Opinion: ‘Foot voting’ complicates the narrative that the U.S. is inherently racist

People from a vast array of nationalities want to make America their home. What should we make of that?

A growing segment of American intellectuals believe that racism is baked into the nation’s crust. From the country’s “original sin” of slavery to the displacement of Indigenous people to Jim Crow segregation to Japanese internment camps and the carceral state, these thinkers argue that systemic racism is an inherent feature of American life.

Writing last year in The New York Times, one columnist argued, “It is time for us to simply call a thing a thing: White supremacy is the biggest racial problem this country faces, and has faced. ... It manifests in every segment of American life.”

But a curious phenomenon has been silently unfolding against this intellectual backdrop. Immigrants the world over — from South America and the Caribbean to Africa — are still coming to America in search of a better future for themselves and their children. As a native Canadian now traveling in the U.S., I have been curious about this seeming dichotomy and what it says about the nature of racism in America.

Following the relaxation of U.S. immigration policy in the 1960s away from racial preference, Black immigration to America in particular climbed sharply. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the foreign-born Black population in America increased seven-fold in the next two decades. Between 1980 and 2005 it tripled again. By 2013, Pew Research Center reported that Black immigration had more than quadrupled since 1980.

The latest studies now place the Black immigrant population around 4.6 million by 2019, nearly double the community’s size in 2000. The figures are even larger for Latin American immigration. In 2018, an estimated 44.8 million immigrants were living in the United States with more than half coming from Mexico or Latin America, according to a Pew Research Center report.

These numbers are difficult to square with the rhetoric of some writers today.

There’s no question that racism is still a problem in the United States and beyond. But if America remains an unabashedly white supremacist state, as some claim, it’s worth asking why millions of Black and Latino immigrants would desperately seek entry?

More specifically, why bother immigrating to a country in which leading intellectuals maintain that all aspects of life are structurally aligned against people of color? If the answer is that economic incentives outweigh the purported systemic racism, it’s worth asking whether economic incentives aren’t also evidence of opportunity. Immigration as measured by “foot voting” is one way to discern how individuals and families answer these questions for themselves.

The premise that oppressed people vote with their feet is one of the central arguments of Ilya Somin’s 2020 book, “Free to Move.” Somin sees mobility as an indispensable freedom allowing oppressed people to circumvent systemic disadvantage. Whereas the voices of minorities are sometimes diluted in general elections, movement offers people the freedom to actively change their lives.

“When a voter casts a ballot, his choice is unlikely to affect his life. If he votes with his feet, there is a good chance that act will change his life dramatically,” a 2019 report in The Economist said against the backdrop of global migrations unseen since World War II.

Foot voting might be seen as the ultimate measure of one’s purest convictions and desires.

The subaltern and marginalized know this better than anyone. The transnational migrations of Japanese, Irish Catholics, Cubans, Coptic Christians and Vietnamese testify to this reality. “Foot voting is crucial not only to political choice, but to ensuring opportunity — especially for the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed,” Somin argued in National Affairs recently. America is no different in this regard. The Great Migration emptied the South of millions of African Americans looking for “greater opportunity and relatively low levels of racial discrimination,” Somin writes.

With foot voting in mind, consider the remarkable gap between American racial discourse and Black immigration. As the intellectual war over history has spilled into the public square, a racial reckoning has pitted two competing visions of America against one another. 

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The creator of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, explicitly sought to pivot America’s founding away from 1776 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence to 1619 and the arrival of the first slaves. The claims were met with pushback, both from scholars and the general public, prompting The New York Times to revise certain claims.

Meanwhile, educational spaces took on a social relevance unseen in decades. Debates over affirmative action, critical race theory, equity and representation became new fault lines delineating America. The belief that American racial progress was a myth, or at the very least overhyped, became a defining pillar of certain strands of intellectual thought.

Others, however, argue that America is a country full of shortcomings, but one that strives and progressively succeeds in mending them.

“If a new origin story were to tell us that our ideals have always been a sham,” Bret Stephens writes in his piece “America the Beautiful,” “and that the whole story of America is one of unremitting oppression (as opposed to the far-too-gradual relief of oppression), then we would lose the mechanism of self-reproach by which past progress was made.”

He goes on: “The real beauty of America has less to do with the outer vistas than the inner ones — the ever-renewing possibility of being ‘more perfect’ according to ideals that remain our starting point and destination.”

Immigrants are far likelier to subscribe to that vision of America than what some academics preach today. They see America as a lodestar of promise and opportunity.

That’s not to say Black and Latino immigrants are ignorant of the continued legacy of racism in America. From educational spaces to homeownership and criminal deportations, Black immigrants in particular face higher levels of discrimination than many other foreign-born groups. But Black immigrants also have above average naturalization rates and are culturally integrated better than other groups.

Again, reality is complicated. In fact, the success that many immigrants seek and ultimately find in the U.S. is more often tied to close family bonds, attitudes about marriage, faith and education, attributes that lead to success in America more broadly.

According to new research from Pew, African immigrants have high rates of religiosity and more than half say they attend services weekly, which helps contribute to their cultural assimilation. Moreover, the family life of immigrants tends to be more stable than that of native-born Americans, with higher rates of marriage and lower rates of divorce. These attitudes and behaviors are predictive of long-term success, regardless of one’s background.

It’s not just the success of immigrants, but also that of native-born citizens in the United States that challenge the rhetoric emanating from cloistered academics today. Warts and all, the American Project continues to lift individuals and families of all shades to previously unimaginable heights.

Ari David Blaff is a Canadian freelance journalist. His writings have appeared in National Review, Tablet, Quillette and the Institute for Family Studies.