In 2015, the Census Bureau published a report projecting that by 2044, the United States’ white majority would become merely a white plurality: immigration and fertility trends would lead to America’s ethnic and racial minorities outnumbering its white population.
Since then, for a certain subset of Americans, each annual release by the bureau — neutral, nonpartisan researchers who produce deliberately staid reports — has become a sort of countdown to the white apocalypse. Worse, we now talk about cross-racial fertility rates Darwinistically, as if the census were monitoring a population of elephant seals in competition for a rookery.
In a country whose history has been shaped by the boundaries among racial groups, this projected demographic shift is undoubtedly important. Given the racialized nature of our political parties, it also has electoral consequences. However, if we are to overcome the division that defined our past, we must stop reinforcing the salience of those boundaries in the future.
I am not arguing that the Census Bureau should stop collecting this valuable data, à la France’s farcical attempt to be secular and race blind. Rather, I am arguing that we should place far less stock in the importance of the results to the future of our country. There is no future in which white people disappear from America, but there is also no future in which the understanding of whiteness stays the same.
The truth is, just as populations in the United States ebb and flow, the salience of racial and ethnic identities emerges and disappears. From 1845 to 1854, an influx of Irish people arrived on the East Coast that outnumbered immigrants from all other countries since 1776 combined. The resulting backlash created a wave of support for the xenophobic Know Nothing movement and its nativist American Party. Today, of course, being Irish is a social boundary mostly reduced to the front of Urban Outfitters T-shirts.
Our history shows that America’s demographic boundaries evolve with the country’s composition. No group goes extinct or disappears; it just gets absorbed into new ways that people define community and feel belonging.
Around the turn of the 20th century, American leaders began to recognize the accumulating effects of immigration and civil rights. After the arrival of millions of Irish, the 15th Amendment enfranchised millions of African American men in 1870. And in subsequent decades, the United States admitted millions of Italians, Jews and other ethnicities, with their foreign languages, religions and complexions. There was a gradual realization that the Anglo-Protestant orientation of whiteness was unlikely to sustain a dominant majority indefinitely.
Soon to win the White House, Theodore Roosevelt found these developments alarming. With much of the “competition between the races reducing itself to the warfare of the cradle,” he wrote in 1894, “no race has any chance to win a great place unless it consists of good breeders as well as of good fighters.”
But by the time America’s initial “majority minority” milestone would have been reached, whiteness had been reinterpreted to incorporate the Irish, Italians, Jews and Slavs, such that the milestone was effectively postponed. The country broadened the definition of white people enough to maintain power over African Americans and Asian people (and later Hispanics).