Majority-Minority Myths

Majority-Minority Myths

It’s time to let go of the belief that changing demographics will bring about a progressive America.

Outside a Latinos for Trump campaign rally in Orlando, Florida, in October 2020 (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream
by Richard Alba
Princeton University Press, 2020, 336 pp.

Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American
by Zoltan L. Hajnal
Cambridge University Press, 2020, 362 pp.

The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals
by Christopher T. Stout
University of Virginia Press, 2020, 268 pp.

In a commencement address at the University of California, San Diego in 1997, President Bill Clinton spoke of a time when white people would no longer constitute a majority in the United States. In the decades since, the idea that growing diversity will bring about a “majority-minority” America in the near future has become a widespread belief across the ideological spectrum, propelled by periodic Census updates, like a report that 2013 marked the first year that more nonwhite babies had been born in the United States than white ones.

There are three major problems with this now-clichéd belief. First, it scares many white people, pushing their political stances toward the right. Numerous studies confirm that merely mentioning the demographic shift is enough to change their political views. As Ezra Klein has written, “The simplest way to activate someone’s identity is to threaten it.” Many white people interpret stories about the imminent reordering of the country’s racial and ethnic hierarchy as a threat.

Second, it leads Democrats astray. Divvying up the nation between whites and nonwhites implies a neat, fixed, and immutable ordering of a complex set of shifting racial and ethnic identities. The corollary—that a shared political identity should bind minorities to a leftist, emancipatory project against white oppression—induces complacency in Democratic Party organizing and policymaking realms, and ignores the varied ethnic and class backgrounds of those who comprise this broad, diverse population.

The 2020 election shook the premise that nonwhite voters shared a liberal political identity, with growing evidence of an across-the-board shift toward the GOP among Latinos and, to a smaller degree, African Americans. But evidence that the “browning of America” may not lead to progressive nirvana predated the election. Bush’s 2004 re-election bid was buoyed by his record performance among Latinos. Since then, between a quarter and a third of Latinos have voted for Republican presidential candidates despite the restrictionist turn in the party’s
immigration policies.

Which brings us to the third problem with the majority-minority claim: it’s empirically wrong.

Understanding why it’s wrong requires a look at a couple of momentous demographic developments of the past few decades, along with how the Census makes sense of them. These are the topics sociologist Richard Alba explores in his important new book, The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream.

During a period when xenophobic political campaigns, anti-immigrant policies, and the resurgence of white supremacy have generated so many headlines, millions of white Americans have befriended, married, and had children with minorities. One in ten children recently born in the United States has parents with different ethic identities. That percentage will inevitably grow; one in six marriages today pair individuals with distinct ethnicities. More than 40 percent of all these intermarriages involve whites marrying Latinos.

The children of many of these mixed partnerships have helped propel another underappreciated dynamic of the past few decades: the mass incorporation of millions of minorities into the American mainstream. This trend extends beyond traditionally high-achieving Asian-American subpopulations. Among high school graduates, students with at least some Hispanic heritage now continue on to college at the same rate as white students. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of Hispanic-background individuals who finished college with a BA doubled. They now comprise 13 percent of all entrants into our most selective colleges and universities.

These children of minority-white partnerships are the fulcrum upon which the majority-minority hypothesis pivots. The Census’s demographic projections rest on a racial and ethnic classification scheme whereby children of mixed parentage slot neatly into the “minority” category, which puts the moment of majority-minority transition in the near future. But many of these children see themselves differently.

A few years back, the economists Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo sought to unravel a demographic puzzle. Second-generation Mexican Americans—those with at least one immigrant parent—demonstrated considerable upward mobility, following the pattern set by European migrant populations of generations past. But by the third generation, progress stalled. Education rates lagged; economic indicators revealed stagnating fortunes. What happened?

In a series of careful, quantitative investigations, the two economists compared responses from an “objective” ethnic identifier, gleaned by asking survey respondents where their parents and grandparents were born, to the more commonly used “subjective” measure, where surveyors asked respondents whether they were Latino or not. It turns out that a sizable fraction of respondents with at least one immigrant grandparent from Latin America no longer described themselves as Latino. And the ones who no longer identified as Latino tended to be the most successful educationally and economically. The apparent stalling of progress for the grandchildren of immigrants was partly a mirage—a data artifact based on whether social scientists ascribe a person’s ethnic identity to them or listen to what they say about themselves.

This attenuation of strong ethnic identities is widespread. The legal scholar Ian Haney López has found that the majority of Latinos do not see themselves as “people of color.” Nearly a third agree that Latinos are “more like immigrant groups from Europe who over generations become part of the American mainstream.” Other research reveals that over a third of individuals with an Asian-born parent and a non-Asian-born parent do not identify as Asian. Many of them see themselves as white.

We used to have a word for this process—assimilation—but it’s been largely abandoned. Alba calls for its resurrection in order to make sense of recent demographic trends. His updated version of assimilation differs from its early- and mid-twentieth-century predecessors in key ways. For one, assimilation doesn’t require the shedding of ethnic identifiers. Alba envisions an expanding mainstream with room for cultural differences and the distinct identities that often accompany them. What the new definition of assimilation does require is what he terms “decategorization”—meaning that ethnic identity does not define a person’s relationships. Inter-ethnic marriages are a clear sign of decategorization at work.

This revised understanding of assimilation helps us make sense of recent political trends. It implies a weakened connection between ethnic and political identities. This attenuation challenges the conviction, or fear, that demographic change means a more progressive electorate.

By reframing a mainstream expansive enough to accommodate distinct ethnic identities, Alba’s definition of assimilation doesn’t equate “mainstream” with “white.” Many people the Census categorizes as minority do consider themselves white, at least on certain occasions and in certain contexts—clear evidence of an attenuated ethnic identity. For some others who retain an ethnic identification, it is largely symbolic. Whether completely attenuated or symbolic, it’s an elective ethnicity. You can choose to highlight it, you can choose to reject it, and your choice has no major bearing on your life chances.

Of course, an elective ethnic identity rests upon others not choosing an ethnicity for you. This “ethnic option,” as the sociologist Mary Waters termed it, is not available to everyone. For certain subpopulations, the boundaries constraining mobility remain thick; discrimination and segregation remain pervasive. Legal status—including of one’s parents—and skin tone loom particularly large. And no one with a distinct ethnic identity, symbolic or not, is immune from slights, misunderstandings, or other hurtful treatment. Alba’s argument is simply that all the pessimism about the nation’s racial and ethnic relations has blinded us to some genuinely noteworthy news: the mass assimilation of many immigrants and their children and grandchildren into the mainstream.

There is no clearer evidence of this than the rising number of intimate partnerships between nonwhites and whites. Categorizing the offspring of these relationships as nonwhite implies a binary, inflexible ethnic classification that belies the lived experiences—and fluid identities—of those on one side of the artificial divide while frightening many on the other.

There is a glaring exception to all this good news: the conditions faced by many African Americans. Alba presents a litany of alarming statistics: Residential segregation in many Midwestern and Northeastern cities remains stubbornly high. African-American representation at elite colleges and universities hasn’t increased since 1980. African Americans who graduate with a BA have less wealth than whites who dropped out of high school. Intermarriage rates between African Americans and whites, while growing, remain low. On average, Alba finds that children of mixed African-American and white parentage lag behind other multiethnic children in educational attainment. They grow up in poorer, more segregated neighborhoods. And children with an African-American and non-African-American parent are seen and see themselves as Black. The historian Nell Painter has suggested that whiteness could be defined “primarily by what it wasn’t: blackness.” As the mainstream diversifies, Alba sees the country “gravitating toward a black-nonblack cleavage as its most consequential ethno-racial divide.”

This dividing line is easy to spot in our contemporary politics. In Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics, political scientist Zoltan L. Hajnal illuminates just how unequal our democracy is. Hajnal’s analysis is unambiguous: African Americans lose out in American politics more than any other group, whether one focuses on candidate choice, racial representation in the makeup of our elected officials, or policy preferences. And class provides no buffer. Regardless of where African Americans sit on the socioeconomic ladder, lawmakers seem distinctively unresponsive to their desires.

The second key contention of Dangerously Divided has to do with the diminished role of class in U.S. politics. Despite all the attention to the growing education divide in the polity, and to the role of whites without a college education in tipping this or that state toward the GOP, class markers matter less than race for understanding electoral outcomes and subsequent policy victories. This is especially evident when comparing the political preferences of white and Black voters. An overriding focus on, say, Obama-to-Trump voters can blind us to these general tendencies in the electorate. Roughly 5 percent of the 2016 electorate switched from Obama to Trump. The vast majority remained in their partisan camps—camps increasingly sorted along racial lines.

Hajnal, alas, subscribes to the idea that “racial and ethnic minorities will eventually win out over a shrinking White population,” and that, as a result, inexorable demographic shifts will produce a more equitable politics. Given the shaky assumptions underlying that prediction, a more near-term and certain solution to the racial inequality embedded in our politics lies elsewhere. The closing chapters provide an answer: elect Democrats. His statistical tests reveal that when Democrats win, racial inequality narrows. Surveying over six decades of data, Hajnal finds that Democratic control of the presidency in particular translates to sizable gains in income and reductions in unemployment and poverty for African Americans and, to a lesser extent, Latinos. Crucially, white voters also benefit under Democratic administrations, suggesting that the policies Democratic officeholders prioritize aren’t zero-sum.

Hajnal excels at zooming out to show general tendencies in the electorate, not just the factors predicting marginal vote shifts. But this focus is in tension with his analysis of what happens after the election: Black people win when Democrats win. While “America’s partisan politics are anything but a contest between the working class on the left and the upper class on the right,” in terms of the parties’ programs, they definitely are. And helping more Democrats win means focusing on those voters who decide our elections. The question is, how?

Political scientist Christopher T. Stout’s The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals provides one potential answer. Stout analyzes the contexts in which “racialized” campaigns pay dividends, and those in which they are likely to generate backlash. His conclusion: given polarization and the resulting decline in shiftable voters, along with demographic change favoring Democrats, racial appeals today hold more promise than peril for progressives. The major danger of running a deracialized campaign is depressed turnout among core Democratic constituencies, especially African Americans and Latinos. This is especially true after a summer of mobilization and mass protest over police abuse and racial bias.

A key part of the argument is that ideological sorting has left few potential voters who both hold conservative beliefs around racial justice and support a range of progressive economic policies. Thus, there is less downside in campaigning with an explicitly racialized message. Here again we run into a potential disjuncture between general tendencies in the electorate and what explains particular electoral results. The fraction of non-college white voters who have very conservative views on immigration but otherwise embrace much of the Democratic agenda isn’t huge. But, as Democratic consultant David Shor has pointed out, it isn’t trivial either. These voters are persuadable, and they have to be persuaded if Democrats are going to retain strength in places like the Upper Midwest.

Stout points to the growing racial liberalism among white Democrats, which again suggests that campaigns need not worry about bleeding white support with racially explicit appeals. But there are white Democrats in key places needed to win elections that will be turned off by such a stance. Stout finds that in 2008, Obama won nearly 40 percent of working-class whites with high levels of racial resentment. In 2016 Clinton won less than 20 percent of this group. That twenty-point shift helped decide the election.

Stout interprets this ideological sorting as inexorable, so the best option is to turn out every possible voter in your camp with explicit racial and ethnic appeals. But as he notes, African Americans ranked Hillary Clinton higher on a racially liberal scale than any white presidential candidate of the past three decades. She lost, and with lower African-American turnout than Obama had in 2012.

Stout also argues that Latinos have a growing sense that their own advancement is intertwined with the progress of other ethnic groups. His analyses suggest a spike in inter-ethnic solidarity in the run-up to the 2016 race—no surprise, given the Trump team’s explicitly xenophobic, racist campaign. But Trump won approximately the same fraction of the Latino vote as McCain and Romney. And in 2020, when Trump downplayed the anti-immigrant policies he had pursued with vigor over the past four years, sizable fractions of the Latino electorate moved into the GOP camp.

Since the 2020 election, stories of a sleeping demographic giant that would awaken to doom the Republican Party have given way to lessons about the exceptional diversity of the Latino population. Amateur anthropologists are now eager to highlight the distinct cultures and political preoccupations of all the countries that Latino immigrants hail from. Maybe tarnishing Democrats as socialists, a tried-and-true tactic for moving Cubans into the Republican fold, played particularly well with recent arrivals from Venezuela? Maybe the “machismo” culture and deep religiosity many arrivals bring from their homelands explain their attraction to our own strongman, Trump?

Ominous warnings of our coming socialist overlords might have swung some Venezuelans in South Florida, and any population that comprises nearly a fifth of a giant country is bound to contain plenty of religious and authoritarian types. But missing from most of the post-election prognostication is a focus on the country that the majority of the Latino population hails from: the United States.

Two-thirds of the Latino population was born in the United States. Of the minority who immigrated, less than half are naturalized citizens. What this means is that nearly nine in ten Latino voters didn’t emigrate from anywhere. U.S.-born Latinos obviously retain cultural characteristics of the countries that their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents left behind. But as Alba highlights, for many of them, these characteristics do not define their life chances. Political integration accompanies integration into other core institutions, like schools, jobs, neighborhoods, and families. Instead of searching for ethnic-specific explanations for Latino political behavior, we should probably focus on the key variables that pattern politics among whites. If education and geographic location increasingly pattern the white vote, the same goes for many second- and third-generation nonwhite Americans. Where they live and whether they graduated from college are likely more important drivers of their political decisions than the country their grandparents arrived from.

The majority-minority hypothesis inspires white backlash, while greater assimilation diminishes the importance of ethnicity in minorities’ political behavior. This is the worst of all worlds for progressives counting on demographic shifts to transform our politics. But it’s consistent with our nation’s past: diversification and expansion of the mainstream has occurred before, and it is occurring again. And while college attendance rates are growing, the increase is slow enough that near-term elections will feature an electorate in which roughly four in ten voters are non-college-educated whites. Progressive policy dreams will remain just that unless Democrats reduce losses with these voters while winning back the children and grandchildren of immigrants increasingly drawn to the Republicans’ message. As Shor has noted, “The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of.”  Only it’s not funny at all.

Jake Rosenfeld is Professor of Sociology at Washington University-St. Louis and author of You’re Paid What You’re Worth and Other Myths of the Modern Economy.

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