Inclusive vs. Exclusive Whiteness in Census Bureau Data

Projections of minority-majority U.S. population are based on outdated and arbitrary ethno-racial Census categories.


Pavel Iluykin/Dreamstime

Remember when the Census Bureau was telling us the United States would soon be a majority-minority country? The bureau projected in 2015 that non-Hispanic whites would constitute less than half of the U.S. population by 2044. But this was demographic nonsense: As I explained six years ago, by the middle of this century the children of Hispanic parents will be as socially "white" as the children and grandchildren of early-20th-century Italian, Irish, Polish, Greek, Jewish, and German immigrants are today.

Sure enough, Hispanic identity is already fading away for the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants. What's more, an increasing number of Americans refuse to be pigeonholed into just one ethno-racial category on their Census forms. Although the Census Bureau actually parses its ethno-racial data six different ways, the 2015 projections that it chose to highlight were based on definitions that exclude Hispanic or mixed-race Americans from the "white" category.

Now a new study by two political scientists, Dowell Myers and Morris Levy of the University of Southern California, considers what this means for the country. In a Washington Post op-ed drawing on their paper, Myers and Levy point out that using a more inclusive definition that "counts as white anyone who so identifies (even if they also identify with another race or ethnicity), the white population is not declining; it's flourishing. The Census Bureau's inclusive projections show a white population in excess of 70 percent of the total for the foreseeable future."

In their study, Myers and Levy surveyed 2,600 non-Hispanic white Americans to see how they would react to Census Bureau projections about the future ethno-racial make-up of the U.S. population:

Our respondents were randomly assigned to read one of two simulated news stories that reported the bureau's 2015 race projections. The first mimicked the conventional narrative about the decline of non-Hispanic whites. The second detailed the growth of Hispanic and Asian American populations, but it also mentioned the rise of intermarriage and reported the Census Bureau's alternative projection of a more diverse white majority persisting the rest of the century.

When asked how the story they read made them feel—angry, anxious, hopeful or enthusiastic—results were clear-cut. Forty-six percent of white Democrats and a whopping 74 percent of Republicans expressed anger or anxiety when reading about the impending white-minority status.

But these negative emotions were far less frequent when participants read the second story about a more inclusive white majority. Only 35 percent of white Democrats and 29 percent of white Republicans expressed anger or anxiousness about this scenario.

The results imply that nearly a quarter of the Democrats and two-thirds of the Republicans who might be agitated about the imminent-white-minority narrative also have positive feelings about a more inclusive and enduring white majority.

Myers and Levy also report that reading the story using the more inclusive definition of white ethnicity promoted a modest reduction in opposition to immigration relative to those respondents assigned the story using the more exclusive definition. In addition, people exposed to the inclusive version were more likely to support a hypothetical school bond that would have increased property taxes to support public schools.

They conclude:

Projections of racial demographics should reflect the great changes in the meaning of race in America. But stories about the impending demise of white America are rooted in outmoded notions of racial exclusivity. These stories of white decline obscure the ongoing changes to America's color line, and they serve only to divide. Fortunately, the white American public seems far more content with the more inclusive future that is actually destined to emerge.

I believe that Americans of whatever ancestry living in 2050 will look back and wonder why anyone cared about the ethnic makeup of the American population. America is an ideal, not a tribe.