Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities by Eric Kaufmann - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Majority Report

Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities


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A political scientist working at Birkbeck College, London, Eric Kaufmann is ‘a quarter Latino and a quarter Chinese’. He was raised in Canada but his father’s family was of Czech-Jewish background. His original expertise was the history of the Orange Order in Northern Ireland. Like Richard English, the historian of the IRA, he has diversified into the study of nationalism. Unusually, Kaufmann is fluent in opinion surveys and political demography too. That alone ensures that Whiteshift is a very substantial book with important things to say about identity, migration, populism and other questions of the moment.

Kaufmann’s book sets out to chronicle ‘the turbulent journey from a world of racially homogeneous white majorities to one of racially hybrid majorities’. The future will be shades of beige, Kaufmann claims. Everyone will have traces of different ethnicities not immediately apparent, like the mixed-race politicians Iain Duncan Smith, Geert Wilders and Ted Cruz.

Whiteshift also describes how the core cultural identity in white-majority countries will expand to take in immigrant categories of non-white people, and also gradually accommodate anyone who assimilates to the dominant culture, with intermarriage being one important factor. White identity won’t disappear. Rather it will shape-shift, becoming a new Creole or mestizo identity, in which the old myths will still be dominant.

If this does not happen, we will be in trouble, from both immigrants consolidating their ethno-religious identities and a core white group that will not simply go away. Rather archly, Kaufmann says that ‘white flight’ is mainly something for middle-class liberals who can afford to leave ‘vibrant’ inner cities, rather than the binman or postman. A great virtue of Kaufmann’s book is that it is not another alarmist tract about ‘Londonistan’ or a Muslim ‘Eurabia’, but one that puts the white population under the spotlight. The focus is primarily on the USA and UK, though Kaufmann has some interesting sections on Australia, his native Canada and New Zealand. This is the ‘Anglosphere’, much beloved of some Brexiters, though South Africa seems to have been cut loose in their imaginations and they don’t have a clue about Ireland.

The 2016 Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump were manifestly the spurs to this vast scholarly endeavour. They reflect how the pendulum of voter concern has swung from economics to identity. In both cases, anxiety about the pace of demographic change (not always in towns and cities where the majority has become the minority) and resentment with the antiracist moralism of white liberals played important roles.

When Kaufmann writes history he is very good. Anyone might profit from the chapters on immigration to the USA. Take, for instance, the Statue of Liberty. This was erected in 1885–6 to symbolise Franco-American concord as well as liberty. It is often regarded as an emblem of US openness to immigration. The poet Emma Lazarus’s famous lines ‘Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses’ were placed on a pedestal plaque in 1903. A play called The Melting Pot followed a few years later, and in 1958 John F Kennedy wrote a potboiler called A Nation of Immigrants. That might be said to be the USA’s official motto.

But the reality was often otherwise. Even though from a very early date some Americans, including businessmen, Protestant clergy and liberal cosmopolitans like Ralph Waldo Emerson, felt and wrote positively about immigration, the core WASP elite did its best to keep out various kinds of immigrant who might dilute the traditional population in unwanted ways. In 1854 populists among them spawned the fastest-growing third party in American history, the Native American Party, otherwise known as the ‘Know-Nothings’ (their standard response to enquiries about the party being ‘I know nothing’).

Civil war and westwards expansion resulted in Irish, German and Scandinavian immigrants being given associate membership of the core white group, while concern was diverted to Chinese and Mexican immigrants instead. From the 1880s, however, anxieties refocused on the new Europeans, namely Italian, Russian and Polish immigrants who, as Catholics, Orthodox Christians or Jews, once again threatened the core Protestant identity. In 1929 reactionary WASP interest groups ensured that half of the immigration quota was assigned to the British. It is worth recalling a few lines from the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, set in the 1940s. An Italian gangster (inevitably Joe Pesci) says to a CIA officer played by Matt Damon: ‘We Italians, we got our families and we got the church. The Irish, they have their homeland. The Jews, their traditions … What about you people, Mr Wilson, what do you have?’ To which the answer comes: ‘The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.’ Nonetheless, two world wars and the Cold War gave a second push to the assimilation of these immigrants. Today all the Ramirezes and Garcias are becoming as American as the De Niros and De Vitos before them. Indeed Hispanics are the second largest group of volunteers to the Marine Corps.

Although the polling evidence Kaufmann surveys shows rather complex views on race, there has recently been an upswell of popular anger – stoked by rich tribunes of the ‘real’ people – over the failure to consult, or the tendency simply to ignore, voters’ opinions. Kaufmann is especially scathing about the New Labour elite, which basked in the imagined approval of their international counterparts for the shiny, cosmopolitan global London they created and their parallel concern with the developing world. Dishonest free-marketeers on the Right demonstrate a similar hubris when they talk about transforming London into Singapore. Where would this leave the resentful denizens of ‘flyover’ country outside the M25, especially since the same individuals want to bring in more non-European migrants? Many ordinary people have seen the realities of multiculturalism and do not like either it or an accompanying political correctness that never extended much courtesy or cultural sensitivity to Gillian Duffy or tattooed ‘chavs’ in white vans with the Cross of St George flying outside their houses.

One of the best aspects of Kaufmann’s book is its optimism. He does not regard the current migration crisis as insoluble, provided that the rate of legal deportations speeds up and provided also that Europe accepts the need for long-term refugee camps, from which some people might progress to permanent settlement through a system that favours the most disadvantaged who have been languishing in camps for decades. This would also cut out activist lawyers and judges, who come in for particular criticism here for obstructing our ability to quickly expatriate failed asylum seekers to the lengthening list of countries the EU deems safe. Kaufmann might have mentioned that it is Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini who are blocking any sensible EU strategy so as to keep the migrant crisis alive until the EU parliamentary elections in May.

He hopes that our societies will move beyond clumsy attempts to impose a civic or ‘creedal’ nationalism on new citizens, envisaging a situation in which such people voluntarily buy into the traditions of a country’s once-dominant ethnic group. That has already happened in the USA in the case of African-Americans, Asians and many Hispanics. Something similar has happened with Caribbean and Hong Kong Chinese migrants to the UK. As Kaufmann says, only a very gradualist immigration policy will make this possible. Where large numbers of newcomers and their dependents consolidate themselves in what Ian Buruma once dubbed ‘dish cities’, a reference to the numerous satellite dishes picking up television channels in North Africa and the Middle East, the incentives to assimilate are zero and the effects sometimes lethal. Sajid Javid is right too to highlight the issue of stay-at-home women who know no English.

A few critical thoughts need airing about Kaufmann’s book. It is very long and not helped by sentences such as: ‘The rise of a discourse of cultural appropriation represents the elevation of left-modernism’s moralistic egalitarian ego over its expressive-individualist alter, showing how the tension between these strands defines the adversary culture.’ Perhaps even more of the polling data Kaufmann cites could have been swept onto his website. The graphs and tables do not help the smooth reading of the book, and the monochrome graphics are too poor in quality to make them easily comprehensible. Not every reader will be as interested as the professor in following the playpen antics of the postmodern academy. At times the book feels like an assemblage of earlier articles, and some of Kaufmann’s sensible policy prescriptions are scattered throughout the book, rather than situated in a dedicated section.

Kaufmann also risks giving too much weight to one particular cause of the current populist conniptions. The focus on migration by populists could be regarded as a form of deliberate distraction. What about serial corruption scandals, the erosion of the industrial working class and the socialist parties that represented them, the smug centralist managerialism of modern politicians, the bailouts for the few and punishing austerity for the many, not to mention the glaring inequalities of life chances in societies that are credentialist and nepotistic at the same time?

There is also almost no discussion of societies with very low numbers of foreign-born migrants, such as Japan (1.75 per cent), South Korea (3.4 per cent) and China, which has 600,000 migrants in a population of 1.6 billion. Does this make them less culturally vibrant? I doubt it, looking at their artists, film-makers and writers. Is non-migration deleterious to their economies? Like many European countries, even China faces progressive and costly senescence in the near future. Will these countries simply use more AI and robots? And if Western societies will too, then why should they add to the pool of economically superfluous people by taking in more migrants? In those circumstances, the problem of immigration may pale in significance beside the massive technological changes ensuing from Industrial Revolution 4.0, a subject totally absent from this important book.

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