Link and Comment: The Changing US Demographic

Essay in Sunday’s NYT: The Census and Right-Wing Hysteria, by Herbert J. Gans

The “right-wing hysteria” concerns the predictions, for several years now, than within a few decades the US would become a “majority-minority” nation by the 2040 — i.e., that (non-Hispanic) whites would become the minority.

Last year the census underlined its prediction by announcing that non-Hispanic white babies under the age of 1 were already in the minority.

These numbers have become a handy data point for whites fearful that they are being threatened and “overwhelmed” by a growing tide of darker-skinned people. In this way, the census may have unintentionally increased white racism, thereby justifying the longstanding Republican strategy of turning itself into a whites-first party. White fears probably even helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election.

Gans counters with reasons, not that this shift won’t happen, but by the time it does happen, it won’t be perceived as feared. Details concern how different ethnic groups are counted, how mixed-race people do or do not consider themselves ‘white’, and how the definition of ‘white’ has shifted over the past centuries.

The census forgot American history — specifically the long history of the whitening of populations previously labeled nonwhite. In the 18th century, when the first Swedish and German immigrants arrived here, Benjamin Franklin and others complained that their skin color was endangering Anglo-Saxon racial purity. A generation or two later, their descendants, now Americanized, looked perfectly Anglo-Saxon.

In the 19th century, the Irish, particularly poor ones, were described as black or swarthy, as were the equally poor Eastern and Southern European immigrants who followed. But by the 1960s, their grandchildren were called white ethnics.

The same whitening is now taking place among the descendants of Asian and light-skinned Latinos, particularly those already in the middle class. But native-born African-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and African immigrants are still excluded.

This relates to my PvC #10, that “the [human] race will become more homogeneous as previously separated groups intermix”, and also to the notion that the things conservatives and reactionaries fear most will not happen in the way they imagine. (Or, to put this another way…the people who are by nature most worried how about future changes in society will cause them problems or disadvantage their previously privileged positions in life, tend to be conservatives and reactionaries.)

The essay ends,

The census cannot say this, but whites should fear instead that many of them are increasingly suffering some of the same economic and political pains as nonwhites. All are victims of an economy that has computerized many jobs and sent others overseas. All are victims of a political system that is ever more dominated by business and a donor class that funds many election campaigns.

However, most whites do not see their common victimhood and too many blame blacks, Latinos and now Middle Eastern and other recent immigrants for their troubles.

The Census Bureau’s majority-minority prediction could be interpreted as contributing to this blaming practice. The bureau will need to address this in case the forecast becomes a weapon in the country’s political battles, impairing its credibility.

The census could start by pointing out that rising intermarriage, whitening and other cultural changes could affect and even invalidate its prediction for the 2040s.

Or it could go further and abandon that forecast and the entire majority-minority idea. The country will be better off if the Census Bureau does so as soon as possible.

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