De­mog­ra­phers un­easy about white mi­nor­ity talk

The State (Sunday) - - News - BY SAB­RINA TAVERNISE

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.


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.”

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