Is It Apartheid Yet?

Lately friends of mine have been talking about the U.S. heading toward apartheid in response to white fears generated by census reports predicting demographic changes that are likely to erode white power. They point to various attempts to disenfranchise voters of color and marginalize us socially and economically as evidence.

My general reaction has been, “your kidding, right?” I mean, we beat legal apartheid in the courts and on the streets in the 1960s.

But folks say I’m taking the term too literally. They tell me I need consider de facto apartheid – a condition in which whites, even as a minority (though credible sources contradict census predictions and argue that a white minority is not in our near future), are able to rule by creating separate and unequal conditions for people based on race without resorting to explicit racial codes.

Okay, so maybe we’re just trapped in an argument over semantics. After all, we already have a system of minority rule, right?

For instance, the majority of us wanted the Affordable Care Act to include a public option. Regardless, we lost on that issue because a (white) minority interest opposed to the public option exercises disproportionate control over Congress.

And then there’s the wildly disproportionate targeting of Black men in the war on drugs, even when whites use drugs at the same rate as Blacks and are, by far, a bigger driver of the illegal drug trade. That seems like a pretty clear demonstration of how bald faced racism can drive public policy and institutional practices in spite of constitutional guarantees of equal protection. Racial profiling is totally legal, according to our courts, as long as you avoid certain trigger words that explicitly tie your actions to racist intentions.

Advocates of the de facto apartheid scenario also point to efforts to economically marginalize people of color via attacks on government assistance and educational opportunity programs. It’s been pretty clearly demonstrated that leaders of both parties are far less responsive to poor people than to folks with money, so economic marginalization accrues to the political disadvantage of communities of color, right?

Attacks on government are also attacks on government employees, a disproportionate percentage of whom are people of color, reflecting the historical reality that government was (and is) one of very few avenues to good employment for many minorities. Government also plays a regulatory role, including by policing discrimination in hiring and promotions.

Then the prophets of doom ask that we consider conservative efforts to disenfranchise communities of color, especially Latinos and African Americans. By aiming the war on drugs at Black communities and making drug possession a felony that can cost you your voting rights, many states have gotten around the 15th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which prohibit denying ballot access based on race.

And Republican Voter I.D. Laws take things a step further. They know full well that this will have a disproportionate negative impact on communities of color. In fact, that’s the whole point of these laws. In Pennsylvania, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R), has gone so far as to describe Voter ID as a way to “allow Governor Romney to win the state…”

Good point. And don’t get it twisted, the Republican Party is the party of white power.

A 2009 Gallup poll found that 89% of Republicans were white. 2% were Black, 5% Latino, and 4% were “other race.” Of white Republicans, 60% identify as conservative. And, according to a more recent Pew Research Center report, the trend is toward Republicans growing more popular among whites since the election of Barack Obama (while either losing support or holding steady among voters of color).

Put it all together and those fearful of de facto apartheid might be onto something.

But, in spite of all of these arguments (and folks offer many more), I’m not joining the choir on this one yet. To me, it matters not whether the white elite (what we used to call the white power structure back in the day) are plotting (or bumbling into) a form of de facto apartheid because, well, it doesn’t seem to me to increase the urgency of resistance nor change the way we ought to go about it.

But where we agree is on the matter of Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, and economically disadvantaged Asian Americans being systematically marginalized, socially, economically, and politically. And that is cause for alarm, especially because most of our leaders aren’t talking about it, opting instead to go along with the post-racial (or colorblind racism) consensus that the best way of addressing racism is to avoid talking about it.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

14 replies on “Is It Apartheid Yet?”

Hi Scot,

Good post. Although I do agree with your stance regarding the resurgence of Apartheid in the US, but we can’t deny there is a subtle segregation happening in the form of gentrification.

Thanks. I wish I knew more about the subject. If you have good sources, please share!

Why aren’t all Asian Americans “systematically marginalized, socially, economically, and politically”?

Good question. I guess I meant to point out that the model minority myth has the affect of marginalizing, even making invisible, economically disadvantaged Asian immigrant groups such as the Vietnamese and the Hmong who suffer rates of poverty comparable to that of African Americans.

Agreed but it could be argued that it also diminishes the social problems of those who it supposedly elevates. I get your point though, some Asian American groups are quite badly off.

Hi, have you heard of / seen Eduardo Bonilla Silva’s 2004 article on a (possibly) emerging tri-racial system? He says this system will develop in response to the change in U.S.demographics. It’s pretty compelling–I mean, he makes some overreaching statements, but if the powers that be are invested in maintaining inequity (and I believe that they are) to further their own interests, it’s possible.
The article is here:

No, but I’m glad to have found it. Thanks for sending it to me and for your blog. Love your blog.

I definitely agree that the trends you mentioned structurally amount to something similar to apartheid—a deepening of structural racism that could result in a plurality of white people retaining power as the country’s demographics shift. That’s not good for anyone, including white people—the cultural, financial and spiritual costs of such policies is just to high for us. Working class and poor people get economically punished in this situation, not just people of color.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere (, that’s why now is the time to dissolve political wedges and consolidate support by the substantial minority of white people who do see our interests aligned with people of color and other marginalized people/identities. We can get out ahead of this thing, but it will take some investment.

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