Defining ‘White’ And ‘Hispanic’ In Majority-Minority America

From back when Irish-Americans weren't "white."

The Census Bureau released its latest population data last week, providing a portrait of the nation through July of 2012. Among the most interesting findings was that, for the first time, deaths among white Americans exceeded births. While this does not mean, of course, that white people are about to disappear, it is nonetheless a harbinger of the vast race-ethnic changes that are leading us inexorably toward a majority-minority nation by around the year 2043. It’s also a fascinating testament to the complex, variegated ways in which Americans understand the concept of race.

Five other interesting findings from the new data, as summarized by the AP:

1. The population younger than 5 stood at 49.9 percent minority in 2012.

2. As a whole, the nonwhite population increased by 1.9 percent to 116 million, or 37 percent of the U.S. The fastest percentage growth is among multiracial Americans, followed by Asians and Hispanics. Non-Hispanic whites make up 63 percent of the U.S.; Hispanics, 17 percent; blacks, 12.3 percent; Asians, 5 percent; and multiracial Americans, 2.4 percent.

3. About 353 of the nation’s 3,143 counties, or 11 percent, are now “majority-minority.” Six of those counties tipped to that status last year: Mecklenburg, N.C.; Cherokee, Okla.; Texas, Okla.; Bell, Texas; Hockley, Texas; and Terrell, Texas.

4. In 2012, 13 states and the District of Columbia had an under-5 age population that was “majority-minority,” up from five states in 2000. In 25 states and the District of Columbia, minorities now make up more than 40 percent of the under-5 group.

5. Among the under-5 age group, 22 percent live in poverty, typically in more rural states such as Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. Black toddlers were most likely to be poor, at 41 percent, followed by Hispanics at 32 percent and whites at 13 percent. Asian toddlers had a poverty rate of 11 percent.

Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect put an intriguing spin on these numbers: it’s actually a pretty good bet that in, in a certain sense, whites will remain the majority of Americans. This is because many Hispanics and Asians in the future will choose to identify as white, thereby keeping America majority-white rather than majority-minority as the Census projections indicate.

Maybe. But first we should be clear on what the Census is really talking about when it projects that the US will be majority-minority by 2043. Minorities in the Census definition are based on two different questions, one on race and one on Hispanic ethnicity. Here’s the race question:

And here’s the Hispanic ethnicity question:

Minorities are those who check any other race but white on the race question OR check more than one race on the race question OR check any of the yes boxes on the Hispanic question. Conversely, whites, as distinct from minorities, are those who check only the white box on the race question AND check the no box on the Hispanic question. To put it more technically, when Census talks about whites and contrasts them with minorities, they are defining whites as “white-alone non-Hispanic”.

So when Census says whites will be a minority of the population in 2043, they mean that non-Hispanic, non-multiracial whites will be a minority, not that whites as defined by the race question above will be a minority. In fact, whites in the latter sense will continue to be a majority for quite some time — 71 percent in 2050, for example, a year where Census also projects that minorities, as defined above, will be 53 percent of the population.

The main reason for this result is that almost all Hispanics (91 percent) identify as white alone on the race question. Thus, the situation Bouie projects is not hypothetical; it is already here. The issue therefore is not whether, say, Hispanics in the future will identify as white — most already do — but whether Hispanic ethnicity is going to completely lose its cultural and political significance in the future for large numbers of Hispanics, making them indistinguishable from today’s non-Hispanic, non-multiracial whites. I am skeptical that this will happen very rapidly, but this is the case that skeptics of a majority-minority America have to make.