“The Myth of a White Minority”

Sociologist Richard Alba wrote a NYT op-ed in June about the fluidity of being white in the United States amidst a growing multiracial population:

But the forecast of an imminent white minority, which some take as a given, is wrong. We will seem like a majority-white society for much longer than is believed…

Some of the mixed children now classified as minorities surely will think of themselves mainly as whites when they grow up; researchers have already found a significant group of American adults who declare themselves as non-Hispanic whites to the census, but acknowledge having some Mexican ancestry. Others may have mixed or even minority identities, but will be “sociologically white,” integrated into white communities and family networks and seen as essentially no different from anyone else.

According to the new Pew report, adults from mixed white and Asian backgrounds feel they have more in common with whites than they do with Asians; almost half have friendship circles that are mostly made up of whites; and two-thirds live in mostly white neighborhoods. Two-thirds of the multiracial Americans in the report who have some white ancestry are themselves married to whites.

We can grasp these emerging social realities by remembering our history of assimilation. At midcentury, religious boundaries were highly salient in white America. Catholics, Jews and Protestants were distinct populations, whose social lives were largely confined within their own group. Yet in only a few decades, the differences faded, and interaction across the boundaries proliferated. It was not that people ceased being Catholic or Jewish. But the public faces of those identities became much more muted and rarely intruded on everyday life. The Jewish intermarriage rate, around 10 percent in 1950, climbed to 58 percent by 2013.

What racial and ethnic categories mean are not static. And if white continues to be a privileged status, some will want to identify with it among their options and other might not. And, of course, existing whites might contest these dynamic boundaries. For example, would southern whites accept as white a growing number of Latinos who have both Latino and white heritage?

This all makes measuring race and ethnicity more interesting moving forward. The Census Bureau is already thinking of changes for the 2020 decennial census.

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