Demographers uneasy about white minority talk
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 zerosum game that white Americans were losing, he thought, and could provoke a political backlash.
So after the report’s release three years ago, he organized a meeting with Katherine Wallman, at the time the chief statistician for the United States.
“I said ‘I’m really worried about this,’ ” said Prewitt, now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University. He added, “Statistics are powerful. They are a description of who we are as a country. If you say majority-minority, that becomes a huge fact in the national discourse.”
In a nation preoccupied by race, the moment when white Americans will make up less than half the country’s population has become an object of fascination.
For white nationalists, it signifies a kind of doomsday clock counting down to the end of racial and cultural dominance. For progressives who seek an end to Republican power, the year points to inevitable political triumph.
But many academics have grown uneasy with the public fixation. They point to recent research demonstrating the data’s power to shape perceptions. Some are questioning the assumptions the Census Bureau is making about race, and whether projecting the U.S. population even makes sense at a time of rapid demographic change when the categories themselves seem to be shifting.
Jennifer 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.
Mary Waters, a sociologist at Harvard University, remembered being stunned when she saw the research.
“It was like, ‘Oh wow, these nerdy projections are scaring the hell out of people,’ ” she said.
The Census Bureau has long produced projections of the U.S. population, but they were rarely the topic of talk shows or newspaper headlines.
Then, in August 2008 at the height of Barack Obama’s campaign for president, the bureau projected that non-hispanic whites would drop below half the population by 2042, far earlier than expected. (The projections, which change with birth, death and migration rates, have also placed the shift in 2050 and in 2044.)
“That’s what really lit the fuse,” said Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California, referring to the 2008 projection. “People went crazy.”
It was not just white nationalists worried about losing racial dominance. Myers watched as progressives, envisioning political power, became enamored with the idea of a coming white minority. He said it was hard to interest them in his work on ways to make the change seem less threatening to fearful white Americans – for instance by emphasizing the good that could come from immigration.
“It was conquest, our day has come,” he said of their reaction. “They wanted to overpower them with numbers. It was demographic destiny.”
Myers and a colleague later found that presenting the data differently could produce a much less anxious reaction. In work published this spring, they found that the negative effects that came from reading about a white decline were largely erased when the same people read about how the white category was in fact getting bigger by absorbing multiracial young people through intermarriage.
To Richard Alba, a sociologist at the City University of New York, the Census Bureau’s projections seemed stuck in an outdated classification system. The bureau assigns a nonwhite label to most people who are reported as having both white and minority ancestry, he said. He likened this to the one-drop rule, a 19th-century system of racial classification in which having even one African ancestor meant you were black.
“The census data is distorting the on-theground realities of ethnicity and race,” Alba said. “There might never be a majority-minority society; it’s unclear.”
Asked for a response to Alba’s critique, a Census Bureau spokesman said in an email that “we constantly consult with stakeholders, and scholars, including Richard Alba and other federal agencies to improve our techniques, methodologies, and testing of population projections.”
William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, argued that the Census Bureau was doing the best that it could at a time when society was changing quickly. He was skeptical that today’s Asians and Hispanics were analogous to the white ethnic Americans of the 20th century, and believed that a less conservative count would not do much to change the bigger picture. Besides, it is not the job of academics to protect people from demographic change, he said.
QUIETLY DROPPING IT
The Census Bureau released new projections this year in March filled with data about the country’s future. In the coming decades, adults 65 and older will outnumber children for the first time in the country’s history. The share of mixed-race children is set to double.
But there was no mention of a year when white Americans would fall below half the population.
When asked about the change, a spokesman for the Bureau said: “It was just us getting back to sticking to data.”