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Interview with Eric Kaufmann: race on a professor’s whiteboard

14 December 2018

Nick Spencer speaks to Eric Kaufmann about immigration, identity, and the populist Right

THE day before I met Eric Kaufmann, the political commentator Matthew D’Ancona wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said that bigotry was driving Brexit.

“I am forced to conclude”, he wrote, “that there is now a sufficiency of Britons who just don’t much like people of foreign extraction, and certainly don’t want many more of them around the place.” He doesn’t use the word “racist”, but it hovers over the piece like a bad smell.

I later discovered that Kaufmann had posted on Twitter a response to D’Ancona’s article, saying that it “typifies all that is wrong with left-liberalism. Simple-minded elision of a desire to lower immigration to slow cultural change with ‘nativism’, ‘bigotry’, ‘ugliness’ (that is, racism, fascism).”

We are clearly in turbulent waters, here. Indeed, given that Kaufmann’s new book, Whiteshift, opens with the bracingly blunt sentence, “We need to talk about white identity,” it seems that they are freezing waters, too. Careers can die in such climates. There be not only dragons here, but neo-Nazis, Islamophobes, and racists with whom no sane person, let alone an academic social scientist, would want to be seen dead.

So the obvious question is, why go there? Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He is a respected expert on immigration and demography, and the author of several books, most prominently (until now) his 2010 study, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and politics in the twenty-first century (Books, 31 December 2010).

He came across to me, when I met him, as thoughtful and reasonable. He listens carefully, smiles a lot, and chooses his words with caution. In other words, he seems to be a world away from the kind of angry, self-righteous culture-warrior who normally wants to talk about race or identity.

“A lot of this is in the context of the rise of populist Right parties and also of Trump in the United States,” he began — almost inevitably — before veering off into less-well-trodden territory. “But I tended to see this in a longer-term cultural and demographic light.” Unlike those of us caught up in the brouhaha of the moment, demographers, like the papacy, think in centuries. Whiteshift is about bringing the perspective of long-term trends to bear on the frenetic tyranny of now.

This sounds appealing. After all, who dislikes perspective? But I wonder how confident we can really be about such forecasts. As Professor Grace Davie remarked in her review of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, “in the field of religion, life is full of surprises.”

“Demography is the most predictive of the social sciences,” Kaufmann told me. Predictions about fertility, mortality, and intermarriage are based on assumptions; and “clearly, if the assumptions change radically, [so will the predictions]. But we have reasonably good groups for most of the assumptions. . . [and so can say] what the future will look like.” We may not be certain about Britain in 2100, but we can, he said, generate some reasonably reliable scenarios.


TWO of those scenarios give Whiteshift its name. Whiteshift 1.0, as he described it to me, is about “the decline of the white ethnic majority in Western countries. It’s furthest down the road in the US, where non-Hispanic whites are about 60 per cent of the population, down from 85 per cent in the mid-1960s.” The US is predicted to be “majority minority” by the 2040s, with New Zealand, Australia, and Western Europe forecast to join it by 2100.

“I am arguing that a lot of the populist upsurge around immigration is tied to that, in the sense that spikes in immigration make a lot of people think about . . . the security of their identities.” Populism, contrary to much of the received wisdom, has nothing to do with economics. The data, he declared, showed conclusively that economics made no difference to whether people voted for Trump, but had everything to do with immigration, culture, and race.

In a 2017 paper for Policy Exchange, the centre-right think tank, he argued that “racial self-interest” — “the realm of group partiality, even clannishness” — was not racism, and urged pro-immigration groups to “avoid using charges of racism to side-line discussions of ethno-demographic interests”. To do so, he warned, “compels those whose true motivations are ethnic to couch them in economic terms”.

Research published in that paper highlighted divided attitudes: almost half White British Remain voters agreed that a White British personwho wanted to reduce immigration “to maintain her group’s share of the population” was being racist, compared with just five per cent of White British Leave voters.

Whiteshift 2.0 is the “longer-term demographic” in which what were “white majorities [will] absorb different members of racial groups”, and “select which ancestry myths, which traditions, that mixed-race population is going to look to”. In other words, it is about how the meaning of “white” will shift, as it did in the US, where pure “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants” in the 19th century came to include European immigrants in the early 20th.

This does not seem to be particularly contentious. Whiteshift is packed with data — dozens of bar charts, line graphs, scatter diagrams, density maps — which preclude even ideological opponents from rubbishing it. It is a mercy that Kaufmann writes well, because otherwise its 500 pages might feel as long as some of his forecasts. Either way, the book is clearly no thinly disguised agitation for a cause. Moreover, since Kaufmann was born in Hong Kong, brought up in Canada, and is a quarter Chinese and a quarter Latino, it’s hard to claim him for the nationalist Right. He, and his book, demand to be taken seriously.


ALL that notwithstanding, a certain low-level controversy has gathered round both. Some people, such as David Aaronovitch in his review of the book for The Times, refuse to recognise the distinction between “racial self-interest” and “racism”, to which Kaufmann and others have referred, when the racial group is a clear majority, as are whites in Britain.

Others, such as Kenan Malik in The Observer, claim that the very idea of white identity is meaningless. “There is no singular set of interests shared by all whites,” he wrote. Talk of “white interests” merely “obscures the real problems facing the working class”. (One wonders, in passing, whether there is a singular set of interests that encompasses any ethnic group, or whether a newspaper columnist telling “the working class” what, in spite of their opinions, their “real” problems are, is very helpful).

Perhaps the most serious concern is that, simply by mainstreaming this conversation, Kaufmann is inadvertently giving legitimacy to the nasties who lurk in the shadows. This was a concern that several people expressed to me about a debate in which Kaufmann and others were to participate on 6 December, to be entitled “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?”, before controversy changed it to “Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy?”

This, I put to Kaufmann, was the crux. By writing about white identity, and asking questions about the threats of diversity, didn’t we give succour to those we shouldn’t? Kaufmann was robust, though never less than polite, in response.

“Is the rise of Tommy Robinson possible without the Rotherham scandal [in which local authorities failed to act against sustained child sexual exploitation for fear that it would provoke accusations of racism]?” The Rotherham scandal, he said, would not have been possible without these instincts for repression within political circles.

In her review of the scandal, Professor Alexis Jay concluded that it had been “ill-judged” to avoid public discussion of its ethnic dimensions, and emphasised that there had been no direct engagement between the Rotherham council and the Pakistani-heritage community (News, 29 August 2014). But she also highlighted a host of contributing factors, including police officers’ “regarding many child victims with contempt, and failing to act on their abuse as a crime”.

More characteristically, Kaufmann also responded to my question with social science. “The idea of ‘giving ideas legitimacy’ is a major talking-point among ‘Left-modernists’ [but] the evidence for it is, as far as I can tell, essentially non-existent. There haven’t been studies that can clearly show that simply debating in a critical way, and using evidence in some way, gives oxygen to the populist Right.”


FORCING important conversations about immigration, ethnic identity, and cultural cohesion offline does not ensure that they won’t happen. As Kaufmann puts it elsewhere, if you don’t allow legal suppliers of alcohol, bootleggers move in.

I think he is right. I remember writing a book 15 years ago on a Christian response to asylum and immigration, both fevered topics at the time. I concluded that we needed to be more supportive about asylum and more critical about immigration; and I recall dreading the response.

Neither position was wildly popular at the time, but the worst that those who disagreed with the former could call me was a bleeding-heart, woolly liberal — big deal. In contrast, the worst those who disagreed about being sceptical towards immigration could call me a racist – and that would hurt. The temptation to follow Seamus Heaney’s advice about the Troubles, in a poem of the same name — “Whatever you say, say nothing” — is overwhelming.

It is advice that Kaufmann has chosen not to follow, and I think we should be grateful for that. There is certainly a danger that the trolls (and worse) will weaponise the arguments of Whiteshift. Indeed, as I was writing this, a colleague emailed me an example of a way in which that was already happening (in the US). It is thus necessary — no, imperative — that, if we do have this conversation in public, we mind our words.

I agree with Kaufmann that “by airing these subjects, and allowing the mainstream parties to discuss and debate them, people can come to a compromise.” But we must air them with care, and in particular must ensure that scepticism towards immigration never tips over into scepticism towards immigrants. As UKIP’s chilling “Breaking Point” poster reminds us, we can’t assume anything here.

Kaufmann, with his heavy reliance on data, his careful use of language, his personal background, and his insistence that there are racist and xenophobic views that are morally wrong and have no place in mainstream discourse, is a now significant feature in our shifting public discourse. We would do well to heed him.


Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos. His interview with Eric Kaufmann can be heard at www.theosthinktank.co.uk.

Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Minorities is published by Allen Lane at £25.

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