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The Great Demographic Illusion
America is supposedly about to become "majority minority." It won't happen.
By Richard Alba
In a 2015 press release, the United States Census Bureau announced that most children under the age of five are no longer “white.” According to its projections, whites will become a minority of the American population by 2045.
As a result of the enormous media attention these announcements garnered, many Americans now believe that their society is on the precipice of a momentous transformation. The change to what is often called a “majority-minority” society—in which African Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans constitute a majority—is presumed to lead to a radical shift of cultural and political power.
Many whites fear that this supposedly unstoppable demographic shift will threaten their place in America. At its most extreme, their uneasiness takes the form of “white extinction anxiety,” propelling them towards white nationalism. Some political scientists have argued that white “racial resentment,” stoked in part by anxiety over these demographic changes, was the main reason for Donald Trump’s victory.
Other Americans feel emboldened by this transformation. Some members of ethnic minorities understandably desire a country in which their identities and experiences cease being marginal to the national narrative. But perhaps it is political progressives, who think that a less white nation will also be a more left-leaning and Democratic nation, who have invested the greatest hopes in it.
But all of these predictions assume the existence of rigid racial and ethnic boundaries of a kind that have not, historically, characterized the American experience of immigration—either in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries or over the past five decades. Far from facing a momentous demographic transformation that will change the very nature of America, we are in the grips of a great demographic illusion.
A century ago, immigration from southern and eastern Europe brought masses of Italian and Polish Catholics as well as Eastern European Jews to Ellis Island, provoking near hysteria among the white Protestant elite. These “inferior” immigrants, they feared, were submerging the racial characteristics of native white Americans. The Passing of the Great Race, a 1916 bestseller, decried the pernicious racial impact of immigrants on America’s “native Nordic stock.” The introduction of IQ testing shortly before World War I seemed to confirm the inferiority of the newcomers, many of whom appeared to be intellectually deficient.
Yet the anticipated national decline never materialized. Instead, the children and grandchildren of immigrants ascended the social ladder. Ethnic and religious distinctions that once loomed large in the American imagination began to fade in significance. A new mainstream had formed.
A similar process is underway right now.
The supposed rigidity of ethno-racial divisions is belied by the surge in the numbers of mixed majority-minority families. More than ten percent of all babies born in the United States are of such “mixed” parentage: a proportion well above the number of Asian-only and not far below the number of black-only children. Most of these mixed individuals are at least as integrated with whites as with minorities.
As usually presented, demographic data makes it hard for Americans to see that this is what’s going on. The Census Bureau, for example, classifies individuals with both white and nonwhite ancestry as nonwhite: the vast majority of all mixed Americans are therefore added to the minority side of the ledger. This overstates the decline of the white population and presents as certain something that is no more than speculative: a future in which people who identify as Native American, Asian, black or Latino outnumber whites. Projections of whites soon becoming a minority of the population have had a profound effect on public perceptions—but they do not reflect social reality.
Dominant theories about demographic change are also wrong to assume that immigrants and their children will stand apart from the mainstream for many decades to come. The current understanding is that, in the past, immigrants from Southern or Eastern Europe assimilated once they had been accepted as fully-fledged whites. This depicts assimilation as a homogenizing process that is unavailable to immigrant groups whose ethnicity will never be perceived as white.
But it is more accurate to depict this historical process as one of diversification. Mass assimilation of Catholics and Jews led to the acceptance of Judaism and Catholicism as mainstream religions alongside Protestantism. After 1945, American society redefined itself as Judeo-Christian. The mainstream expanded.
Similarly, today's assimilation does not exclude the descendants of the newest immigrants. Nor does it require them to present themselves as white. Instead, the mainstream can expand to accept a degree of visible racial diversity.
How will its growing diversity change our understanding of mainstream society? It is true that the mainstream has, historically, been equated with whiteness. But in future, the American mainstream is likely to be perceived as multiracial and multicultural—a transformation that is already underway in the most diverse regions of the country, from San Diego to New York City.
This does not imply that mixed Americans will stop including their minority origins when they identify themselves. Like the immigrants from Sicily or Galicia who joined the American mainstream over the course of the twentieth century, they are, even once fully integrated, likely to assert hyphenated identities. But the preservation of these hyphenated identities is fully compatible with a more inclusive mainstream—one that is no longer defined by its whiteness.
As in the past, American society remains capable of adapting to its growing diversity. And so those who assume that the country’s future will consist in a pitched battle between two ethno-racial blocs that forever remain in conflict with each other are thankfully wrong; it is much more likely that America’s future will center around a broader, more inclusive mainstream.
Richard Alba is a Distinguished Professor at CUNY’s Graduate Center. This article is based on his new book, The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream (Princeton University Press).