The Myth of a White Minority

Richard Alba, New York Times, June 10, 2015

In 2012, the Census Bureau announced that nonwhite births exceeded white births for the first time. In 2013, it noted that more whites were dying than were being born. In March, it projected that non-Hispanic whites would be a minority by 2044.

But the forecast of an imminent white minority, which some take as a given, is wrong. We will seem like a majority-white society for much longer than is believed.

The predictions make sense only if you accept the outdated, illogical methods used by the census, which define as a “minority” anyone who belongs to “any group other than non-Hispanic White alone.” In the words “group” and “alone” lie a host of confusions.

A report the Pew Research Center is releasing today on multiracial Americans demonstrates how problematic these definitions have become. Pew estimates that 8.9 percent of Americans now have family backgrounds that involve some combination of white, black, Latino, Asian and Native American.

“Mixed” unions–intermarriages and long-lasting cohabitations–have become far more common. According to a 2012 Pew report, 15 percent of new marriages cross the major lines of race or Hispanic origin. Some 70 percent of these relationships involve a white partner and a minority spouse. The most common minority partners for whites are Latinos, followed by Asians, though the frequency of white-black marriage also continues to rise.

But even as the on-the-ground understanding of race and ethnicity becomes more fluid, contingent and overlapping, our public conversation lags.

Take, for example, the claim that “minority babies are now the majority.” Analyzing data from the 2013 American Community Survey, I found that it identified only about half of infants (children under 1) as non-Hispanic whites–though 60 percent had at least one non-Hispanic white parent. The discrepancy arises because of demographic convention: The census counts as minority anyone of mixed race or ethnicity.

Among infants with a Hispanic parent, about 30 percent also had a non-Hispanic parent–and for two-thirds of them, that parent was white. The percentages were similar for infants of Asian parentage.

For much of our racist past, all partly white, partly black individuals were socially and legally defined as black. The “one drop” rule was absurd, of course, yet it has effectively returned, with a vengeance, via statistical categories. There is no justification for viewing as not white all children who are partly white and being raised in a family that includes a white parent and two white grandparents, to say nothing of aunts, uncles and cousins.

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