The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The demise of the white majority is a myth

Meghan Markle, engaged to Britain’s Prince Harry, with her mother, Doria Ragland.
Meghan Markle, engaged to Britain’s Prince Harry, with her mother, Doria Ragland. (Steve Parsons/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Dowell Myers is a professor in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Morris Levy is a professor in the Department of Political Science at USC.

The tale of the coming white minority has roiled American politics. A recent political science study shows that white anxiety over lost status tipped the last election to Donald Trump, and Democratic Party leaders are banking on changing demography for a brighter destiny.

But rumors of white America’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. That’s because the prevailing definition of whiteness is stubbornly stuck in the past.

It was 2000 when the Census Bureau first projected an end to the white majority of the population in 2059. Four years later, it revised that date to 2050. Then in 2008, it told the public that the passing of the white majority would occur in 2042. At this abrupt rate of change, some anxious whites might see displacement as an imminent threat.

In fact, the Census Bureau projects no fewer than six futures for the white population based on various definitions of whiteness. The most touted set of projections adopts the most exclusive definition, restricting the white population to those who self-identify as white and also no other race or ethnicity. Under this definition, whites are indeed in numerical decline.

But this doesn’t reflect the increasingly fluid and inclusive way that many Americans now regard racial and ethnic backgrounds. Mixed-race parentage is growing more common, and a rapidly growing number of people choose more than one racial or ethnic category to describe themselves on the census.

For example, Meghan Markle — American actress and new member of the British royal family — has a white father and black mother, so she identifies as someone from both races. Under the older, exclusive definition of race — resembling the historical “one-drop” rule — Markle and her children can never be classified as white. Same goes for the offspring of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and former Florida Republican governor Jeb Bush.

Under a more expansive 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.

How, then, do whites of both parties feel about these different stories of the future? A recent study that we co-authored shows that more inclusive definitions for whiteness could significantly diminish anxiety among white Americans about displacement.

Our study is based on a survey experiment on a sample of 2,600 non-Hispanic whites in July 2016, when Trump was consolidating Republican support. 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.

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.

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