Society

The Future of Race in America

America’s colors are changing – and I don’t mean the flag.  As I mentioned on Monday, the Census Bureau found that over half of the babies born in 2011 were members of ethnic or racial minorities.  Those babies are the future population of the United States, and it’s going to be an increasingly black, brown and Asian one.  In fact, much ink has been spilled recently about the Census Bureau’s estimate that non-Hispanic whites will be an outright minority by 2042.

Whoa!  Does this mean we’re headed for a tolerant utopia, where no single group has a majority, and everyone has to get along?  Is this the long-sought “post-racial” society in which we all have equal power and skin color is irrelevant?  It’s tempting to think so, but unfortunately it’s not as easy as all that (it never is).  Here are 3 things to think about when pondering the future of race in America.

Diverse schoolchildren standing in a row

courtesy woodleywonderworks

[disclaimer: I am not pretending to be an expert on race, nor attempting to represent anyone’s viewpoint on the issue but my own. Also note that I use “Latino” and “Hispanic” interchangeably here; they’re not technically the same but close enough for our purposes.]

1. Demographics aren’t destiny.

In 2010, America was 72% white, 16% Hispanic and 13% black.  But who was in power?  Members of Congress were 85%, 5% and 10% respectively (source). That’s a bit skewed, but for an even bigger variance, look at the population of Fortune 500 CEOs: 98% white, only 1.2% Latino and a staggeringly small 0.8% black (source).  In the case of Congress, the demographics of the electorate do have an effect, and I’m sure minority representation will increase along with the minority population.  But I doubt it will ever reach parity.  In the case of highly successful executives, existing wealth and connections are much bigger factors than simple demographics.  I would be surprised if the numbers budged much at all over the next 50 years.

2. Demographics don’t pay the bills.

Here’s a number:  The median net worth of a white household in 2009 was $113,000.  Obviously it varies a lot from family to family, but for a middle number it sounds about right – a small house, a car, maybe a little nest egg.  Now, here’s the shocker: the median net worth of a black household in the same year was $5,700!  (source).  And a similar number for Hispanics.  That’s like 20 times smaller than for white families!  Now, I am not about to wade into a discussion of why this is true – I’ll leave it as a take-home exercise for you.  But we can ask the narrower question of whether this situation is likely to change when the minority population grows.  Well, I’m open to arguments, but I just don’t see any reason to think so.  Wealth and opportunity are not a function of population share.

3. Race isn’t about skin color anyway.

This sounds ridiculous on its face.  But consider this fact: for Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants and their descendants to be considered “white” is actually a pretty new phenomenon.  At the time they were immigrating to the US in large numbers, they were considered outsiders, and minorities, and they were underprivileged as a result.  If these minorities can be assimilated into our concept of “white” then why not others?   In fact, go back and look at that 2042 statistic again: non-Hispanic whites may well be a minority.  But if we add in the Hispanics who consider themselves white, they’ll easily hold the majority.  Whiteness, in other words, is partly a social construct that is defined more by power dynamics than by skin color.  For more, check out this insightful essay by Scot Nakugawa.

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Those are just my thoughts.  What do you think about the demographics of the United States of the Future?  What will be different in 2050 – and what won’t?  Speak up in the comments, then share this post and ask your friends.

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2 thoughts on “The Future of Race in America

  1. Lots of thought provoking ideas here. Gets me pondering the implications of the growing number of people who refuse to choose any ethnic group on the US census since they don’t identify with just one.

    The power dynamics of whiteness are huge and will not alter for any foreseeable future, I think. Maybe some day in the distant future not any time soon. Important to note that power resides especially in *male* whiteness. More to ponder on this very cold day in Maine! Thanks!

    • Thanks, Mary. Race is certainly becoming more confusing, and no easier to grapple with. Good point, also, about gender disparity – that’s a whole can of worms I didn’t even get into! In fact, it’s interesting to me that in the US women actually outnumber men by a few percentage points, illustrating that the path to equality does not run through demographics alone.

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