Ethnic Attrition: Third Generation Americans Ignore Census' Ethnic Pigeonholes

Trump voters who fear a white minority U.S. should just relax.



The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the whites will no longer be the majority of the U.S. population by 2043. The Census demographers argue that blacks, Asians, and Hispanics will outnumber Americans who identify as white. The Census bureau defines white as "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa." Given current trends, the children of today's non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered by the children of today's black, Hispanic, and Asian U.S. residents.

A recent poll by a couple of University of Massachusetts-Amherst political scientists found that Trump voters seem to be particularly worried about the coming majority-minority nation. They asked Massachusetts voters: "According to the U.S. Census Department, by 2043 African Americans, Latinos, and people of Asian descent will make up a majority of the population. In general, do you think that this is a good thing or bad thing for the nation?" Among other things, the two reported that "individuals who think the increase in the minority population is a bad thing are 20 percentage points more likely to support Trump than those who responded 'good thing' or 'neither.'"

Trump voters and others worried about the advent of a majority-minority America can chill out, given the analysis of ethnic trends reported in a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper,"The Complexity of Immigrant Generations." In that paper, economists Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo  estimate the rate of "ethnic attrition" for Hispanics and Asians in the United States who descend from immigrants coming from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Cuba, China, India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Ethnic attrition occurs when an individual no longer subjectively identifies with the ethnicity of his or her forebears, i.e., they don't check a Census form box indicating an ethnicity other than white. One big factor explaining ethnic attrition is the frequency inter-ethnic marriages.

In their study, Duncan and Trejo found that third generation ethnic identification drops to 69 percent for people who have just one grandparent from a Hispanic source country and 42 percent for people who have just one grandparent from an Asian country. On the other hand, if a third generationer has three or four grandparents from a Hispanic source country, 95 percent still identify with that ethnic group. For similarly situated Asians, about 90 percent still identify with the Asian ethnic group. Surely the rate of ethnic attrition will continue to grow as the fourth, fifth, sixth and so forth generations are born.

In my article, "The Silly Panic Over a Minority White Nation," I noted that early 20th century nativists were panicked over the influx of immigrants they feared would overwhelm those Americans descended from "Nordic" countries:

Shortly after the turn of the last century, many nativists feared that mass immigration was overwhelming the white "races" that had historically contributed the most to populating the nation. One of the most notable expressions of this racial anxiety was the classic 1922 anti-immigration screed by Saturday Evening Post correspondent Kenneth Roberts, Why Europe Leaves Home: A True Account of the Reasons which Cause Central Europeans to Overrun America. "The American nation was founded and developed by the Nordic race," asserted Roberts. "If a few more million members of the Alpine, Mediterranean and Semitic races are poured among us, the result must inevitably be a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and Southeastern Europe."

I added up the descendants from all of the ethnic groups that were once considered essentially non-white by nativists like Roberts and reported that …

…they and their descendants now total 184 million out of 313 million citizens, constituting nearly 60 percent of the country's current population. But how can that be? After all, the Census Bureau notes, "In the 2010 Census, just over one-third of the U.S. population reported their race and ethnicity as something other than non-Hispanic white alone (i.e. "minority")." The answer to this conundrum is that Italians, Poles, Jews, and the Irish are now considered "white."

It is this fact that renders silly and nearly meaningless the pronouncement that "whites" will be a minority in this country by 2050. By 2050, just as the earlier waves of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants were assimilated, so too will today's Hispanic immigrants and their descendants be. For all intents and purposes, Hispanics will become as "white" as Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles.

The same phenomenon is evidently occuring among Americans descended from immigrants from Asian countries as their high ethnic attrition rate shows.

I concluded:

Meanwhile Roberts' worst fear of the "mongrelization" of the races in America is being realized. The rising intermarriage rate between members of the arbitrarily defined and federally recognized ethnic groups demonstrates ever-lessening concern by Americans about this issue. It is my hope and belief that Americans of whatever ancestry living in 2050 will look back and wonder why ever did anyone care about the ethnic makeup of the American population. America is an ideal, not a tribe.

I still hope that will be true.