Tag Archives: census categories

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.