The Agenda

Why the Majority-Minority Future Might Never Come

Jamelle Bouie argues that the United States might never become a “majority-minority” country, as the white majority will expand over time through intermarriage and assimilation:

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this. Whites are the mainstream of American life, with tremendous representation in every area of our society. Through intermarriage, Latinos and Asian Americans are becoming similarly mainstreamed. Indeed, in politics, business, and culture, it’s not hard to find examples of “minorities” who are indistinguishable from whites. For all intents and purposes, Texas Senator Ted Cruz—the freshman lawmaker who helped drive the GOP into confrontation with President Obama—is understood as white, despite his heritage. More important, his children will also be understood as white.

While there are limits to the comparison between the Latinos and Asian Americans of today with their Irish and Italian predecessors—Latinos and Asian Americans span a wide range of nationalities—the basic point stands. These are two upwardly mobile groups that are rapidly assimilating with the white mainstream. If the pattern of the past holds, the future won’t be majority-minority; it will be a white majority, where Spanish last names are common. And if that’s the case, there’s a chance that the GOP ends up getting a new crop of voters over the next two decades: Latinos and Asian Americans who have assimilated, become “white,” and thus more conservative in their political preferences. As simply a function of time, the Republican Party will see a changing of the guard, and with it, a shift in its areas of focus. The civil libertarianism of Senator Rand Paul and the family-focused economic priorities of Utah Senator Mike Lee provide a good idea of where the GOP might go in ten years.

There is much to be said for Bouie’s thesis. Michael Lind advanced a similar argument in a 1998 essay for the New York Times Magazine, though Lind focused more on its implications for black Americans:

In the past, the existence of an untouchable caste of blacks may have made it easier for Anglo-Americans to fuse with more recent European immigrants in an all-encompassing white community. Without blacks as a common other, the differences between Anglo-Americans, German-Americans, Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans might have seemed much more important. Could this be occurring again? A Knight-Ridder poll taken in May 1997 showed that while respondents were generally comfortable with intermarriage, a full 3 in 10 respondents opposed marriage between blacks and whites.

In the 21st century, then, the U.S. population is not likely to be crisply divided among whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and American Indians. Nor is it likely to be split two ways, between whites and nonwhites. Rather, we are most likely to see something more complicated: a white-Asian-Hispanic melting-pot majority — a hard-to-differentiate group of beige Americans — offset by a minority consisting of blacks who have been left out of the melting pot once again.

The political implications of this new racial landscape have not yet been considered. On the positive side, the melting away of racial barriers between Asians, Latinos and whites will prevent a complete Balkanization of American society into tiny ethnic groups. On the negative side, the division between an enormous, mixed-race majority and a black minority might be equally unhealthy. The new mixed-race majority, even if it were predominantly European in ancestry, probably would not be moved by appeals to white guilt. Some of the new multiracial Americans might disingenuously invoke an Asian or Hispanic grandparent to include themselves among the victims rather than the victimizers. Nor would black Americans find many partners for a rainbow coalition politics, except perhaps among recent immigrants. [Emphasis added]

One roadblock to the formation of a “beige” majority is the institutionalization of ethnocultural differences. The “Hispanic” category is expansive and pan-ethnic, and thus easily dismissed. But it has taken on greater substance over time as some upwardly-mobile individuals have used Hispanic identity as a means of advancement, e.g., to build larger social and professional networks, to take advantage of preferences, or to draw on the rising prestige of Hispanic identity. In modern Poland, for example, it is not uncommon for people from families that had distanced themselves from their Jewish origins in past generations to reclaim them, and we see something similar in the U.S. as many Americans claim indigenous origins. It could be that some people will choose not to identify as “white” (or “beige”) in an effort to cultivate “interestingness,” a quality that might grow in importance in future decades. The obvious rejoinder to this line of thinking is that even if people hold fast to a distinctive identity in an effort to separate themselves from the pack, they can still be considered “sociologically white,” which is to say they can still experience the privileges and burdens that come with being identified with the dominant ethnocultural group. This will be less true if we see the creation of more robust preferences, like those we see in Malaysia for people of Malay (as opposed to Chinese or South Asian) origin, or the broad-based black economic empowerment policies we see in South Africa. This would increase the economic value associated with belonging to a particular group, and it would strengthen group solidarity as group members would have a shared interest in defending, entrenching, or expanding their privileges. (One could argue that this is what keeps majority groups together as well.)

It is also worth considering a scenario in which Latinos don’t melt into the white majority, but rather some Latinos do while others are racialized. I considered this possibility in a column a few months back on ethnic attrition rates — basically, many people of mixed ancestry choose not to identify as Hispanic; and you are more likely to identify as Hispanic if you have three Mexican-origin grandparents than if you have only one. Intermarriage rates are skewed by income and educational attainment, so it could be that more educated and affluent Latinos and their descendants will come to be identified as white while less educated and affluent Latinos might be placed in a different category. When we see the emergence of large, heavily-Latino conurbations in regions like eastern Los Angeles County, it seems premature to dismiss the racialization scenario for at least a large minority of the future Latino population. And it is easy to imagine something similar happening among certain discrete Asian origin groups, e.g., people of East Asian origin might melt into the beige majority while people of South Asian origin might differentiate by skin color and religious affiliation, with darker-skinned South Asians who are observant Muslims remaining separate and distinct and lighter-skinned South Asians who are secular or identify with other religious traditions intermarrying and assimilating into the beige majority.

Regardless, Bouie offers a useful corrective to a triumphalist narrative that is all too common among Democrats, and indeed among some Republicans who misunderstand how demographic change interacts with political affiliation.


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