Response to Comments

This is a contribution to Prospect Debate: The Illusion of a Minority-Majority America.

I am grateful for these commentaries, which expand on critical aspects of my article. Frank Bean rightly observes that the Census Bureau’s statistical system imposes a foolhardy binary logic—an individual American must be a member of the non-Hispanic white majority or belong to the minority population. This logic is increasingly at odds with the complexity of family backgrounds and obscures a major new demographic phenomenon: the rapid rise in the number of children growing up in mixed (especially white and minority) families.

Moreover, in appearing to posit a minority population as a counterweight to the current white majority, the Census also encourages many Americans to overlook fundamental differences in societal position and historical experience among those classified as minorities. As Bean notes, the singularity of the African-American experience is lost in a category so diverse as to include many socioeconomically ascendant children of recent immigrants.

William Darity Jr. points out the importance of racial differences among Hispanics, a population that is especially distorted by the Census Bureau’s categorization scheme. Despite the bureau’s acceptance of mixed-race reports starting in 2000, its current rules of classification prevent recognition of mixed Hispanic and non-Hispanic backgrounds. Once the Hispanic box on the census form is checked, the person is only Hispanic (though that person “may be of any race”). Because most of the intermarriage by Hispanics is with white Americans, the progeny of these unions are undoubtedly expanding the “white” portion of the Hispanic population. It seems quite possible, as Darity suggests, that many of them do not see themselves as politically aligned with darker-skinned Americans.

Harold Meyerson cautions, nevertheless, that we don’t know what the political views of this group will be, and he is right. We don’t have much data about individuals from mixed backgrounds. The studies I cite in my article—as well as the book by Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean, The Diversity Paradox—are only a first step. Since mixed individuals challenge conventional ethnoracial categories and are undoubtedly quite diverse as a group, research about them ought to be a high priority for discussions about the American future.

Kenneth Prewitt develops a point that, in my view, is of paramount importance. Census Bureau misrepresentations are contributing to (though not of themselves causing) the toxic political reactions to rising ethnoracial diversity. The binary framing of Census data reports encourages zero-sum thinking, and the distortions in them reinforce the fears of many older white Americans that growing diversity must mean a loss for them and their children. The Census distortions are even exploited by white supremacists, who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, use “the ongoing demographic change to a non-white majority” as a recruiting tool.

I have had personal experience with the demographic obsessions of white supremacists. When I published an op-ed on “The Myth of a White Minority” in The New York Times last summer, I was startled to find out through Google that the major Internet “buzz” about the article was on such supremacist websites as Stormfront. Their bloggers took the article seriously enough to reproduce portions of it with their own dismissive commentary. “White minority no biggie says smart Jew” blared one blog, revealing the challenges its author faces in understanding not only racial difference but also the ethnic origins of surnames. (Mine comes from Catholic eastern Sicily, not Jewish eastern Europe.)

I can only hope that the strong endorsement of a distinguished former Census Bureau director will induce the bureau to begin the work necessary to inform Americans in a more accurate and nuanced way about contemporary ethnoracial changes and their implications.

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