Opinion | What the ‘Majority Minority’ Shift Really Means for America

In 2015, the Census Bureau published a report projecting that by 2044, the United States’ white majority would become merely a white plurality: immigration and fertility trends would lead to America’s ethnic and racial minorities outnumbering its white population.

Since then, for a certain subset of Americans, each annual release by the bureau — neutral, nonpartisan researchers who produce deliberately staid reports — has become a sort of countdown to the white apocalypse. Worse, we now talk about cross-racial fertility rates Darwinistically, as if the census were monitoring a population of elephant seals in competition for a rookery.

In a country whose history has been shaped by the boundaries among racial groups, this projected demographic shift is undoubtedly important. Given the racialized nature of our political parties, it also has electoral consequences. However, if we are to overcome the division that defined our past, we must stop reinforcing the salience of those boundaries in the future.

I am not arguing that the Census Bureau should stop collecting this valuable data, à la France’s farcical attempt to be secular and race blind. Rather, I am arguing that we should place far less stock in the importance of the results to the future of our country. There is no future in which white people disappear from America, but there is also no future in which the understanding of whiteness stays the same.

The truth is, just as populations in the United States ebb and flow, the salience of racial and ethnic identities emerges and disappears. From 1845 to 1854, an influx of Irish people arrived on the East Coast that outnumbered immigrants from all other countries since 1776 combined. The resulting backlash created a wave of support for the xenophobic Know Nothing movement and its nativist American Party. Today, of course, being Irish is a social boundary mostly reduced to the front of Urban Outfitters T-shirts.

Our history shows that America’s demographic boundaries evolve with the country’s composition. No group goes extinct or disappears; it just gets absorbed into new ways that people define community and feel belonging.

Around the turn of the 20th century, American leaders began to recognize the accumulating effects of immigration and civil rights. After the arrival of millions of Irish, the 15th Amendment enfranchised millions of African American men in 1870. And in subsequent decades, the United States admitted millions of Italians, Jews and other ethnicities, with their foreign languages, religions and complexions. There was a gradual realization that the Anglo-Protestant orientation of whiteness was unlikely to sustain a dominant majority indefinitely.

Soon to win the White House, Theodore Roosevelt found these developments alarming. With much of the “competition between the races reducing itself to the warfare of the cradle,” he wrote in 1894, “no race has any chance to win a great place unless it consists of good breeders as well as of good fighters.”

But by the time America’s initial “majority minority” milestone would have been reached, whiteness had been reinterpreted to incorporate the Irish, Italians, Jews and Slavs, such that the milestone was effectively postponed. The country broadened the definition of white people enough to maintain power over African Americans and Asian people (and later Hispanics).

It is possible that we are now in the process of similarly altering our conception of whiteness again. Many Hispanics identify as white, and marriages between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites make up more than 40 percent of recent interracial marriages. That may be enough to artificially postpone America’s majority minority milestone again and reassure the millions of “white” Americans who feel threatened by the increasing status and power of today’s ethnic minorities.

Stoking fears of white decline reinforces the myth that this whiteness always included all who now identify with it — as if the Irish had never been demonized, as if Italians had never endured discrimination, as if Jews had never been excluded. Through a historical lens, being white in America today is like belonging to a once-exclusive social club that had to loosen its membership criteria to stay afloat.

Because of the status white people retain in American society, a degree of privilege and belonging still awaits those who can claim it. People who identify as white hold disproportionate power and resources today, and this pernicious reality seems unlikely to change even if white people do become a 49 percent plurality in about two decades. And there is precious little evidence of real solidarity among America’s diverse minority ethnic groups. So a 51 percent pan-minority share is unlikely to yield any new majority status without a new pan-ethnic sense of community.

Despite his susceptibility to eugenics and racial theories of supremacy, Roosevelt also offers us a way forward. His American nationalism was defiantly civic — rather than only ethnic or racial — in nature.

In his narrative histories published from 1885 to 1894, Roosevelt argued that as European immigrants were assimilated, their heritages were being absorbed into the American body, fusing Americans into a single people forged in the “crucible” of the frontier. The acts of claiming and developing land and defending it against the forces of nature all constituted rites of passage that transformed foreigners into Americans.

In Roosevelt’s understanding, Americans were born through no document; they were made by their encounters with the wilderness and their cultivation of strength, individualism and democratic community — their commitment to a set of principles. For him, the new ethnicities admitted into the United States were not entitled to their American identity; it was to be earned.

There is no frontier anymore, but the grind of modern capitalism is just as stern a forge for fashioning American identity. In counting the American people, the Census Bureau may distinguish between Black, white, Asian and Hispanic, but it indiscriminately recognizes them all as fellow Americans — as people who count and therefore must be counted.

And even if the Census Bureau’s categories reinforce the racial boundaries that too often divide American society, these categories are also starting to show signs of their mutability. Underreported, the number of mixed-race Americans increased nearly threefold in the past decade alone; 80 percent of intermarriages in the United States today unite non-Hispanic white partners with members of an ethnic or a racial minority.

Older generations may still be focused on century-old divisions, but younger Americans are starting to blur them. Future Americans will identify with new communities. May they be as broad and inclusive as possible.

Justin Gest (@_JustinGest) is an associate professor of policy and government at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of “The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality” and the forthcoming book “Majority Minority.”

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