America Will Only Remain ‘Majority White’ If Blacks Remain an Underclass

The fact that America is likely to remain “majority white” well past mid-century isn’t good news for everyone. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

America will cease to be a majority-white nation by the middle of this century — unless it remains one for decades longer (if not, until the end of time).

The source of this uncertainty is simple: According to the Census Bureau’s projections, non-Hispanic whites will comprise less than 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2044; but by 2044, the category of “non-Hispanic whites” might be as socially irrelevant as that of “non-Irish whites” is today.

After all, “white” is a social category — not an ethnic or genetic one. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish Americans could not claim membership to America’s dominant racial caste. Their (supposedly) doglike faces marked them as an inherently servile people; while their Catholicism rendered them slavishly devoted to “popery,” and, thus, unfit for citizenship in a liberal republic. But over time, racial distinctions in the United States began narrowing into a binary that separated all manner of European Americans from those with darker skin tones — and the Irish took pains to demonstrate solidarity with the former group in their conflicts with latter. Thus, the Irish became white. And so too did the Italians, Slavs, and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) Jews.

Given the number of Hispanic Americans who already identify as “white,” and the demographic’s rising rate of intermarriage, it seems quite likely that a large portion of that population will be seen as white by 2044 — and that the distinction between “Hispanic whites” and the current garden variety will mean little by that date.

If that hypothesis bears out, then America will still be a very white country at mid-century: When the Census Bureau includes (light-skinned) descendants of Latin Americans in its definition of “white,” it projects that 68.5 percent of Americans will still belong to the racial category in 2060.

Vox’s Matt Yglesias argues that this “inclusive” definition of whiteness will likely prevail — and that that is “good news” for the country. He observes that, in recent years, racial backlash politics in the United States has drawn much of its energy from white Americans’ anxiety about demographic trends. The election of an African-American president — combined with routine headlines heralding the ascent of a nonwhite majority — left some light-skinned voters more susceptible to the appeals of xenophobic demagogues. And yet, Yglesias explains, when white Americans are alerted to the more plausible trajectory of racial demographics in the U.S., they become far less anxious about the future:

[A] new study from Dowell Myers and Morris Levy, a demographer and a political scientist at USC, respectively, suggests that the media’s choices about how to characterize [projected changes in America’s racial composition] make a real difference to people’s political response to these demographic trends.

… The researchers conducted an experiment by randomly assigning various white people to read three different faux news accounts of the Census Bureau’s projections. One story simply noted that diversity was rising, a second cited the data that results from using the inclusive definition of whiteness, and a third emphasized the exclusive definition of whiteness and therefore forecast a white minority by 2044.

They then asked readers how they felt and found strikingly different responses to the different narratives. In essence, the stories that emphasized the inclusive definition made white people feel hopeful for the future, while those that emphasized the exclusive one made white people feel anxious. The diversity narrative was polarizing, generating anxiety among white Republicans but hopefulness among white Democrats for an overall hopeful reaction, though less so than the inclusive narrative.

Yglesias goes on to argue that “white Americans don’t need to fear that the country is on the verge of some kind of racial tipping point,” and that “media narratives that emphasize the tipping point idea fuel backlash politics that, in turn, probably harden ethnic dividing lines and make the process of mutual accommodation more difficult.”

This assessment is likely right on both counts. And yet, Yglesias’s unqualified optimism about the prospect that America will develop a more “inclusive” definition of whiteness is misplaced. Light-skinned Latinos becoming white would soften the ethnic dividing lines among non-black Americans — but it would do so while fortifying the line that bars African-Americans from membership in our nation’s dominant racial caste.

To see why this is the case, ask yourself why white Americans feel more hopeful when they’re led to believe that the U.S. will remain a majority white nation.

One plausible answer: When white Americans hear talk of a “majority nonwhite” America, they fear that their nation’s racial hierarchy could be upended; if African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, and Arabs all came to embrace a unifying “nonwhite” identity (just as Americans of English, German, French, Irish, Russian, and Jewish descent came to embrace a shared “white” one), then whites would ostensibly become the nation’s racial “minority” — and could, in time, suffer the same indignities that nonwhites were made to suffer in this country. Whereas, if Latinos and Asians “become white,” European Americans’ claim to membership in the nation’s majority racial caste is secured; which is to say, that African-Americans’ isolation in the smaller, subordinate racial category is assured.

This account comports with the fact that the fear of increasing racial diversity in the U.S. is closely associated with a belief that white people will be subjected to increasingly levels of discrimination in the future. As a recent study from psychologists at Northwestern University found:

In four experiments, making the growing national racial diversity salient led White Americans to predict that Whites will face increasing discrimination in the future, compared with control information. Conversely, regardless of experimental condition, Whites estimated that discrimination against various racial minority groups will decline…Taken together, these findings suggest that reports about the changing national demographics enhance concerns among Whites that they will be the victims of racial discrimination in the future.

All of which is to say: There are hard limits on how “inclusive” the definition of “white” can get. No one can be white unless someone else is black; and America can’t retain a white majority unless it also maintains a black minority.

Further, there isn’t much reason to believe that a more “inclusive” conception of whiteness will necessarily produce a less anti-black society. Part of why America developed an “inclusive” definition of whiteness, in the first place, was that subjugating this continent’s native peoples to white rule required recruiting a lot of European immigrants to the cause. And settlers couldn’t be choosers; there weren’t nearly enough Anglo-Saxon immigrants to realize America’s “manifest destiny” by themselves. Thus, the need to dominate a non-European out-group softened ethnic divisions among the European-American in-group. Similarly, the enslavement of Africans in the South helped the region’s white indentured servants graduate into legal and political equality. Which is to say: Historically, the relaxation of dividing lines within America’s light-skinned population — and the maintenance of a rigid line separating that group from our nation’s nonwhite underclass — have been complementary endeavors, not contradictory ones.

In an ideal world, there will be hardly any “white” people in the United States by mid-century — because, by then, we’ll have realized that the category itself is a malicious fiction. White Americans only share a common social identity to the extent that they all benefit from being perceived as members of a historically dominant racial caste. Light-skinned Americans might still feel compelled to acknowledge this residual privilege decades from now, but (ideally) they’d have no interest in affirmatively identifying as “white” — since they would recognize that “white Americans” makes no more sense as a social, biological, or cultural unit than “brown-eyed” Americans does.

But in all probability, whiteness is too deeply ingrained to disappear that quickly. And it’s plausible that the vast, and growing, disparities in wealth between “white” and “black” Americans will only reinforce popular prejudices that stigmatize the latter in the coming years, leading Latinos and Asians with the skin color — and material means — necessary to qualify for whiteness to claim membership in that group. And that development could conceivably sustain the electoral viability of (a modified form of) “white identity politics” for decades to come.

Such a scenario might make some white Americans feel less anxious about demographic trends; but it sure isn’t the future that liberals should want.

For the U.S. to Be White, Blacks Must Be an Underclass