The following strictly reflects the personal views of solely the author and not any other organization or individual.
T he story of contemporary America is one of transition, and it is best observed from Stone Mountain: a deceptively named quartz monadnock on the periphery of the Atlanta suburbs that isn’t quite large enough to technically qualify as a mountain. Unique among landmarks, Stone Mountain has borne witness to the most significant developments in American race relations for hundreds of years. This is literally true, in the case of the three Confederate leaders—Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee—who are etched prominently into its side. It is also figuratively true, as the metro Atlanta area surrounding Stone Mountain cemented its legacy over time as both a Civil War battleground and the heart of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Today, the region is once again a harbinger of the fate awaiting the rest of the nation, as rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian immigrant communities complicate and add color to a fraught racial history that has, up until now, been written in black and white.
In 2020 and in what has already passed of 2021, we saw America undergo a series of political, social, and existential convulsions as it transitions from a majority white nation to one that is expected to become majority-minority in roughly 2045. From the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the country following numerous accounts of police brutality against Black Americans, to the January 6 insurrection that saw Confederate flags make their way farther into the nation’s Capitol than they did even during the Civil War, the echoes of battles that were thought to have ended over a century ago have reemerged violently. And yet, as demons of the past rise again, they have taken on new shades in a country that would be unrecognizable to those who took up arms in the Civil War.
To historians, Stone Mountain is where the Ku Klux Klan had its second national resurgence in 1915 after being largely stamped out in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. To contemporary Georgians, Stone Mountain is where you go with your family every Fourth of July to watch a laser show that transforms the quartz likeness of Stonewall Jackson into the fiddle-playing, backwards cap-wearing protagonist of the hit Charlie Daniels Band song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The history and reality of systemic racism takes on different meanings in the eyes of new immigrants. As each year passes, both are further complicated by an expanding group of new Americans who are increasingly distant from the sins and demons of the past.
“It is this battle over identity, meaning, and history that will continue to define America as it transitions from one era to the next.”
The tension apparent in that transition manifested itself in the 2020 presidential election, which I was fortunate to have a front-row view to as a policy staffer on Joe Biden’s campaign. In the end, after a tumultuous summer that saw a racial reawakening in the middle of a pandemic, we succeeded in defeating Donald Trump and, at least symbolically, the coarse grievance politics that he wholly embraced and led. However, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that the moral and political significance of the victory obscured another version of reality, which saw Asian and Hispanic Americans—who are the fastest-growing demographic group and the largest minority demographic group in America, respectively—turn out in decisive margins in key swing states and, in some cases, vote in unexpected ways. While both groups cast a majority of their votes for Democrats, and have made it clear that their votes are up for grabs by either party, they did not do so at nearly the rate of Black Americans. And as the country is continuously reborn through waves of immigration it is clear that its identity is up for grabs as well.
Much of the American experience can be distilled down to a single question: “Are you white or are you Black?” What will it mean to be an American when the most common answer is “neither”? 2020 saw the beginning of a demographic tide that promises to realign America’s political and social landscape. And there is no place that better encapsulates this transition than Stone Mountain, where the largest Confederate monument on the planet looms over the past and future of one of the most racially diverse communities in the American South.
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I grew up in the shadow of Stone Mountain in Gwinnett County, a suburban community roughly twenty-five miles northeast of Atlanta. My parents and I immigrated from Uzbekistan when I was roughly a year old as part of the first class of immigrants to arrive via the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. Gwinnett has earned recent news coverage for its diversity, and the most recent Census Bureau estimates from 2019 peg the county’s population at 35% white, 30% Black, 22% Latino, and 13% Asian. My childhood, like many of my peers, was a blur of country music and hip-hop playing in the background of large family picnics and kids’ birthday parties where you’d alternatingly be served hot dogs, Indian biryani, or tacos, depending on whose house you were at.
By 2050, according to Woods & Poole Economics, Gwinnett’s population is projected to be 38% Black, 27% Latino, 21% Asian, and just 14% white: an astonishing transformation in a community that until 2016 had an all-white county commission. These swift and significant demographic changes are occurring throughout the metro Atlanta area, and give an outsized spotlight to local political disputes that take on the weight of a changing nation. One such debate occurred recently, as the propriety of Stone Mountain’s Confederate visages took on new meaning in the face of deadly violence.
Several years ago, the city of Charleston, South Carolina saw tragedy at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as a white supremacist murdered a group of mostly elderly Black churchgoers. Investigations found that the shooter was inspired by neo-Confederate ideology and took several photos with “Stars and Bars” Confederate regalia. As part of a national response, civil rights groups and organizers in Georgia demanded that Stone Mountain remove its Confederate carvings and, at the very least, relegate them to a museum.
I asked my dad what he thought about the entire ordeal. A loyal Democratic voter ever since we became citizens, my dad is the kind of person who I suspect came to his party less out of ideological conviction and more out of emotional backlash. Though we are proud Americans, we are also plainly Muslim immigrants. The Islamophobia of the Tea Party movement of 2009 and 2010, which saw President Obama viciously and perplexingly denigrated as a Muslim-Atheist-Socialist-Terrorist, made it clear that we were to be Democrats as well.
Thus, I expected a somewhat progressive response from him when I asked whether he thought the monuments should be removed. He looked ahead and said, in broken English and with solemn but defiant certainty, “We can’t forget our history.” This struck me as an odd thing to say, given that we were immigrants from Uzbekistan and that our ancestors were likely nomads in the western slopes of contemporary China when the Civil War raged on. Furthermore, the response was certainly not what I expected from an immigrant who came to nearly all of his political views through his experiences with discrimination. He shrugged his shoulders. “Is not good to take down. They do bad, but the liberals take too much,” he said. Consistency has never been my dad’s strongest suit. Perhaps that could be said of America as well.
As seemingly contradictory as my father’s views are, they gave me early insight into the convoluted political views of predominantly immigrant groups that ultimately played a decisive role in the 2020 election. Given Trump’s early characterization of Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists” and overt anti-immigrant sentiments, most political prognosticators believed that the Republican share of the Hispanic vote would collapse in 2016. According to exit polling, Trump ended up improving on Mitt Romney’s 27% share of the Hispanic vote in 2012 by winning 29% in 2016. And after a presidency marked with tangible hostilities towards immigrants of all stripes, Trump further improved in 2020 with 31% of the Hispanic vote.
The story is similar with Asian-American voters. Exit polling data indicates that in 2020, President Trump earned roughly 34% of the Asian-American vote, an increase from the 27% he earned in 2016. While the net increases in support are relatively modest, it is important for Democrats to ask the question of how a President that they universally deem to be deeply racist managed to improve his standing with the largest and fastest-growing minority groups in the country over the span of four years of governance.
"[I]t is difficult to convince a group of people who gave up everything in hopes of building a new life in a new world that their new home is only worthy of eternal scorn.”
Some have suggested that the branding of the Republican Party as a refuge for hard workers, free enterprise, and opportunity are a natural fit for a self-selecting group of immigrants who are inclined to be entrepreneurially-focused. Others have argued that the Democratic Party’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, morally correct as it may be, has the corollary effect of repelling non-Black voters. Similar to this point, others have written that anti-Blackness in some Hispanic and Asian-Americans is triggered by Trumpism in much the same way that it is for white voters. The truth is that all of these suggestions are likely true to an extent, and that the difficulty of electoral politics is in determining what a winning strategy is when no one variable is decisive and increasingly diverse racial groups do not vote monolithically. If a campaign wins with 50.1% of the vote, its strategic choices are regarded as broadly correct and as having an intimate understanding of the minds and hearts of voters. If a campaign loses with 49.9% of the vote, it is written into history books as a plodding, unorganized, and deeply flawed affair with a severe misunderstanding of the electorate. As the saying goes, success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.
Plainly, the 2020 election demonstrated that demographics are not destiny. Military tacticians often say that those who predicate too much of their strategy on the narrow contours of prior conflicts are setting themselves up to fail by fighting the previous war. After several decades of loyalty from voters of color, Democrats have to a large extent fallen into the assumption that as the country becomes more diverse, their electoral prospects will continuously improve. Donald Trump and the political currents that he fomented have made clear that the country is fracturing along many fault lines other than race, further complicating the path forward for a nation that finds itself transitioning into uncharted demographic and political territory.
From the perch of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, I saw some of these cracks firsthand. Though race was a constant refrain in every debate and strategic analysis, an intersectional perspective was necessary to understand the nuances of what was really going on on the ground. In the run-up to primary voting, our campaign was widely heralded as being the strongest with Black voters, which did indeed prove to be the case until the nomination was clinched. However, a closer look found that younger Black voters, particularly those under the age of thirty-five, were much more inclined than their elders to be supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whom many pundits perceived to be the most progressive candidates running. This age split was present with both Hispanic and Asian voters as well.
The progressive and activist sheen that younger and more diverse voters are imparting to the Democratic Party has important consequences for both current and future elections. While a more populist and progressive party is critical for tapping into expanding universes of new voters, it also butts into caricatured critiques crafted by the Republican party that have particular salience with minority voters. The term “socialism,” for example, plays a complicated role in contemporary American politics, representing for many younger voters a more equitable and humane economic system that seeks to curb the tragedies of mismatched scarcities and excesses that have come to represent the last four decades of American life. For some older immigrant voters, particularly those from Vietnam, Cuba, and Venezuela, socialism evokes memories of totalitarianism, poverty, and hunger. This fissure has already begun to affect voting patterns and will only become more prominent as younger, more progressive leaders come to define what the Democratic Party will look like in the future.
I suspect based on the contradictions of my father that there is also something more going on here, something more visceral that comes down to what it fundamentally meant to be an American. There is an undercurrent to contemporary progressivism that deems America too broken, too racist, and too flawed from conception to be capable of true multicultural democracy. Proponents of this idea cite abundant evidence, from an increasingly vitriolic and openly racist politics to the physical manifestation of past sins such as Stone Mountain. Through the eyes of many immigrants, however, America always stands anew, beckoning all those who seek freedom and opportunity to its shores. The Republican Party has made focused and successful efforts to brand itself as the more overtly nationalist party, one that defends America’s past and present zealously against progressive critique. This approach aligns with the perspectives of many immigrants, for whom the past exists less as a continuous point of condemnation and more as a marker of continuous progress. Put more plainly, it is difficult to convince a group of people who gave up everything in hopes of building a new life in a new world that their new home is only worthy of eternal scorn.
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On January 5, the state of Georgia saw two run-off elections for U.S. Senate seats that would determine control of the chamber and, in turn, the fate of the Biden presidency. They faced an uphill battle; apart from Biden’s slim victory in November, Democrats had not won statewide office in Georgia since 2006. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidates, are Jewish and Black, respectively. Nonetheless, they and outside organizing groups focused meticulously on finding creative ways to engage Asian and Hispanic voters, the cornerstone of a new Georgia and a new America that now make up a significant portion of the population and cannot be ignored. I spent a weekend at one of dozens of canvassing events targeted at Asian-American voters. There, I found myself greeted at the campaign office with free bubble tea boba drinks (a Taiwanese staple) and placard signs that read “Asian Votes Matter.” Half of the attendees were elderly white liberals. The other half, adolescent Asian-Americans. It was a vivid display of multicultural, intergenerational democracy in action. As we knocked on doors, not every person answered but those who did were enthusiastic about voting.
Hispanics were also heavily engaged. A non-profit group called Con Mijente—a reference to the terms gente (people) and justicia (justice)—reported on January 4 that it had contacted every Hispanic voter in Georgia in the span of eight weeks. Celebrities ranging from Eva Longoria to America Ferrera flocked to the state to implore voters to support Ossoff and Warnock. Both Democratic candidates were optimistic and focused on the broad array of issues plaguing voters of all races, including the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn. At the same time, they did not shy away from highlighting issues that had particular salience to the state’s significant Black community, including a new Civil Rights Act.
In the end, Ossoff and Warnock won by narrow margins, succeeding in no small part due to high Democratic turnout in the ring of suburban counties surrounding Stone Mountain. Both earned more than two hundred thousand votes in Gwinnett County, whereas the 2014 Democratic U.S. Senate candidate received merely eighty-six thousand in the general election, despite the fact that run-off elections typically see lower turnout than their general election counterparts. Importantly, the vast majority of those new voters were voters of color. By embracing a strategic partnership that harkened back to the Jewish-Black alliances that were an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Ossoff and Warnock showed that multicultural democracy has a place in the emerging America. Though the Confederate generals still sit high on Stone Mountain, the world that they look over is being reborn.
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The day after the election, my elation quickly dissipated as a nearly all-white group of insurrectionists and white supremacists stormed the nation’s capitol. The attack was a vivid illustration of the fact that though a coalition of Black, white, Asian and Hispanic voters in the Deep South has just elected its state’s first Black and Jewish Senators a mere twelve hours before, there was still much work to be done to repair the deep divisions that remain woven into the nation’s fabric. The political currents of 2020 showed that while the emerging America stands to play a pivotal role in electing new leaders and charting new courses, that direction was very much still up for grabs. It is a battle, however, that cannot be fully won without grappling with America’s history.
The subjugation of Black Americans is deeply embedded in American institutions and life. Our Constitutional design empowers smaller, predominantly rural (and white) states over those with exponentially larger, more diverse populations. Staggering levels of racial wealth inequality took root during the original sin of slavery and blossomed through generations of systemic Jim Crow discrimination. These are reasons to be skeptical of a whitewashed version of American history that generalizes the past into an idealized caricature that absolves our predecessors of any wrongdoing and plainly ignores how prior sins have developed into contemporary tragedies. This awareness must exist, however, alongside a recognition that, for the Asian and Hispanic immigrants who leave everything behind to begin a new life in the United States, there is a pride that develops in the process of seeking, striving, and dreaming to succeed in a new land.
Such awareness does not mean that Democrats should not be forthright in condemning and addressing racism in all its forms; indeed, we must. But one must love something to see it as worthy of repair. Many immigrants came to America because they loved the possibility of it, and still see it as they first did when arriving at its shores. It is this battle over identity, meaning, and history that will continue to define America as it transitions from one era to the next. Indeed, the past three months have arduously demonstrated that a path towards multicultural democracy is available for our nation, if only we love it enough to try. ◘