Posted on May 4, 2018

America Will Only Remain ‘Majority White’ If Blacks Remain an Underclass

Eric Levitz, New York Magazine, May 3, 2018

America will cease to be a majority-white nation by the middle of this century — unless it remains one for decades longer (if not, until the end of time).

The source of this uncertainty is simple: According to the Census Bureau’s projections, non-Hispanic whites will comprise less than 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2044; but by 2044, the category of “non-Hispanic whites” might be as socially irrelevant as that of “non-Irish whites” is today.

After all, “white” is a social category — not an ethnic or genetic one. {snip} But over time, racial distinctions in the United States began narrowing into a binary that separated all manner of European Americans from those with darker skin tones {snip}. Thus, the Irish became white. {snip}

Given the number of Hispanic Americans who already identify as “white,” and the demographic’s rising rate of intermarriage, it seems quite likely that a large portion of that population will be seen as white by 2044 — and that the distinction between “Hispanic whites” and the current garden variety will mean little by that date.

If that hypothesis bears out, then America will still be a very white country at mid-century: When the Census Bureau includes (light-skinned) descendants of Latin Americans in its definition of “white,” it projects that 68.5 percent of Americans will still belong to the racial category in 2060.

Vox’s Matt Yglesias argues that this “inclusive” definition of whiteness will likely prevail — and that that is “good news” for the country. He observes that, in recent years, racial backlash politics in the United States has drawn much of its energy from white Americans’ anxiety about demographic trends. The election of an African-American president — combined with routine headlines heralding the ascent of a nonwhite majority — left some light-skinned voters more susceptible to the appeals of xenophobic demagogues. {snip}


{snip} When white Americans hear talk of a “majority nonwhite” America, they fear that their nation’s racial hierarchy could be upended; if African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, and Arabs all came to embrace a unifying “nonwhite” identity (just as Americans of English, German, French, Irish, Russian, and Jewish descent came to embrace a shared “white” one), then whites would ostensibly become the nation’s racial “minority” — and could, in time, suffer the same indignities that nonwhites were made to suffer in this country. Whereas, if Latinos and Asians “become white,” European Americans’ claim to membership in the nation’s majority racial caste is secured; which is to say, that African-Americans’ isolation in the smaller, subordinate racial category is assured.


All of which is to say: There are hard limits on how “inclusive” the definition of “white” can get. No one can be white unless someone else is black; and America can’t retain a white majority unless it also maintains a black minority.

Further, there isn’t much reason to believe that a more “inclusive” conception of whiteness will necessarily produce a less anti-black society. Part of why America developed an “inclusive” definition of whiteness, in the first place, was that subjugating this continent’s native peoples to white rule required recruiting a lot of European immigrants to the cause. And settlers couldn’t be choosers; there weren’t nearly enough Anglo-Saxon immigrants to realize America’s “manifest destiny” by themselves. Thus, the need to dominate a non-European out-group softened ethnic divisions among the European-American in-group. Similarly, the enslavement of Africans in the South helped the region’s white indentured servants graduate into legal and political equality. {snip}

In an ideal world, there will be hardly any “white” people in the United States by mid-century — because, by then, we’ll have realized that the category itself is a malicious fiction. White Americans only share a common social identity to the extent that they all benefit from being perceived as members of a historically dominant racial caste. Light-skinned Americans might still feel compelled to acknowledge this residual privilege decades from now, but (ideally) they’d have no interest in affirmatively identifying as “white” — since they would recognize that “white Americans” makes no more sense as a social, biological, or cultural unit than “brown-eyed” Americans does.

But in all probability, whiteness is too deeply ingrained to disappear that quickly. And it’s plausible that the vast, and growing, disparities in wealth between “white” and “black” Americans will only reinforce popular prejudices that stigmatize the latter in the coming years, {snip}.