America’s majority-minority confusion
America becoming a majority-minority society, or no longer having a white majority, is a misleading narrative based largely on a confused interpretation of a constructed demographic statistic. The changing composition of America’s population is being misinterpreted by the puzzling use of racial, ethnic, linguistic, ancestry and origin categories that increasingly make little sense.
Since the first U.S. census in 1790, when some data on race and ethnicity as well as categories differentiating between free persons and slaves were collected, the government has changed its definitions of racial categories more than 10 times. Nearly every census has collected racial data differently than the census preceding it. Also, in most past censuses people who were both white and another race, no matter how small the percentage, were counted as the nonwhite race.
In addition, census terminology for ethnicity data has changed, especially during the recent past. In 1970, for example, the Census Bureau added a question to one of its forms about Hispanic origin. In the 1980 census the term “Spanish/Hispanic” was added before origin or descent in a form sent to all U.S. residents. But in 1990 “descent’ was dropped from the census question and in 2000 “origin” was dropped as well and the word “Latino” was added.
America’s population census is an essential undertaking and importantly required by the Constitution for determining representation in Congress. However, beyond the basic enumeration, what subjects or questions are included in the decennial census is a political matter, which is increasingly being impacted by decisions of the courts.
Census questions about age, sex and place of residence typically raise few objections. However, the collection of other demographic characteristics, such as religion, race, citizenship, ethnicity and immigration status are often contentious and some are avoided. In addition, some Americans are distrustful of the census because of data privacy, confidentiality and misuse of certain data, as occurred in the past as well as more recently.
With respect to race and ethnicity, the Census Bureau adheres to the standards of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). For the race question the five categories are: white, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
For the ethnicity question the two categories defined by OMB are: Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino. Also, it’s important to note that people who identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino may be of any racial category, including white.
Beginning in the 1960, census race was no longer determined by census takers, but based on self-identification. The self-reporting of more than one race began with the 2000 census, which provided an estimate of the country’s multiracial population.
The Census Bureau stresses that its racial categories reflect a widely recognized social definition of race and are not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically or genetically. Also, the racial categories may include racial, national origin or sociocultural groups.
Throughout its history America has repeatedly experienced fears and concerns about its identity and being taken over or displaced by others. Those fears and an “us versus them” mentality continue today and are typically aimed at immigrants and their descendants and minorities.
Around the time of the nation’s founding, there were concerns that the English language might be displaced because of incoming Germans. Numerous other fears and hostilities towards minorities and immigrants followed.
America’s population is made up of hundreds of ethnic groups coming from around the world, not simply two, Hispanic and not Hispanic. For example, some numerous ethnicities in the U.S. are German, West and Central African, Irish and Italian.
Also, importantly, the country is not made up of a single homogeneous majority group, as is often reported. The majority category is a divisive narrative based on a constructed demographic statistic. It is formulated by lumping together groups with different ethnic backgrounds, such as Egyptian, English, Greek, Iranian, Italian, Moroccan, Turkish and Russian, and then providing them with a label typically based on their physical appearance and skin pigmentation, namely “white.”
More American couples are creating families across racial, ethnic and linguistic lines, thereby blurring ethnic and assigned racial boundaries. As a result, large and growing numbers of young people have two or more categories of ancestry and simply choose to identify themselves as American in the census.
One in seven U.S. infants, or 14 percent, were multiracial or multiethnic in 2015, nearly triple the level in 1980. This population group of mixed ancestry is projected to be the fastest growing group over the next several decades.
Over the past 250 years, one of the widely recognized strengths of America has been its ability to welcome immigrants from around the world and have them and their children become Americans. This strength is reflected in America’s traditional motto and inscribed in the country’s great seal and on its dollar, “E Pluribus Unum,” or “out of many, one.”
So, whenever the majority-minority society is mentioned, just remember it is based on a constructed demographic statistic, unlike measures such as age, sex or place of residence. As in the past, America’s population in 40, 50 or 100 years will consist of men, women and children with various ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic and ancestral backgrounds. But there is one critical thing that those people will continue to share in common: they will proudly call themselves Americans.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”
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