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The ‘Great Demographic Illusion’ of the White Minority

By BETH HARPAZ

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that whites will be a minority in America by the middle of the 21st century. Professor Richard Alba (The Graduate Center) calls that characterization misleading because it fails to account for the growing number of Americans who have one white and one nonwhite parent. Alba explores the topic in his new book, The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream.

The scenario of whites as a minority in an “us vs. them” America has been used to stoke white anxiety, pushing some white voters to support conservative candidates. By recasting the narrative as “more hopeful … based in part on ideas about minorities assimilating into the mainstream, then whites’ reactions are less uneasy, less conservative, less anti-minority,” Alba said in an interview with The Thought Project podcast.

Alba says this new generation of mixed-race Americans has “strong kinship ties” to both white and nonwhite communities. Many of them grow up “in more advantaged families than would be the case if they were only of minority background,” living in “better neighborhoods,” attaining high education levels, often marrying white partners, and integrating into “mainstream American society” just as white ethnics did in the 1960s. They also display “unusually fluid identity,” sometimes even changing their racial identification from one census to the next.

But narrow census categories also contribute to confusion over demographics because they don’t allow Americans of mixed backgrounds to identify in a way “that’s separate from being either solely white or solely minority.” For example, Alba said, “it’s not possible in the current census data scheme to recognize people who are part Hispanic and part non-Hispanic. It turns out this is actually a very large group because Hispanics have been intermarrying, especially with whites, for decades. And 20% of the Hispanic babies born in the United States today have a non-Hispanic, white parent.”

One exception to this trend is individuals with one white and one Black parent who “see themselves as minorities” largely because they feel “the heavy weight of American racism. … If you are partly Black, you have a lot of the (same) experiences as people who are solely Black, for example, hostile encounters with the police.” This institutional racism also hinders assimilation. Alba says criminal justice reforms are needed to counter this racial inequity, along with some type of reparations for African Americans to help reduce income inequality – perhaps in the form of a “baby bond” or cash infusions as children grow.  Also essential to overall assimilation is a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and their families.

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Beyond SUM

Work By

Richard Alba (Distinguished Professor, Sociology) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

The Graduate Center

Bonus Content

"Richard Alba on The Thought Project" (The Thought Project podcast)
"Re-Counting America" (The Graduate Center)