Whither White America?

“Majority-minority” is an unusual term—by definition, minorities are no longer such if they’re in the majority—but it’s a convenient shorthand for what most people expect to happen in the United States over the next few decades. A growing population of nonwhites—driven by Asian and Latino immigration—will yield a country where most Americans have nonwhite heritage, thus “majority-minority.”

The most recent analysis from the Census Bureau seems to bear this out. Last year was the first year that whites were a minority of all newborns, and based on current rates of growth, they’ll become a minority of the under–five set by next year, if not the end of this one. Overall, the government projects that within five years, minorities will compromise a majority of all Americans under the age of eighteen, something to keep in mind when trying to project future political support for both parties.

There’s more: For the first time in more than a century, the number of deaths among white Americans exceeds the number of births. More than ten percent of the nation’s 3,143 counties are “majority-minority,” and in 13 states and the District of Columbia, the under–five population is already “majority-minority.” By 2043, the Census projects, America’s white majority will be gone.

One fact stands out in all of this, however. The fastest growing group of Americans—by far—fall under the “multiracial category.” If past research is any indication, these Americans are likely the product of intermarriage betweens whites and Hispanics (the most common interracial pairing) or whites and Asians (the next most common one). While we identify them as nonwhite, we don’t know how they’ll identify themselves in the future.

My hunch is that—as (certain groups of) Latinos and Asians integrate themselves into American life—a good number will identify themselves as white, with Hispanic or Asian heritage, in the same way that many white Americans point to their Irish or Italian backgrounds.

Indeed, if there’s anything to take away from the history of white as a racial category, its that it’s flexible; who “counts” as white is fluid, and changes with social and economic circumstances. The only constant to “white” is that it isn’t “black.” Even now, a biracial person of African American heritage is most likely to be identified as simply “black.”

Which gets to something I’ve argued in the past. While there’s no doubt the United States will become a place where people of Asian and Hispanic heritage are common, that’s not the same as saying it will become a “majority-minority” country. Given our history, and continued assimilation, intermarriage, and upward mobility among Latino and Asian Americans as a whole, there’s a good chance the United States will remain a “white” country, where “white” includes people of Hispanic and Asian heritage.

Yes, as always, there will be exceptions. While the children and grandchildren of middle-class Columbian immigrants may find themselves on the “white” side of the ledger in our future racial landscape, that might not be true for the children and grandchildren of Mexican migrant workers. And you can make similar judgments with other racial groups—our changing demographics will complicate our notions of race and class.

But all that means is that the color line will change, not that it won’t endure. There will still be white Americans in the future, and they’ll still be the majority. They’ll just have a different character than what we know now.