Politics & Policy

America’s Persistent White Majority


Two months ago I was invited to a radio discussion of the forthcoming U.S. primary elections by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It was a lively show — listen to it here —and, by media standards here and in Oz, both balanced and civil. At one point, however, the speaker informally representing the Democrat side made the familiar argument that demography was now clearly tilting the electoral scales against the GOP, as minorities — in particular the growing Hispanic minority — were splitting heavily toward the Dems and in addition going to vote in ever-larger numbers.

Well, I had heard that one before and I replied that his argument was a formula for winning the next election but three or maybe five. For some time the white electorate would be, ahem, the big enchilada, and getting a larger percentage of its votes would be at least as important as winning larger shares of minority electorates. To my surprise, the non-partisan expert (who really was non-partisan) agreed, and my liberal counterpart conceded there might be something in what I said but that in the long term etc., etc.

Fair enough. I could hardly dispute the long-term prognosis because I had made precisely the same argument in National Review back in the dim and distant mid-1990s when I wrote a piece forecasting an incredible shrinking Republican majority. Within a few issues, National Review published a more statistically sophisticated version of the same argument in a cover story by Peter Brimelow and Edwin S. Rubenstein under the title “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” And this thesis became fully respectable within the year when John B. Judis and Ruy Texeira published a book of the same name that cheerfully welcomed the prospect.

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But as the ABC debate brought out, this Democratic majority was taking a devil of a time to emerge. As the old joke goes, it had more arrivals than Dame Nellie Melba had farewells! (For an explanation, ask your dad. Or even your granddad.) Though Democrats have won three presidential elections out of the past five, they have been clobbered in the off-years. Republicans have not only won the House and the Senate nationally but also hold the great majority of governorships and state legislatures. Realignment has stuttered to a halt at the halfway mark, as so often in the past. Why?

Others are asking the same question. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Roberto Suro, a journalism professor and former Washington Post reporter specializing in Hispanic politics, wondered about one important component of it: why Latino Americans have apparently had so little impact on the election season so far. Signature Latino issues, particularly legalizing “the undocumented,” has not been prominently addressed in the presidential campaign except in conservative criticisms of amnesty. The leading Latino politicians in the campaign are two conservative Republicans, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, running on issues of economic aspiration and against legalization, who would “upend the notion that Latino population growth dooms the Republican Party” if they were to score something above 40 per cent of the Latino vote in the general election. And underlying this performance (a disappointing one from Professor Suro’s standpoint) is the fact that although Latino census numbers have risen sharply, their voting numbers have risen by only half as much. Latinos have not naturalized themselves in high numbers or voted in high numbers or shown at the polls that immigration is an overriding issue for them.

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All those arguments strike me as valid. But as Professor Suro hopefully points out, this picture might change drastically as the election grows more exciting. Issues such as immigration and multiculturalism could become matters of ethnic loyalty rather than economic well-being, increasing Latino naturalization, voter registration, and electoral turnout. After all, Latinos are a fast-growing minority, America is becoming a minority-majority nation, and the hitherto white majority is moving inescapably into minority status.

#share#Or is it? Are all these claims — which are almost universally accepted and serve as the intellectual backdrop to almost all discussions of political strategy and national policy — true? Or are they instead very complicated mistakes that mislead us into believing that America is changing more that it is (or ever has) and in directions different from those in which the nation is really headed? They are, the distinguished sociologist Richard Alba argues in the winter 2016 issue of the liberal American Prospect.

Professor Alba does not deny demographic change or that it has serious consequences in altering the ethnic balance of the U.S. population. Quite the contrary. What he points out, however, is that the change is seriously distorted by how it’s presented by the Census Bureau and other surveys, which has the effect of, among other things, presenting the lowest possible estimate of whites as a percentage of the total population.  

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This happens as follows. In the first place, the Census Bureau, the Pew Research Center, and others distribute Americans into different ethnic categories as follows: If you are the child of white parents, you are placed in the category “white.” The rule that applies here is, ironically enough, the old white racist “one-drop rule”: If you had one drop of black blood in your veins under Jim Crow, you counted as black. In today’s ethnic statistics, That has been expanded into the rule that if you have one drop of minority blood (or culture, or language, etc.), you are assigned to one of the several non-white categories.

So if you are anything other than white-bread white — if you are culturally Hispanic, say, or the child of a white father and an Indian mother — you are placed in a minority category. A child of “mixed” race, ethnicity, or culture — say, a boy with a white father and an Asian mother — is not classified as white by the Bureau even if he, his family, and his neighbors all think of him, consciously or unconsciously, as white. And though such children can (and increasingly do) opt for a “mixed”-race category, that is counted as a minority category as well.

All of which minimizes the number of people in the white category, maximizes the numbers of those in all other designations, and means that Senator Elizabeth Warren is non-white. Yet if we were to adopt a reverse one-drop rule so that one drop of white blood meant a child counted as white, then, according to Professor, Alba whites would account for about three quarters of the American people well into the remainder of this century. And Senator Elizabeth Warren would be white.

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To think along these lines is to mistake a statistical artifact for a much more complicated reality of social mixing and ethnic assimilation. In America’s past, “minorities” that included the Irish and the Italians were long ago fully subsumed under the category “white.” Today minorities include Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and “others” alongside the persisting white “majority.” Alas, for social scientists none of these groups stays obediently within its assigned category either in the maternity ward or later.

Professor Alba estimates that fully three quarters of children of mixed parentage born in 2013 were in families with one white parent. Many of them, maybe most, identify as “white.” They are more likely than others to intermarry on their own account, and they have income patterns similar to those of whites. Indeed, the highest incomes enjoyed within the 14 ethno-racial family combinations listed by Alba are those of mixed, Asian-white households. These score higher than either white-white or Asian-Asian homes.

Alba’s article is a rich and important one, and the picture he paints is very largely hopeful: namely, of a flexible American identity open to newcomers and either expanding the definition of “white” (again) or replacing it with some such term as “mainstream” as a description of its central ethnic current. This is more accurate, more peaceable, and more hopeful than the vision now dominant in intellectual liberal culture: of an America with a selfish and oppressive white plurality now retreating before the advance of angry minorities.

(Alba cites one glaring exception to his optimistic picture: Black Americans are still outside the American mainstream as reflected in intermarriage rates and in the incomes of families with one or more black parents. He is right that they face racial discrimination far more than other minorities do and that, in part as a result, they feel alienated from the mainstream. It is also likely that their isolation has grown more acute as a result of liberal policies that brought more “minorities” into America and expanded social programs, including affirmative action, to cover them. Blacks have lost their position as America’s founding minority. Plainly, this is unfinished business. But it also outside the scope of my short essay, which is concerned with the political implications of the fact that America’s white majority is not shrinking inexorably but expanding as it accepts new recruits from later minorities.)

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If Alba is right, as I think he largely is, there is nothing odd about Rubio and Cruz adopting policies tailored not to the concerns of a self-conscious Hispanic minority but to those of an American majority that now includes many Hispanics, some fully conscious of a separate identity, others indifferent to it, still more adapting to a more “American” identity. That explains why Democrats are so anxious to pursue policies that in general sharpen ethnic and racial tensions in American life and in particular to bring more Latinos, legal or illegal, documented or undocumented, into the U.S. and its political system.

#related#If Hispanics already here either through birth or migration are moving gradually into a mainstream American identity and therefore toward the national right, an obvious way for Democrats to respond is to bring more of them into America both to replace them electorally and to reinforce the ethnic loyalties that keep Hispanics on the multicultural left.

Republicans, on the other hand, knowing that they are not facing some kind of unstoppable ethnic Armageddon, should have the quiet confidence to argue the case for all their policies, including their immigration policy, on the basis of what’s good for all Americans rather than sectional interests. Quiet patriotism will beat angry multiculturalism even in these partisan days.


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