The graphic was splashy by the Census Bureau’s standards and it showed an unmistakable moment in America’s future: the year 2044, when white Americans were projected to fall below half the population and lose their majority status.
The presentation of the data disturbed Kenneth Prewitt, a former Census Bureau director, who saw it while looking through a government report. The graphic made demographic change look like a zero-sum game that white Americans were losing, he thought, and could provoke a political backlash.
ennifer Richeson, a social psychologist at Yale University, spotted the risk immediately. As an analyst of group behavior, she knew that group size was a marker of dominance and that a group getting smaller could feel threatened. At first she thought the topic of a declining white majority was too obvious to study.
But she did, together with a colleague, Maureen Craig, a social psychologist at New York University, and they have been talking about the results ever since. Their findings, first published in 2014, showed that white Americans who were randomly assigned to read about the racial shift were more likely to report negative feelings toward racial minorities than those who were not. They were also more likely to support restrictive immigration policies and to say that whites would likely lose status and face discrimination in the future.
Beyond concerns about the data’s repercussions, some researchers are also questioning whether the Census Bureau’s projections provide a true picture. At issue, they say, is whom the government counts as white.
In the Census Bureau’s projections, people of mixed race or ethnicity have been counted mostly as minority, demographers say. This has had the effect of understating the size of the white population, they say, because many Americans with one white parent may identify as white or partly white. On their census forms, Americans can choose more than one race and whether they are of Hispanic origin.
Among Asians and Hispanics, more than a quarter marry outside their race, according to the Pew Research Center. For American-born Asians, the share is nearly double that. It means that mixed-race people may be a small group now — around 7 percent of the population, according to Pew— but will steadily grow. Are those children white? Are they minority? Are they both? What about the grandchildren?