Deep inside a data dump by the Census Bureau last week was a startling racial projection: By midcentury, the United States will be home to 80 million more white people.
Never mind, for a moment, that the bureau also predicts that Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American-Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will constitute a majority of the population by 2042. The number of people who say they are white is projected to rise by about two million every year.
At that rate, even while the Hispanic and Asian populations expand enormously, the proportion of Americans who identify themselves as white will barely shrink, from a little more than 79 percent, to 74 percent.
It’s not some new math metric that’s responsible. It’s the way the government defines race: most people who describe their origin or heritage as Hispanic or Latino also identify themselves as white.
Which raises an impertinent question: Why all the fuss about the nation’s impending racial and ethnic transformation?
Not only is the census all about self-identification, anyway, but all those projections, today and historically, have been subject to fungible cultural definitions. Mexicans were counted in a separate racial category in the 1930 census, but 10 years later that classification was dropped and the results were revised to count Mexicans as white. (As recently as the 1960s, there was no Hispanic category in the census at all; Asian Indians were classified as white.)
A century or so ago, the Irish Catholics, Italians, Eastern Europeans and even some Germans who arrived in droves in the United States were not universally considered white. (Much earlier, Benjamin Franklin feared that his fellow white Pennsylvanians would be overwhelmed by swarthy Germans, who “will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious”).
“In the minds of many Americans of influence and position at the time, the post-1890 immigrants — Jews, Italians, various Slavic groups, Greeks — were probably as foreign as ‘Hispanics’ are today, and considered, as Hispanics are today, as in some degree ‘nonwhite,’ ” said Nathan Glazer, professor emeritus of sociology at Harvard, who wrote “Beyond the Melting Pot” with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “I wonder whether, in the course of the fierce debates on immigration in the first quarter of the 20th century, anyone ever tried to calculate when ‘new immigrants’ and their children would be a majority of the U.S. I am sure someone among the immigration restrictionists must have raised that alarm.”
Professor Glazer predicted that in the decades to come, racial and ethnic distinctions would be further blurred by intermarriage (about one in three grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants marry non-Hispanic spouses; by 2050, nearly 1 in 20 Americans are expected to classify themselves as multiracial).
Also, since 2000, the number of babies born to Hispanic mothers in the United States has surpassed the number of new Hispanic immigrants, which means a growing proportion of Hispanic people are being raised as Americans from birth.
“The process of assimilation is such that our views of the degree of difference of newer non-white groups changes rapidly,” Professor Glazer said. “So the Jews and Italians, considered very foreign at the time of immigration by Henry Adams and others, were much less foreign by the 30s, hardly foreign at all by the 60s — they were then as white as other whites (for a time, called ‘white ethnics’).”
Race and ethnicity, says Joel E. Cohen, professor of populations at Rockefeller University, are really about culture, not biology. Categories contrived by bureaucrats and politically correct committees can be confusing and skew the results. “Even the notion of Hispanics ranges in people of European origin in Chile to those of native-America origin in the lowlands of Mexico,” Professor Cohen said.
Those categories might be driven by political constituencies with a stake in stressing their distinctiveness or by overwhelming increases in immigrants classified as a single group. Between 1970 and 2050, according to the latest census projections, the Hispanic population will increase 14-fold.
For any number of reasons — including the way the Census Bureau configures and words its questionnaires — most people who report their origin as Hispanic also list their race as white. The government defines whites as descendants of “the original peoples of Europe, North Africa or the Middle East” and Hispanic or Latino people as those “who trace their origin or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish-speaking Central and South America countries and other Spanish cultures.” Origin is defined as “the heritage, nationality group, lineage or country of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.”
While the share of Americans who can trace their roots to immigrants who came directly from Europe has been shrinking, “the edges are getting blurrier,” says Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer of the Pew Hispanic Center.
Professor Glazer agrees. “I don’t think a change such that the census category of ‘non-Hispanic white’ becomes a minority in 30 years is so momentous,” he said. “By then we may not even be using that census category and long before then people will be asking why Asians are still considered a ‘minority’ of any kind.”