The Real Majorities Finally Get Counted

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008

It's different now, isn't it?

John McCain has chosen Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and the election that had been presented as old vs. new suddenly feels like new vs. new:

Whichever ticket wins, America is now guaranteed "a historic first" in the White House.

On Inauguration Day 2009, the symbol finally will catch up to the statistical reality of this democracy.

White men historically have been the power demographic. The lawmakers, the power players, the default box in drop-down menus asking about sex and race.

That may be why, somewhere along the line, white men got the designation "majority," though in fact they really weren't. At the moment, they seem to be hovering at less than a third of the overall population.

In 2007, non-Hispanic white males were 32 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent survey -- 97.7 million out of a total population of 301.6 million. White women represented 33.6 percent of the population; women, in fact, make up the majority in this country, albeit a slight one, at 50.7 percent.

Asked the last time that white males were in the majority in America, Kelvin Pollard thinks for a moment and then gives a startling answer.

"Actually, I don't think there has ever been a time when white males have been the numerical majority," says Pollard, a senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, which analyzes demographic shifts for governments worldwide.

This fact shows up right after the U.S. Constitution's ratification, in the first population count in 1790, in fact, when the census broke down nonwhite respondents into "free" or "slave." White men represented just 41 percent of the population, 1.6 million out of 3.9 million.

We've even had women and black men in office for longer than you might have remembered from high school history: Jeannette Rankin represented Montana in the U.S. House beginning in 1917; Hiram Rhodes Revels, an African American, was elected to the Senate in 1870. And, of course, Geraldine Ferraro made history 24 years ago, when she ran as Walter Mondale's would-be veep in 1984.

Our history books are dotted with the accomplishments of women and minorities. But we've still been lacking that symbol -- one that could hang in the National Portrait Gallery, one that could stare out from the back of the restaurant place mats that feature all the presidents and vice presidents.

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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