Prospect Debate: The Illusion of a Minority Majority America

In his Winter 2016 article “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority,” Richard Alba argues that highly publicized projections by the U.S. Census have misled the public into thinking that whites in the United States are destined to become a minority by the middle of the century. That projection is incorrect, Alba suggests, for two primary reasons. First, the census data mistakenly assume that children of mixed marriages where one parent is white will identify as nonwhite. Second, the census sees the white “mainstream” as a fixed category even though the conception of whiteness has changed in the past and will likely change again. As a result, Alba contends, America will probably have a white majority for some time to come.

Is that analysis correct? And what does America’s demographic future say about its political future? Four contributors respond to Alba: Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the Census Bureau and now Carnegie Professor of Social Affairs at Columbia University; William Darity Jr., Arts and Sciences Professor of Public Policy at Duke University; Harold Meyerson, the Prospect’s executive editor; and Frank Bean, Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Alba has the last word.

—Paul Starr

 

KENNETH PREWITT

Reframing Race in the Census

Richard Alba’s analysis is a service to the country. I write to urge the Census Bureau and its various oversight agencies and committees to take his message seriously.

The current xenophobic, anti-immigrant political movement rests on the flawed premise that America will soon be a majority-minority country. The movement demands restrictive immigration policies to slow and even reverse what its leaders see as a demographic train wreck. But what if these anxieties are misplaced? By the time that becomes apparent, the damage will have occurred: Walls will have been built, families separated, deportations accelerated, and refugees refused.

If this is our future, it will be history repeating itself as tragedy. Read More.

 

WILLIAM DARITY, JR.

The Latino Flight to Whiteness

Will the United States have a majority of people of color by the year 2050, as both researchers and the popular press commonly assert? Richard Alba urges skepticism because, he argues, U.S. Census policy overestimates the presence of nonwhites in the American population. As Alba observes, in mixed-race marriages where one parent is white and the other nonwhite, the Census uses a default rule of counting all the children as nonwhite, even though that is not necessarily how the children see themselves.

The impact of Hispanic patterns of intermarriage supports Alba’s words of caution about claims of a new American racial majority of color. Read More.

 

HAROLD MEYERSON

Yes, But How Will They Vote?

Richard Alba’s thoughtful and iconoclastic piece in the Winter issue requires us to rethink the nation’s shifting racial profile. What it doesn’t do, however, is dispel the thesis that “demography is destiny”—that the shifting racial palette of American voters will contribute to creating a lasting Democratic majority.

The key question for hard-nosed political strategists is how Hispanics and the children of marriages between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites will vote, since these constitute the largest racial components of the presumably emerging Democratic majority. Read More.

 

FRANK D. BEAN

Ethnoracial Diversity: Toward a New American Narrative

Many whites fear the prospect that minorities in the United States may become a majority in the not-too-distant future. Census Bureau population projections understating the size of the country’s white majority have made this prospect seem inevitable. Richard Alba shows, however, that because intermarriage between whites and the members of other groups is on the rise and their children may identify as white, the country may never have a minority majority. The integration of minorities not only brings people of different backgrounds together; it also leads many of them to see themselves as white.

These processes follow in part from the increasing diversity resulting from immigration. Because diversity increases the odds that people of different backgrounds come into contact with one another, it erodes social boundaries. Read More.

I am grateful for these commentaries, which expand on critical aspects of my article. Frank Bean rightly observes that the Census Bureau’s statistical system imposes a foolhardy binary logic—an individual American must be a member of the non-Hispanic white majority or belong to the minority population. This logic is increasingly at odds with the complexity of family backgrounds and obscures a major new demographic phenomenon: the rapid rise in the number of children growing up in mixed (especially white and minority) families.

Moreover, in appearing to posit a minority population as a counterweight to the current white majority, the Census also encourages many Americans to overlook fundamental differences in societal position and historical experience among those classified as minorities. As Bean notes, the singularity of the African-American experience is lost in a category so diverse as to include many socioeconomically ascendant children of recent immigrants. Read More.

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