The "Majority-Minority" Myth
Our racial future may not be what we have come to believe.
If there’s one core assumption shared by the two tribes of our culture, it is that America will soon be a “majority-minority” nation. Among today’s seniors, “whites” still dominate; but among children, “non-whites” are now a very clear majority. The debate about when exactly America will become a majority-minority country moves around a bit in the projections, but it’s somewhere near the middle of this century. And this underlying reality has created a kind of background noise to our debates about race and culture, immigration and populism.
For both tribes, it feels as if a seismic shift is coming soon that will shape the meaning of America for the foreseeable future — a transformation some in the blue tribe may celebrate as a final victory over “whiteness”, and many in the red tribe agonize over as an end to the America they have long felt a part of.
And it’s the simple, binary nature of this challenge that shapes our political divide: a “white” vs “non-white” America, “white people” vs “people of color”, “racists” vs “anti-racists”, “oppressors vs “oppressed”. It effectively makes America’s racial and cultural future zero-sum, in which we are currently neatly divided into two camps, and cannot all be winners. This Manichean vision shapes the woke left and the reactionary right, and it marches toward us.
Few have seriously debated or questioned this demographic orthodoxy (I include myself in this myopia). And yet it seems fundamental to our political present. In fact, I don’t think you can explain the persistence of Trump and Trumpism at all without understanding fears of a “non-white” future. And it’s hard to understand Democratic political strategy without appreciating their assumption that non-white immigrants will always be more reliable voters for them than white natives.
But what if this entire scenario is just empirically wrong? What if the entire idea of a majority-minority country is based on an illusion? That’s the arresting proposition of some scholars who examine demographic shifts and don’t quite buy the binary nature of the conventional wisdom. One is Richard Alba, Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His new book, The Great Demographic Illusion, examines and, I have to say, largely detonates, the majority-minority myth. He does this simply by pointing out how the Census Bureau actually defines “non-white”.
In a weird and creepy echo of the old “one-drop rule,” you are officially counted as “non-white” by the Census if your demographic background has any non-white component to it. So the great majority of Americans whose race is in any way ambiguous or mixed are counted as “non-white” even if they don’t identify as such. And this obviously skews a much more complex reality about race in America. “The group with mixed minority-white parentage is the pivot on which the outcomes of Census Bureau population projections depend,” Alba writes. “If we change our assumptions about its classification, the projected future looks quite different.”
What Alba examines is how these mixed-race populations understand themselves and behave within American society, and his conclusion is that our current situation resembles our assimilationist, melting point past much more than we currently believe. “In some fundamental ways,” Alba argues, “such as educational attainment, social affiliations, and marriage tendencies, the members of mixed groups appear closer to the white side of their background than to the minority side.”
This is particularly true with respect to the offspring of Latino-Anglo and Asian-Anglo couples, who are increasingly assimilated into the new bi-racial and multiracial mainstream. The only exception to this rule, alas, are black-white mixed children — who are more likely to be in single-parent homes, to be poorer and to have bad experiences with law enforcement, and thereby tend to identify with the non-white part of their identity. But even here, Alba notes, white-black children “not infrequently marry whites.” And the core difference between these kids and others is as much about class and family structure as it is about racism.
But doesn’t this just prove the critical race theorists right — that achieving “whiteness” is the mark of social and economic integration in America? Not exactly. What Alba argues is that the “mainstream” to which many mixed-race Americans aspire is no longer best understood as a form of 1950s-style “whiteness” than as an inter-connected, 21st Century multicultural and multiracial kaleidoscope, in which many, especially the younger generation, feel increasingly at home. He wants to contrast the old “idea of assimilation as whitening” with “the ongoing mainstream diversification.” And if you do that, and complicate the white-non-white binary, the racial picture of America becomes much less fraught.
Key here is the role of the Latino population, and how it is defined. Most demographic estimates of the “white” population are based on the Census definition: “non-Hispanic white.” But what of “Hispanic whites” — those whose lineage may come from South or Latin America in ethnicity but who also identify racially and socially as white? If you include them in this category, America remains two-thirds “white” all the way through 2060 and beyond. And this is not some wild diversion from previous definitions. Until 1930, Alba notes, Mexican immigrants were counted as “white” in the Census. If you kept that standard today, the whole notion of “majority-minority” would simply evaporate.
A critical decision was made by the Office of Management and Budget in 2000 to define all mixed-race Americans as “minority”, even if they identified as white, even if their geographical origins were almost entirely European. Why? Pressure from civil rights groups, concerned that we would miss discrimination against mixed-race Americans if they were classified as white.
But this understandable concern misses the dynamics and complexity of a multiracial, multi-generational culture, where race is a much fuzzier concept, and the mainstream is seen through the prism of the brownish 2020s and not of the “white” 1960s? Insisting that biracial identity must always be categorized as non-white runs the risk of actually calcifying old doctrines of race, and fails to see the blurry lines of identity and assimilation that increasingly typify American life.
To take one example: as rates of inter-racial marriage have climbed, a full 35 percent of Americans said in 2010 that they had a close relative married to someone from another racial group. That number will inevitably alter perceptions and self-perceptions of racial identity. On the ground, racial categories are constantly in flux; but in government data, “race” is defined by precisely those interest groups who have long had an interest in perpetuating it.
And multiracial identity is growing fast: “Of all the infants with a Hispanic parent in 2017, one of every four (28 percent) had a non-Hispanic parent, and one in every five (20 percent) had a non-Hispanic white, or Anglo, parent.” And when these infants eventually have kids, what racial category on earth would we decide to categorize them? The way in which Hispanic kids today interact with “white” peers and family members renders clear racial identities moot even today — and we should be happy, not alarmed, to see that these arbitrary lines of demarcation are in retreat.
There is no reason, in other words, to believe that Latinos won’t be seen in 2060 the way Italian-Americans were seen in 1960, except that they will be assimilating into an off-white, brownish mainstream rather than a monolithically and stereotypically white one. More to the point, “the idea that US babies are now mostly minority is an illusion fostered by arbitrary classification systems — arbitrary at least with respect to the daily lives of these young children.” If these kids don’t define themselves in racially binary terms, why should we impose that anachronistic rubric upon them? And if they identify as white, why should we not take their word for it?
Inter-marriage is critical to this — and the rates keep going up. So many of the next generation will not have a clear racial identity to the naked eye, making the line between majority and minority increasingly moot. Dating apps have helped break down some of the social inhibitions about inter-racial sex and marriage (the number of such unions jumped with the arrival of Tinder). And as more people sign up for genetic analysis of their ancestry, like 23andMe or Ancestry.com, they also realize how multi-racial their DNA actually is. The whole dichotomy of “white” and ”black” erodes when you can see the interlocking genetic matrices of European and African origins that typify most “blacks” and “whites” in modern America. With countless other racial mixes — Asian and European in particular — a new multi-racial American identity is being born that is beginning to honor the complexity of the entire human experience.
I’ve no doubt that with demographic shifts this swift, we’ll see backlash and panic, and an occasional insistence on reinforcing rigid categories. But the trend line toward fluidity is not really in dispute. And what I fear is that the capitulation of American elites to a ludicrously outdated view of America in 2021 as a form of “white supremacy” could perpetuate racial categorization just as it begins to fade.
As inter-racial marriage rates soar, as today’s mixed-race children see the mainstream as something much subtler and more varied than simply “whiteness”, we could be clinging to crude racial identity just as our actual, evolving world is offering us a chance to leave it behind. We may be forcing people to adopt racial identities when they need not. And by generating the illusion of an end to “white” America, we may be fostering a new and dangerous attachment to white identity just as we have a chance to complicate and escape it.
Demographics will continue to evolve and shape-shift whatever our understanding of them. But our understanding matters — because it shapes our emotions, our identities, and the policy choices we make. It’s way past time, it seems to me, to leave behind the race fixation of far right and far left, and to move back to a more fluid, multiracial, multicultural American identity that is not the same as the uglier, whiter past, and not some kind of anti-white triumphalism either. I’m referring to the kind of mainstream multiracial future that our first truly biracial president, Barack Obama, once hoped for, and represented. Maybe a little more distance from Trump and a little more understanding of how race in this country is deeply complicated can help.
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Rush To Judgment
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