Posted on March 8, 2021

The “Majority-Minority” Myth

Andrew Sullivan, Substack, February 19, 2021

If there’s one core assumption shared by the two tribes of our culture, it is that America will soon be a “majority-minority” nation. Among today’s seniors, “whites” still dominate; but among children, “non-whites” are now a very clear majority. The debate about when exactly America will become a majority-minority country moves around a bit in the projections, but it’s somewhere near the middle of this century. And this underlying reality has created a kind of background noise to our debates about race and culture, immigration and populism.

For both tribes, it feels as if a seismic shift is coming soon that will shape the meaning of America for the foreseeable future — a transformation some in the blue tribe may celebrate as a final victory over “whiteness”, and many in the red tribe agonize over as an end to the America they have long felt a part of.


Few have seriously debated or questioned this demographic orthodoxy (I include myself in this myopia). And yet it seems fundamental to our political present. In fact, I don’t think you can explain the persistence of Trump and Trumpism at all without understanding fears of a “non-white” future. And it’s hard to understand Democratic political strategy without appreciating their assumption that non-white immigrants will always be more reliable voters for them than white natives.

But what if this entire scenario is just empirically wrong? What if the entire idea of a majority-minority country is based on an illusion? That’s the arresting proposition of some scholars who examine demographic shifts and don’t quite buy the binary nature of the conventional wisdom. One is Richard Alba, Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His new book, “The Great Demographic Illusion,” examines and, I have to say, largely detonates, the majority-minority myth. He does this simply by pointing out how the Census Bureau actually defines “non-white”.

In a weird and creepy echo of the old “one-drop rule,” you are officially counted as “non-white” by the Census if your demographic background has any non-white component to it. So the great majority of Americans whose race is in any way ambiguous or mixed are counted as “non-white” even if they don’t identify as such. And this obviously skews a much more complex reality about race in America. {snip}

What Alba examines is how these mixed-race populations understand themselves and behave within American society, and his conclusion is that our current situation resembles our assimilationist, melting point past much more than we currently believe. “In some fundamental ways,” Alba argues, “such as educational attainment, social affiliations, and marriage tendencies, the members of mixed groups appear closer to the white side of their background than to the minority side.”

This is particularly true with respect to the offspring of Latino-Anglo and Asian-Anglo couples, who are increasingly assimilated into the new bi-racial and multiracial mainstream. The only exception to this rule, alas, are black-white mixed children — who are more likely to be in single-parent homes, to be poorer and to have bad experiences with law enforcement, and thereby tend to identify with the non-white part of their identity. But even here, Alba notes, white-black children “not infrequently marry whites.” And the core difference between these kids and others is as much about class and family structure as it is about racism.

But doesn’t this just prove the critical race theorists right — that achieving “whiteness” is the mark of social and economic integration in America? Not exactly. What Alba argues is that the “mainstream” to which many mixed-race Americans aspire is no longer best understood as a form of 1950s-style “whiteness” than as an inter-connected, 21st Century multicultural and multiracial kaleidoscope, in which many, especially the younger generation, feel increasingly at home. He wants to contrast the old “idea of assimilation as whitening” with “the ongoing mainstream diversification.” And if you do that, and complicate the white-non-white binary, the racial picture of America becomes much less fraught.

Key here is the role of the Latino population, and how it is defined. Most demographic estimates of the “white” population are based on the Census definition: “non-Hispanic white.” But what of “Hispanic whites” — those whose lineage may come from South or Latin America in ethnicity but who also identify racially and socially as white? If you include them in this category, America remains two-thirds “white” all the way through 2060 and beyond. And this is not some wild diversion from previous definitions. Until 1930, Alba notes, Mexican immigrants were counted as “white” in the Census. If you kept that standard today, the whole notion of “majority-minority” would simply evaporate.


To take one example: as rates of inter-racial marriage have climbed, a full 35 percent of Americans said in 2010 that they had a close relative married to someone from another racial group. That number will inevitably alter perceptions and self-perceptions of racial identity. {snip}

And multiracial identity is growing fast: “Of all the infants with a Hispanic parent in 2017, one of every four (28 percent) had a non-Hispanic parent, and one in every five (20 percent) had a non-Hispanic white, or Anglo, parent.” {snip}


I’ve no doubt that with demographic shifts this swift, we’ll see backlash and panic, and an occasional insistence on reinforcing rigid categories. But the trend line toward fluidity is not really in dispute. And what I fear is that the capitulation of American elites to a ludicrously outdated view of America in 2021 as a form of “white supremacy” could perpetuate racial categorization just as it begins to fade.


Demographics will continue to evolve and shape-shift whatever our understanding of them. But our understanding matters — because it shapes our emotions, our identities, and the policy choices we make. It’s way past time, it seems to me, to leave behind the race fixation of far right and far left, and to move back to a more fluid, multiracial, multicultural American identity that is not the same as the uglier, whiter past, and not some kind of anti-white triumphalism either. I’m referring to the kind of mainstream multiracial future that our first truly biracial president, Barack Obama, once hoped for, and represented. {snip}