Jun 26 2012

RACE LENS: Demographics and Destiny

Misplaced alarm over ‘majority minority’ nation

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Crystal Marie Lopez

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Crystal Marie Lopez

The past four years have supplied ample evidence to dismiss the idea that America is witnessing a new post-racial era–but will the coming decades see the beginning of a post-white one?

That appears to be the implication of a new federal government report released on May 17, dryly titled, “Most Children Younger Than Age One Are Minorities, Census Bureau Reports.” According to the Bureau’s estimates, as of July 1, 2011, slightly more than 50 percent of the national population under age one is minority—meaning not having “white” as your sole race, or else having “Hispanic” ethnicity.

In short, whites are bound to become a minority in the United States of America.

That kind of data can stir alarm.

Consider USA Today’s article on the subject (“Minority Babies Almost the Majority,” 5/24/12), which, in addition to muddling some details, poses the issue with anxiety-infused prose. Whites are “on the verge of being displaced” as “minority babies dominate” in a growing number of states; the greater Hispanic birth rate is “shrinking the ranks” of whites.

Such battlefield-style language easily lends itself to equally dramatic analysis. CNN’s take on the political implications (5/24/12) is rather well summed up by the headline: “GOP problem: ‘Their Voters Are White, Aging and Dying Off.’” The quoted expert is David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Drawing a simplistic straight line from the racial composition of the GOP’s base to the trends forecast by the Census Bureau report, Bositis also predicts a “tipping point” that will see the GOP’s demise on the level of state government and governorships, setting the tone for the entire piece.

That reductionist view, extrapolating political consequences from long-term demographic trends, drew martyr-like posturing from GOP icon Rush Limbaugh (5/21/12): “The warning is…you better do what the coming majority wants right now, or you’re gonna suffer the consequences.”

We find a more thoughtful take in the Washington Post (5/17/12), which dispassionately explained the driving force behind the demographic shift in terms of the younger median age of Latinos (under 28) compared with whites (over 42). The article quoted Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, who explains that “we were already seeing a declining youth population in large parts of the country. Without immigrants, we’d be essentially youthless.”

The article’s author, Carol Morello, helpfully added in the comments thread that the demographic trend may be slowed or stalled because the birth rate for naturalized citizens is “almost identical” to that of native-born Americans, and immigration from Mexico —the main source of America’s Latino influx—has slowed to a trickle.

Setting aside the particulars of the data, however, we still have to contend with the terminology: What, exactly, is a “white” American? Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias (5/22/12) bluntly observes, “I suspect an awful lot of these ‘minority’ babies are going to be white when they grow up,” drawing on his own background as someone with one Cuban grandfather but three other grandparents with Eastern European Jewish backgrounds. Despite what he filled in for the census, he says, “I’m just another white dude.”

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat (New York Times, 5/25/12) is not convinced, arguing that a system of incentives based on minority status will encourage people to continue identifying as minorities: “To be ‘granted’ white status today means something very different (and something obviously less desirable) than it did in 1943,” he writes:

It means gaining a majoritarian identity, yes, but it also means giving up various privileges in hiring, admissions and so on—privileges that are defended by networks of activists and institutions that would themselves diminish or disappear if a category like “Hispanic” went the way of “mulatto” and “octoroon.”

That assertion, however, echoes a long standing and unconvincing conservative claim about affirmative action programs: that instead of responding to genuine present-day inequities, they merely perpetuate imaginary grievances to justify unfair advantages for assorted not-really-oppressed groups (Extra!, 11-12/07). It also assumes an unrealistic “tail wags the dog” scenario: How would “various privileges in hiring, admissions and so on” sustain a life of their own if, at the same time, it becomes increasingly difficult to discriminate based on race? As growing numbers of self-identified whites carry one-quarter, or one-eighth, or one-16th non-European heritage, how long can Manichean racial distinctions continue to hold?

Indeed, in a nation where the construct of whiteness was formed in sharp—and often false—contradistinction to blackness, the emergence of a sizeable Latino population may raise the anxiety levels of some conservative whites today, but it may also offer another, less loaded and less historically charged reference point for whiteness in the long run. It’s not post-race. But it’s progress.