Why Fearmongering About a White Minority in America Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong
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Whites are projected to become a minority in the United States in the year 2050. It’s a terrifying prospect for Americans who fear the loss of their privileged status.
But the truth is that in 2050, “whites,” as most people understand the term, will still make up 74 percent of the population (if the projections are right). Only “ non-Hispanic whites” are expected to become a minority. But there’s little chance that the designation -- which the Census Bureau only added in 1980 -- will live until that time. History tells us that “white Hispanics” -- light-skinned people with an Hispanic heritage -- will soon become, simply, “white people,” as part of the American “mainstream.”
In 2050, white people will not only remain a majority, but they’ll also retain their disproportionate cultural, political and economic influence. In other words, people freaking out about the loss of white privilege have no cause for alarm -- it is safe. As Chauncey DeVega put it, “whites are by definition the majority group in the United States,” and “while heavily policed,” the definition of “whiteness as a racial grouping is ever expanding.”
So when that date comes around, it’ll be Y2K for white people in America -- expect plenty of teeth to be gnashed and then brace yourself for nothing to happen.
The category of non-Hispanic whites allows people to distinguish between lighter, more assimilated people of Hispanic origin and darker, recently arrived immigrants -- it’s a means of social stratification. (Which we do anyway -- a 2006 study by Vanderbilt University economist Joni Hersch found that legal immigrants who had darker complexions or shorter statures earned significantly less than their light-skinned and taller counterparts with similar jobs, training, language skills and backgrounds.)
The best historical parallel to today’s “white Hispanic” was probably the distinction Americans made between Northern and Southern Italians during the post-Civil War era. Earlier Italian immigrants had come primarily from the North, but in the middle of the 19th century, strife and economic stress in Southern Italy sent a new (and much larger) wave to America’s shores. In 1902, the periodical World’s Work summed up the sentiment of the day, editorializing that “the North-of-Europe people make better citizens than those from the South of Europe. …the Italians from the southern portion of the peninsula also make poor citizens; but those from the northern part of Italy rank with the Swiss and other desirable nationalities.” In the 1920s, the U.S. government drew a line between Northern Italians and darker, “Mediterranean” Italians, and limited the influx of the latter with “race”-based quotas. Today, such distinctions seem bizarre, and the descendants of immigrants from Milano or Salerno are all “real Americans” (or Italian-Americans).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries we thought of race as a biological reality but today we know it as a flexible social construct. Most “white Hispanics” (about 7 in 10) see themselves simply as “white” -- 29 million Americans of Hispanic descent identified themselves as such in the Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey. They’ll insist that other Americans consider them to be white as well, and history tells us they’ll get their way by 2050.
Scholars have long understood that the concept of race has been highly malleable throughout American history. In Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race , Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson showed that while the idea that white people are uniquely suited to lead the nation has been a constant in our political culture, Americans’ view of just who belonged to that group has evolved over time. Nobody would deny that John F. Kennedy was a white guy according to the modern American standard, but formerly disparate “white races” such as Celts, Slavs and Semites were at one point considered to be separate from, and less capable than Caucasians.