It’s More Complicated Than That!

When I was teaching, my introductory lecture always included something along these lines:  Welcome. We’ll be studying several issues about which Americans disagree, often passionately.  I may or may not share my own perspective on some of those issues, but if I do, let me assure you that your grade will not be affected by whether you agree with me.

That said, there’s one insight I do intend to inculcate and do want you to incorporate in your world-views. I want everyone who leaves this class to use two phrases far more frequently than they did before enrolling: it depends and it’s more complicated than that.

Most issues–in and out of academic life–are less straightforward than politicians and pundits like to insist, and helping students recognize that fact is essential to effective instruction.A recent book written by Yascha Mounk underlines that complexity.

Mounk was addressing the common perception that the United States will soon be “Majority minority,” a perception based upon demographic projections that have been widely publicized. (I’ll admit to accepting those projections at face value.)

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.

That very simplified belief has cheered progressives, who believe more people of color will translate into stronger civil rights and a more robust social safety net. It has  triggered a frantic backlash by White Supremicists, seen in the chants of alt-right activists insisting “We shall not be replaced,” and in the overt racism displayed by people who believe that social dominance is a zero-sum calculation.

As Mounk points out, demographic reality is more complicated than that.

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.

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.”

It isn’t simply that the census bureau’s categories are questionable.  We’ve come a long way from the time when a majority of Americans opposed racial “intermingling” via dating  or intermarriage. The data confirms that change; according to Mounk, in 1980,” fewer than one in thirty newborns in the United States had a mother and a father from different ethnic groups.” Today, not only is the number of people who oppose interracial marriage relatively small, by the late  2010s, one out of every seven children born in the United States was mixed-race.

That’s an astonishing turnaround–and it further complicates those simplified “majority/minority” projections. For one thing, according to newspapers and demographers, every single one of the babies born to these couples is classified as a “person of color.”

That classification is at odds with the self-perception of mixed-race children, many of whom see themselves as White. Similarly, a majority of children with roots in Spain or Latin America who are neither black nor indigenous consider themselves ethnically white rather than Hispanic.

Bottom line: we need to resist the urge to “slice and dice” our fellow Americans into opposing ethnic enclaves. As Mounk reminds us, Americans once feared the conflicts posed by Irish and Italian immigrants, yet today, the “distinction between Americans who hail from Sussex and those who hail from Sicily seems quaint.”

Ethnicity isn’t destiny, political or otherwise. It’s more complicated than that.


  1. Two points to consider from above:

    1) What is the definition of a “progressive?”
    2) Who is intentionally “slicing and dicing” Americans by race?

    For instance, is a member of the Democratic Party considered a progressive? I heard Hillary Clinton call herself a progressive which is laughable. How would she make that self-assessment?

    As for the second point, why is race an issue, or who wants to make race an issue?

    Once again, dating back to before our formation as a country, the oligarchs kept us divided by race as chattel first, and then once slaves were freed, the division required systems and institutional approval.

    Since the oligarchs control the media, they could manipulate the masses based on race or any other target marketing endeavor. If I control the messaging and the political power, I can keep the people segregated which is useful in population/society control.

    The last thing a small group of oligarchs wants is a democracy or people coming together. 😉

    “Divide and conquer” is older than the hills.

  2. I agree with that Todd. We have come way too far from dividing to put up new kinds of government intervention. Right now I wholeheartedly grieve over the economics snd how it is displacing the black community. High inflation, high interest rates, soaring real estate values.
    We can lift up each other if we aren’t being divisive, the government can only help some. Businesses line the hallways at schools with giveaways like no other time yet we are destroying their ability to help.
    Bill Clinton said, “Its the economy stupid”. We aren’t supposed to worry about our futures.
    We have to find support by delivering on the basics

  3. I majored in “it depends” in the economics department at IU. Secondly, if I had to choose between a chef from Sussex or Siciliy to make a good batch of pasta…welllllll.

    Joking aside, you can see evidence of Mounk’s assertions in the 2020 census results, where a far greater number of respondents identified themselves as being of “two or more” races than in previous census’ where they were happy to be in the melting pot.

    And Todd’s on a roll. Two commenters (so far) agree with him.

    Happy Saturday.

  4. Humans only developed the concept of race to make it easier to divide us into groups that can feel superior to one another. When asked my race on questionnaires, I usually check “Other” and if they give me a line to designate, I write Human.

    All that aside, everybody needs to remember that governance is hard and good governance is even harder. Not everyone will be happy with every outcome, so suck it up and go back to work on achieving your goals.

  5. Per scientists, DNA determines race.

    “…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.”

    NOW the determination is based on Trump’s personal 2020 census; how will this 10 year period determine the future census? I always dreaded filling out the lengthy census form but 2020 brought an abbreviated number of questions and pages. After my brief personal information was completed there was a total of 10 questions. 1. List the names of all Hispanics living in your home address. 2. List the names of all Hispanics living in your home address not listed in question 1. Questions 3 through 10 asked the race and ethnicity of all persons living in my home address. These answers provided the information Republicans needed to gerrymand their districts and the future of funds needed for infrastructure, schools, hospitals, etc., which the census has always been used to determine these decisions.

    “Ethnicity isn’t destiny, political or otherwise. It’s more complicated than that.”

    Trump’s census results show how deep in his pockets this government was…and is…that is not so complicated that we can’t see the future of this nation which will be decided in this mid-term General Election which will decide the 2024 presidential election before other candidates join Trump in campaigning.

  6. I used to speak regularly about Transgender issues. Human Sexuality classes, Nursing classes, Psychology classes. I even did a workshop for the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Trainers many years ago.

    Those presentations usually included a section about categorization and how they are abused. It is highly unusual, unless you are categorizing something like bolts and washers, to not include other factors that really don’t belong. for years all blacks at best couldn’t be trusted and it worst were active criminals. LGBT people were all perverts, child molestors and morally bankrupt. Pitbulls are all killer dogs – your pitbull just hasn’t lost it yet. It goes on and on. In fact, most categories contain huge diversities. I’ll take LGBT people as an example because it is a category I am very familiar with. I’ve know LGBT people who are rocket scientists, attorney, a number of ex special forces (be careful if you are thinking about messing with an LGBT person, they may well be an ex marine). Also a guy who was very conservative and was an outdorrsmand and really into guns. He also had a booth at transgender conventions where he sold breast forms made for the material in rubber fishing worms. All you can really say about someone who belongs to the caterfory LGBT is that they are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, or intersex. Every thing else is up for grabs. I am embarrsed to admit that I have mostly not been catching that same categorization idiocy at the level of national news and policy discussion. I promise to be more aware in the future.

  7. The article is correct in saying we must resist “slicing and dicing” our ethnic groups. I think Todd was “spot on” in saying oligarchs dont want groups to ban together in solidarity. Divide and conquer as he says. I dont agree with him on Hillary Clinton. She is/was a progressive much more than Bill was. We are changing and must change with the times!

  8. I find it interesting that the first case taking on anti-interracial marriage laws in US was Perez vs. Sharp in California in 1948. A hispanic woman and a black man were denied a marriage license, since the anti-miscegenation law considered hispanics as white. She could have married a white man without breaking the law. It seems the California Supreme Court struck down the law based on 14th amendment and religous freedom. They were both Catholic. It wasn’t until 1967 that US Supreme Court deemed anti-miscegenation laws as unconstitutional.
    Seems like there’s been a major shift in attitude toward hispanic immigrants from the “I Love Lucy” days to the fear being spread by white nationalists regarding “illegals” on the border.

  9. The one-drop rule rears its ugly head. Again.
    On that basis we’re all African. And hominim.
    And amoeba.

  10. “They” have won when we divide by race, color, gender, religion, etc.. The real “divide” which ought to be the one that counts is economic class/wealth. If that mattered…amazing things might get done for the 90%….

  11. Excellent point!
    But I still believe that, when it comes to the will of the people, it’s really not as complicated as politicians want us to believe.

  12. My first husband’s family was from Spain, and he attended boarding school in Madrid. They did not consider themselves hispanic. For them, the term hispanic referred to people from the former Spanish colonies. They, and most otherwise fairly small community of Spanish Americans in this country, preferred the term Spanish American, just as Americans of Italian descent are referred to as Italian Americans, those of German descent as German Americans, etc. Was it a form of colonial superiority? Probably. But I understand the distinction. Spain is a European country, and the US has always favored immigrants from Europe over those from Latin America, Asia, or other parts of the world, although that favor was more for northern Europeans over southern Europeans. Italians were not considered “white” by most Americans when they first began coming to this country. It took several generations for them to be accepted. There has never been a large influx of Spanish immigrants to the US. As my mother-in-law pointed out, most Spaniards who wanted to emigrate chose South American countries, where they would be readily accepted and wouldn’t have to learn a new language.

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