In 2002, influential political observers John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published a book that helped craft an enduring narrative. “The Emerging Democratic Majority” postulated that ongoing socio-demographic trends worked to the advantage of the Democratic Party. These trends included a growing percentage of ethnic minorities, along with increasing percentages of younger voters, unmarried working women, and the college-educated. Individually and cumulatively, these developments suggested a bright future for Democrats’ electoral prospects.
The 2008 presidential election seemed to herald the arrival of this “new American electorate” or “coalition of the ascendant.” Four years later, in the aftermath of President Obama’s reelection, the Republican National Committee recognized the apparent new order when it issued an “autopsy” of Mitt Romney’s loss. In it, the GOP declared that it needed to increase its appeal to ethnic and racial minorities, women, and young voters. A few years later, the U.S. Census Bureau put an official stamp on one of the important demographic trends when it reported that “Non-Hispanic Whites May No Longer Comprise Over 50 Percent of the U.S. Population by 2044.”
Most official government reports go unnoticed. Not this one. The idea of a majority-minority country quickly dominated the national political conversation. Other announcements reinforced the 2015 report: In every year since 2013, minority births have exceeded white births. Beginning in 2019, a majority of Americans under 16 years old are non-white.
There is no downplaying the political impact of what has been called “the browning of America.” The narrative of the majority-minority nation has become a staple of political commentary, especially on the left. Contrary to expectations, however, in the short run — the 2016 elections — many Democrats believe the party suffered from acceptance of the thesis and its apparent support for an electoral emphasis on identities. Although the contributions of ethnocentrism and racism to Donald Trump’s vote have arguably been exaggerated, social changes, particularly rapid and cumulative social changes, are certainly unnerving to some elements of the population, with political reaction a natural result.
One need not accept dubious notions like “white extinction anxiety” to recognize that a rising American electorate logically entails a corresponding declining American electorate, and one hardly can blame older, white, married, non-college-educated voters for wondering where they fit in the new Democrat majority.
As Judis himself noted in 2015, “The Emerging Democratic Majority” implicitly made two assumptions. First, rising groups would continue to favor the Democrats in their voting. Second, that increased Democratic support from rising groups would not be offset by falling support among declining groups. The 2016 election raised doubts about the second assumption.
As Teixeira recently pointed out, there are still too many whites in the electorate for the Democrats to win without attracting a goodly share of them. Ironically, an emphasis on racial and ethnic identities may have boomeranged by creating a “white consciousness” where little or none existed before. The increase in Latino support for Trump in the 2020 voting suggests that the first assumption may be questionable as well.
Most people would not view heightened racial and ethnic divisions as a positive political development, especially if such divisions were based on serious misconceptions. So, sadly, some of the divisiveness of contemporary politics might have been avoided if journalists and pundits had paid serious attention to the work of academic demographers who have been criticizing the Census Bureau projections for nearly a decade.
Although these critics have challenged the prevailing majority-minority narrative, they have had little apparent success. CUNY professor Richard Alba, one of the leaders of this group of critics, has tried again with “The Great Demographic Illusion,” a new book that should be required reading for everyone who comments or writes on American elections.
The Demographers’ Critique
The photo below of Sen. Ted (Rafael Edward) Cruz and his family provides the best short explanation of the Alba critique. Cruz is the son of a Cuban father and Irish mother. The U.S. Census Bureau classifies him as Hispanic, a minority. Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is of northern European ancestry. Their two daughters are classified as minority (so long as the parents report their children’s Cuban heritage on the Hispanic origin question — see below).
Should these girls grow up, marry, say, ethnic Scandinavians, and have one or two children each, Cruz’s grandchildren will be classified as minority, again, as long as whoever fills out the census form acknowledges their Hispanic ancestry. So, if he lives until 2044, Cruz could contribute as many as seven people to the projected nonwhite majority: himself, two children who are one-quarter Cuban, and two to four grandchildren who are one-eighth Cuban.
Most people would find such a classification procedure surprising, if not absurd. Alba emphasizes that the Census Bureau operates under legal and political constraints imposed by the Office of Management and Budget, with close scrutiny from Congress, outside interest groups, and the courts. Its practices, therefore, are not always those that academic researchers would adopt.
The projections in the 2015 report are predicated on questions dealing with race and ethnicity that were first included on the 2010 census and carried over to the current census. Consider question 8 on the census form, which asks about Hispanic ancestry. Those who report any Hispanic ancestry on this question move into the minority category, regardless of their responses to question 9.
Non-Hispanics who check the “white” box on question 9 go into the white category, of course — unless they write in anything else. Should they wish to claim, say, an American Indian ancestor (a fairly common impulse), they again fall into the minority category despite their white self-categorization. In both cases, descendants stay in the same category — minority — as the parent, if they acknowledge the parent’s ancestry.
So, the census projections reflect a “one-drop” rule akin to that used in the Jim Crow South. The white category consists only of people who are 100 percent “non-Hispanic white.” If one adopts a more expansive definition of white, the projection of a majority-minority nation disappears. Dowell Myer and Morris Levy, for example, calculate what future American populations would look like if anyone who checks the white box on question 9 is classified as white. With this extremely liberal classification, the nation is three-quarters white in 2060.
On first hearing about the projected nonwhite majority, many people probably form a mental image that looks roughly like this: 4 whites, 2 Hispanics, 2 blacks, 1 Asian, and perhaps one “other.” As the preceding discussion explains, however, the picture is much more complex. The majority of minorities will not consist of people who are 100 percent Latino, 100 percent Asian, 100 percent black, 100 percent Native American, or 100 percent Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (the official census categories). Rather, the majority of minorities will include people of numerous shadings of color.
The United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, not only because of the changing relative sizes of the five large groups but also because of the growing internal diversity within each group as the sizes of their mixed portions swell. Diversity is increasing within individuals as well as among groups.
Alba reports numerous analyses using census data, birth certificates, and surveys to describe the increasing occurrence of mixed marriages and the children who are products of such interracial and interethnic unions. Mixed marriage rates have steadily increased, and the ongoing census will likely report that nearly one in five new marriages now are mixed. Fully 80 percent of these marriages are between a white American and a minority. About 40 percent of these involve a white and a Hispanic, with Asian-white unions at 15 percent.
The upshot is that 40 percent of Americans report having a close relative who is married to someone of another racial group. Given rising interracial marriage rates, these numbers will continue to grow.
Objective measures of economic success and general well-being show that mixed-race children fall between non-Hispanic white and all minority children (with the exception that Asian-white children do better than all white children on some measures). As Alba notes, “On the whole, mixed individuals remain in between, but the degree to which they resemble whites in social characteristics, and in their social integration with them is striking in a number of ways.”
Parental education levels are lower for white-minority children than for white children but higher than for minority children — except for Asian-white children where education levels are higher than in all white families. The proportion of multiracial children who live in two-parent families is lower than that of all-white children but higher than that of all minority children. Family income levels of multiracial children are lower than that of all white children (except for Asian-whites, whose families have higher levels), but higher than that of all minority children.
On more subjective measures, mixed-race children report more fluid identities than those of single ethnicities, sometimes reporting one part of their parentage and at other times another. Asian-white multiracials provide a striking example: Two-thirds of those included in both the 2000 and 2010 censuses did not give identical answers; at one time they chose one identity or mixture and at the other time made a different choice. Some mixed-race individuals choose to identify as white, some as mixed, some as their minority heritage, and their choices differ at different times and in different contexts.
For the most part, Alba’s findings are positive: They replace a white vs. minority binary that encourages an “us vs. them” orientation among some Americans with a more variegated picture where racial and ethnic boundaries are far less clear and constantly shifting — even within individuals from day-to-day.
The findings of black-white multiracial children (about 20 percent of mixed white-minority children) provide the one glaring exception to this positive picture: “Multiracials with black and white parentage are the huge exception to this pattern, and their experience is quite distinct,” Alba writes. “They grow up in less affluent circumstances and are exposed to much more severe discrimination, as evidenced by their frequent complaints of mistreatment at the hands of the police. They are more comfortable with blacks than with whites and usually identify with the black side of their family heritage.”
But even here, he finds a positive note: “Yet they too exhibit a level of integration with whites that exceed that of other African Americans, as reflected in the relative frequency with which they marry whites. Racism is not an absolute bar to the same processes of integration evident among other mixed minority-white Americans, but it is a major impediment.”
The Electoral Implications
In addition to the ongoing rise in mixed-race Americans, leaping from Census Bureau projections to assumptions about the electorate equates “residents,” the population described by census data, with “voters.” A majority of foreign-born residents are not citizens, a discrepancy likely to grow because the foreign-born population will increase, to about 17 percent in 2050.
If this proportion does not change markedly, half or more of the foreign-born — the vast majority non-white or Hispanic — will not be eligible to vote in 2050. All in all, at mid-century and beyond, whites are virtually certain to remain the effective electoral majority at the national level.
Throughout his book, Alba shows great sensitivity in the presentation and discussion of the findings. Ethnic activists and some scholars in the academy are heavily invested in the majority-minority narrative and will not welcome the evidence that the narrative is largely an artifact of questionable data classifications.
Alba reminds us that America has continually redefined its mainstream, albeit by fits and starts. Northern European Protestants regarded the Irish as a lesser people (even the earlier Germans were suspect). And the great wave of southern and eastern European immigrants at first was widely viewed as well outside the mainstream (on a personal note, my Italian aunts told me that when they started school in Pennsylvania in the 1920s the locals called them the n-word).
The process of mainstream expansion continues today, although Alba cautions that absent the integrating experience of World War II and the great post-war economic expansion, the re-definition of the mainstream may proceed more slowly than in the past.
Both political parties should recognize the social reality that Alba describes. In embracing the questionable notion of a majority-minority nation, Democrats who advocate identity politics are not placing as good a bet as some of them think, as the 2020 voting by some Latinos and African Americans suggests.
Political appeals to various ethnic and racial groupings will be less effective as those groupings become less distinct and their identities become more diffuse. Meanwhile, on the right, appeals to white consciousness (or worse), are likely to become counterproductive as the proportion of whites with multiracial relatives steadily increases.