The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream
By Richard Alba
Princeton University Press
The idea that whites are inexorably becoming a minority in the United States has become a fixed assumption of American politics, celebrated by some on the left and feared by many on the right. But in this new book, the sociologist Richard Alba, a leading scholar of immigration and ethnicity, tells us that the prospect of America becoming a “majority-minority” society is a statistical illusion and the wrong way to think about how America is changing.
Responsibility for this perception, Alba argues, falls mainly on what he calls America’s “demographic data system,” which is controlled by the federal Office of Management and Budget. OMB’s rules require the Census Bureau to classify and count individuals by ethnicity and race in ways that magnify the apparent size of minority groups relative to whites.
In 2011, the Census Bureau reported on the basis of the OMB rules that a majority of babies born in the United States were members of minority groups. The next year, the Census Bureau made headlines by projecting that America would hit a crossover point in 2043, when non-Hispanic whites would fall below 50 percent of the population. As one might expect, many white Americans found these reports alarming.
These projections, Alba explains, overestimate the number of nonwhites for three reasons. First, when people report on official forms that they are both Hispanic (in answer to a question about ethnicity) and white (in answer to a question about race), the Census Bureau counts them as members of minority groups, not white. The media follow suit.
Second, since the 2000 census, people have been able to report more than one race, and most who do have reported being both white and some other race. These people, according to OMB’s rules, have been counted in the nonwhite category, so as not to diminish minority groups for purposes of judging discrimination. OMB made this decision at the behest of civil rights groups.
Counting all such people as nonwhite, however, departs from American social practices. Although American law in the late 1800s began following a “one-drop” rule in classifying people as Black, it has not followed that rule for Native Americans, Latinos, or other minorities. But census data now count those minority groups as though they were subject to a one-drop rule too.
Third, when a non-Hispanic white has a child with a member of some other racial or ethnic group, the census relies on the parents’ reports of their children, which usually respect both sides of the family. The census counts the children reported as mixed (and all of the child’s projected descendants) as nonwhite. This practice has enormous implications for population projections because of the surging number of Americans from mixed backgrounds. “By the 2050s,” Alba writes, “one of every three babies with white ancestry will also have Hispanic or racially nonwhite ancestry when second-generation mixes are counted.”
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The trouble with the “majority-minority” narrative, in Alba’s view, is that many people whom the census is counting as minority belong to an increasingly diversified “mainstream.” During the 20th century, the white Anglo-Protestant mainstream diversified with the integration of Catholics and Jews. Today, Alba argues, the mainstream is diversifying again, with the integration of more-recent immigrants and their children, including the rising number from mixed marriages with non-Hispanic whites. Alba recognizes, however, that mixed Black-white Americans face more discrimination and tend to identify with the minority side of their background and that many Latinos face barriers because of their citizenship status. He sees whites as part of an enlarging mainstream, not a shrinking minority.
As a result, Alba wants us to stop using terms like “majority-minority” nation. His alternative is to revise the census and reconceptualize the mainstream as multicultural. This seems right.
Changing the census involves redesigning the two questions the census currently uses for ethno-racial classification. The first asks about “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” the second about “race.” Putting everyone who answers the first question in a minority group, even when they later say their “race” is white, puts immigrants from Spain (but not Portugal or Italy) in the “minority” category. Forcing everyone to choose their “race,” beginning with “white” and “Black,” focuses attention on color. Yet mainstream America is becoming ever more diverse, with people from other parts of the globe mixing, intermarrying, and living intermingled with “non-Hispanic white” neighbors.
More specifically, Alba urges the Census Bureau to adopt a new version of the question about ethno-racial identity that the bureau tested successfully in 2015. That version would eliminate the first question on “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” origin and include that category with the other existing geographic/national ethnicities, such as “Chinese,” “Asian Indian,” “Pakistani,” “Hmong,” and “Samoan” (now called “races”). It would make “Middle Eastern or North African” a separate group in this category, a move advocated by groups from those regions. Alba does not argue, but I take his suggestion to imply, that the census might then replace the color categories “White” and “Black” with “European” and “African,” and call them “ethnic,” “national,” and “geographic origins” rather than “races.”
We need to ditch the old vision of assimilation in which immigrant groups become “white.”
Yet there are complications related to those who check off both white (or “European”) and another category. We could count them on both sides, keeping the white numbers high to counter the threatened-white narrative while also keeping the nonwhite numbers high to provide a baseline against which to judge the equity of government or other distributions. But if we do that, the total will add up to more than 100 percent. Although that decision seems defensible, it would complicate record-keeping, making it unlikely to be adopted.
Another possibility would be for the census to do what Alba does himself: present a range of numbers based on different assumptions, instead of a single count or projection of America’s ethno-racial makeup.
Most of all, Alba wants to change the narrative about the future. He cites studies showing that when whites are told they will become a minority, they react with fear and anger and adopt more right-wing positions. The census, he says, should drop the binary between non-Hispanic whites and “minorities.” The data can tell a different story. Growing rates of intermarriage and increasingly diverse neighborhoods suggest the United States is accommodating demographic change. We need to ditch the old vision of assimilation in which immigrant groups become “white,” welcome a mainstream that looks different from the old one, and rejoice in the diverse multicultural nation we are creating.