tucker carlson
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

This short commentary from Tucker Carlson captures a lot of the lies Trump’s brand of white nationalism has injected into our current political conversation.

He says that, when it comes to demographics, “no society has ever changed this much this fast” and goes on to suggest that “this is more change than human beings are designed to digest.”

If Carlson had bothered to actually read the article in National Geographic that he mentions, which focused on Hazleton, Pennsylvania and was written by Michele Norris, he would have heard the story of Sally Yale, the owner of a coffee shop in town. Norris captures Yale’s fond memories of an annual Funfest.

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…

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.

None of that stopped Yale from buying into Trump’s lies.

“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.”

Contrary to what Carlson said and Yale refuses to acknowledge is the fact that the United States of America was built on change when it comes to immigrants. We can adapt because we always have…eventually.

What is important for all of us to think about is the question of what made it so much more difficult for the town of Hazleton to adapt than the places in Kansas that James Fallows visited.

These cities of western Kansas, Dodge City and Garden City, are both now majority-Latino. People from Mexico are the biggest single immigrant group, and they are here mainly for work in the area’s big meat-packing plants. Others are from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Cuba, and more recently Somalia and Sudan, among other countries. You might think of Kansas as stereotypical whitebread America. It’s pure America, all right — but American in the truest sense, comprising people who have come from various corners of the world to improve their fortunes.

Every single person we’ve met here — Anglo and Latino, African and Burmese and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, male and female, well-educated and barely literate, working three jobs and retired and still in school—of all these people, we’ve asked the same questions. Namely: how has Kansas handled this shift in demography?..

And every single person we have spoken with — Anglo and Latino and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, and so on down the list — every one of them has said: We need each other! There is work in this community that we all need to do. We can choose to embrace the world, or we can fade and die. And we choose to embrace it.

Norris recounted a different approach to change in Hazleton.

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.

In Hazelton, the mayor stepped up to assert whiteness as the town’s identity and suggested that it was in need of defense. That became the “story of Hazleton,” much as Trump is attempting to define the mythological past embraced by white nostalgia voters as the “story of America.” Rather than help people adapt to change, that revanchist approach sets us up for tension and conflict.

The inevitable change that Norris points to with these demographics is that whiteness is being examined—perhaps for the first time in this country.

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.

As a white person, I was once told by the leader of a workshop on undoing racism that I would be able to enter any conversation about race when I had grappled with my own identity as a white person. That is the task that awaits us now as we adapt to change.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.