The government, which plays a dominant role in setting racial and ethnic categories, hasn’t developed the tools to keep pace with a shifting population, demographers say. Four decades ago, for example, the U.S. Census added an ethnic “Hispanic” category to its authoritative survey of America’s demographic contours. Today, Hispanics include a vast population of both new immigrants and multi-generation American families with varying depths of ties to Latin America. New research suggests that many Hispanics are assimilating in ways that echo how Italian, Polish, and other European immigrants a century ago were eventually absorbed into the American mainstream. As they do, they are diverging economically, socially and politically.
Sociologists say that projections for a white minority rely on outdated concepts of race. The federal government generally counts anyone with nonwhite lineage as a minority, a practice that echoes the “one drop” rule that once allowed discrimination against people with even minimal Black ancestry. The Census Bureau currently projects that the share of people defined as white by this restrictive definition will drop below half of the population by 2045. But by using a broader definition—including as “white” anyone with a white parent and a parent of another race—whites would be about 55% of the population and would remain a majority even in 2055.
The government’s majority-minority projections use almost exclusively the “one drop” way of counting. For example, 42 million people checked “Black” on the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey and an additional 4.7 million marked “Black” and another race. But historically, the bureau hasn’t distinguished between these two ways of self-identifying as Black. Moreover, roughly 60% of mixed-race babies have one parent conventionally considered white, and another who is Hispanic, Asian or mixed race (typically white and minority). They are more likely to live alongside whites and, once they grow up, to marry whites than their single-race minority counterparts, research shows.
“The majority-minority story that we’ve all imbibed, that is very widely believed, is a distortion,” said sociologist Richard Alba. In his new book, “The Great Demographic Illusion,” the City University of New York professor argues that the projection assumes a rigidity to racial and ethnic boundaries that does not reflect surging intermarriage or America’s experience with immigration.