Cuban American as attorney general.

Advocates of the BIPOC racialist agenda may see themselves riding a wave of demographic change, but their notion that America is a hopelessly racist country is everyday undermined by reality. Last year 840,000 green card holders became citizens, the most in a decade, with the 10 most highly represented countries being nonwhite ones. As of today, over 10% of the American electorate was born elsewhere, the highest share in a half century.

We are now entering an era of relentless jostling between an ever-wider array of ethnic groups.

We are now, already in LA and soon in New York City, entering an era of relentless jostling between an ever-wider array of ethnic groups—Black, Asian, and most consequentially Latino. At the same time, the Jewish presence in America’s cities is shrinking. Even with the high birthrates of Orthodox Jews, New York City’s Jewish population is roughly 25% smaller than its midcentury high. In Los Angeles, the community’s size has not decreased but its political power has, as non-Jews have won electoral offices once held by Jewish community members in the San Fernando Valley and the Westside. In the new arena of ethnic competition, Jews, like other diminishing white ethnic groups, will need to make alliances for pragmatic reasons that may vary from city to city.

Finding the best political course will be far more complex than in the heyday of postwar multicultural liberalism, when the alliance between Jews and African Americans seemed a clear-cut matter of moral and political sense. Without a larger framework like the one provided by the Civil Rights movement, competent Jewish leaders now need to forge ties with other ethnic communities that will depend on who is ascendant and willing to accept Jewish concerns.

The real question is not how to prevent ethnic groups from uniting into some potential revolutionary force aimed at overthrowing the “white” majority, but how to integrate them into the broader economy and society. Doing so will not mean the elimination of all ethnic conflict, which, at its most basic level, is a healthy expression of minority groups fighting for their voice in a democratic society. It should, however, reduce the scale and intensity of that conflict, as the different groups involved recognize that their fight for a larger piece of the pie is taking place within the common community of American life.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.