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Yascha Mounk: America Won’t Ever Be Majority Minority
It is a mistake to think of the fundamental division of American politics as pitting “whites” versus “people of color.”
Book club with Yascha: On May 4th at 6pm Eastern, Persuasion founder Yascha Mounk will join the community to discuss his new book, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. Details and registration here.
It is rare for demographers to make headline news. But when the United States Census Bureau projected that the country would, sometime in the 2040s, become “majority minority,” America’s papers paid plenty of attention. “The U.S. White Majority Will Soon Disappear Forever,” the Houston Chronicle titled. Other newspapers and magazines explored how this shift would alter every aspect of American life, from its elections to its “office dynamics.”
Nearly all of these articles had one thing in common: They explicitly or implicitly divided the American population into two distinct blocks. On one side, there were whites, a group portrayed as cohesive despite the vast ethnic and religious differences it subsumes. On the other side, there were members of ethnic minorities—or “people of color”—who were portrayed as having a meaningfully shared identity despite hailing from vastly different parts of the world and comprising individuals from just about every race known to man.
As a result, these seemingly dry demographic projections have come to predict a much broader transformation of the country’s culture and politics. For the foreseeable future, the implication goes, America will be characterized by a clash between two mutually hostile blocks—and because of its shrinking size, the group that has traditionally dominated the country will soon lose much of its power.
This framing helps to explain why these projections are capable of inspiring tremendous hope. Many Americans look forward to the 2040s as the decade when their experience will cease to be marginal to the country’s narrative. Instead of being the exception, they will finally become the norm.
Political strategists have also set their sights on the moment when the country is supposedly set to become majority minority. Since Hispanics and African-Americans tend to support the Democratic Party in greater numbers, many Democrats now hope that the ongoing demographic transformation will help them inflict permanent defeat on the Republican Party—and perhaps even remake the country in keeping with their longstanding social and cultural aspirations.
Among other Americans, that same prospect is capable of provoking enormous fear. Demographic change, in their view, might change the country in which they grew up beyond recognition, or even relegate them to a subordinate position.
In its most extreme form, this fear takes the form of apocalyptic warnings about the “great replacement” that is supposedly taking place in western societies. Traitorous politicians, far-right activists claim, are plotting to replace the existing population with newcomers that they hope to control more easily than the native-born.
But the set of assumptions which underwrites both these hopes and these fears is mistaken. Most developed democracies will never become “majority minority” in any meaningful sense. It is highly premature to assume that the politics of the future will neatly pit “whites” against “people of color.” And anybody who wants diverse democracies like the United States to succeed actually has reason to celebrate the fact that demography, despite the belief that so many parts of both left and right now share, is not destiny.
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When the United States Census Bureau projected that the country would become majority minority sometime in the 2040s, its demographic model was presented as an exercise in science, giving the prediction an air of unassailable fact. But this conceals the extent to which the categories used by the Census Bureau to classify Americans as white or non-white rely on highly questionable assumptions about how they identify now—and even more questionable ones about how they will do so in future.
Does the child of two white immigrants from Spain count as white or Hispanic? (According to the United States Census Bureau, the answer is: Hispanic.) Will the child of a white father and a Chinese mother identify as white or Asian? (Asian.) And is someone who has seven white great-grandparents and one black great-grandparent white or black? (Black.) Seemingly scientific, the projections of the Census Bureau assume that all Americans who have either a drop of non-white blood or some distant cultural heritage connecting them to a Spanish-speaking country will be “people of color.”
But when you bother to look at how different groups actually see themselves, it quickly becomes apparent that many of their members don’t fit the neat narrative that has been imposed on them. In particular, three rapidly growing groups of Americans that should, according to the prevailing narrative, simply see themselves as “people of color” actually have a much more complicated self-conception: mixed-race Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans.
Three or four decades ago, a majority of Americans still openly stated that they opposed whites and blacks dating each other. Reality reflected these prejudices. In 1980, fewer than one in thirty newborns in the United States had a mother and a father from different ethnic groups. In the past decades, this has radically changed. The number of people who oppose interracial marriage is now miniscule. And by the late 2010s, one out of every seven children born in the United States was mixed-race.
According to the standard language used in newspapers and universities, every single one of the babies born to these couples is a “person of color.” But this imposed identity does not square with the findings of sociologists who have actually studied the self-perception of mixed-race children. In particular, children with one white and one Asian-American or one white and one Hispanic parent resemble their “fully” white counterparts in significant respects. As one prominent sociologist summarized an in-depth report by Pew, “many Americans with mixed Asian or Hispanic family origins identify with the white majority some of the time.”
The self-understanding of the biggest minority group in the United States is similarly complex. In 2014, there were about 55 million people with roots in Spain or Latin America in the United States. The Census Bureau predicts that, by 2060, there will be 119 million. But while many Hispanics are black or indigenous, the majority considers itself to be ethnically white.
As a result, both Hispanic identity and Hispanic voting behavior is already deeply fluid. In the run-up to the 2020 election, two Hispanic progressives conducted a series of focus groups. Ian Haney López and Tory Gavito assumed that Latinos would see themselves as “people of color” and stridently oppose anti-immigrant rhetoric. Instead, they found that many Latinos insisted on being white and were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to endorse anti-immigrant slogans.
While Hispanics are adding the greatest numbers to the American population, the fastest growing group hails from Asia. Between 2014 and 2060, the number of Asian-Americans is projected to increase by more than twofold, from 20 to 46 million.
In some key respects, the situation of Asian-Americans is very different from that of other so-called “people of color.” While black Americans continue to earn less than whites, on average, Asian-Americans earn significantly more. Korean-Americans have a median household income of $72,000, Chinese-Americans of $82,000, and Indian-Americans of $119,000. The median Asian woman in the United States now earns more than the median white man.
This financial success is rooted in extraordinary educational achievements. While Asian-Americans currently make up less than one tenth of the U.S. population, for example, they make up a quarter of the entering class at Harvard. At schools that are legally prohibited from favoring applicants on the basis of race, their presence is even larger.
Neither culture nor politics are ever just about self-interest. Even so, diverging interests may make a lasting cultural or political coalition between Hispanics and African-Americans, on the one hand, and Asian-Americans, on the other hand, harder to sustain than those who believe in the inevitable rise of a cohesive grouping of ethnic minorities tend to assume.
In the 2020 elections, Donald Trump was competitive because of his significantly improved performance among so-called “people of color” while Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States thanks to his increased support among white voters. This has finally convinced some analysts to jettison pseudoscientific predictions about the future of electoral politics. After a long period in which political strategists and campaign managers on both sides of the aisle believed that the demographic patterns of today can reliably predict the voting behavior of tomorrow, they started to realize that the main lines of partisan conflict are changeable.
But the main concern I have about the way in which American elites, including educators and businessmen, now conceive of their own country goes much deeper than political forecasting. Human identities are deeply malleable. They take form—and change nature—in keeping with the narratives imparted by an older generation, the cues given by elites, and the incentives created by institutions. A lot thus depends on whether elementary school teachers and college professors, Senators and CEOs help to support the natural processes that are making boundaries between different groups of Americans more porous—or whether they, deliberately or inadvertently, reverse that trend.
Ten years ago, two professors at Northwestern University set out to study how an emphasis on demographic change would alter the racial attitudes of white Americans. Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson recruited participants to come to their lab and made each of them read one of two texts. The first described America’s current racial make-up. The second summarized the Census Bureau’s projections according to which America was about to become majority minority.
The findings were striking. Participants in the study who were randomly asked to read about the impending end of white America were much more likely to say that it would bother them if their child married someone from a different ethnic background. They also had more negative feelings towards racial minorities. “Rather than ushering in a more tolerant future,” Craig and Richeson warned, an emphasis on the (supposed) decline of the white majority “may instead yield intergroup hostility.”
Many well-meaning Americans have convinced themselves that emphasizing an empirically dubious theory about the country’s demographic future would somehow help them overcome the injustices of the present. But as Craig and Richeson suggest, it is actually likely to make it much harder to create thriving diverse democracies.
Thankfully, America’s past suggests a very different model for what its future might look like. The “American mainstream” has, again and again, proven capable of expanding in unexpected ways. Whereas the country’s historic ruling elite once feared the changes that Irish and Italian immigrants would bring about, these newcomers were ultimately absorbed into the country’s mainstream. Today, the distinction between Americans who hail from Sussex and those who hail from Sicily seems quaint.
If eminent sociologists like Richard Alba are to be believed, the American mainstream will once again prove capable of expanding in ways that now seem difficult to fathom. The first groups to join this new American mainstream would likely include white Hispanics, Asian-Americans and those who are mixed race. But as the increasingly multiethnic culture of metropoles from Houston to New York City shows, the new mainstream could grow even more inclusive: in particular, an ever greater share of black Americans may also be absorbed.
The choice between an America in which whites and “people of color” form two implacably opposed blocks and an America in which members of all ethnic groups feel a true sense of belonging and mutual solidarity is straightforward. The country would be a much better place to live, for whites and non-whites alike, if it managed to integrate an ever-greater array of ethnic and religious groups into an expanding mainstream.
None of this is a reason to ignore or soft-peddle the racial injustices which continue to characterize contemporary America. The United States has a long history of oppressing minority groups. The legacy of these forms of domination, especially slavery, still reverberate in our society today. The best way to ensure that conflicts between different identity groups grow to be less salient in the future is to ensure that members of each of these groups get a fair shake.
But the urgency of fighting against racial injustice is not a good reason to misdescribe the country’s current reality or resign ourselves to a dystopian vision of the future. Even though most opinion pieces and academic studies on the topic now quietly assume that the fundamental dividing line in American society runs between “whites” and “people of color,” the reality on the ground is, thankfully, much more complex. And even though some activists honestly believe that the oppositional framing that has of late become so common can help to combat the all-too-real injustices that undoubtedly persist, it is actually likely to inspire fears and conflicts that render the perpetuation of discrimination more likely.
Sustaining a diverse democracy in which the members of different ethnic and religious groups feel real solidarity towards each other is a difficult undertaking, which will require both ambitious public policies and a generosity of spirit among ordinary Americans. But all of us can start to make one impactful change immediately. No matter how common it has become to slice and dice the American population into whites and “people of color,” we should, insofar as possible, avoid this simplistic dichotomy. For it both misdescribes America’s current reality and makes it harder to build the kind of future to which all of us should aspire.
Yascha Mounk is the founder and editor-in-chief of Persuasion. His latest book is The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, from which this piece is excerpted.