race and the politics of demographic projections

Will the United States become “majority minority” and if so when? How do claims about our demographic future both ignore and participate in racial politics? In this post, I review some of the debate that’s been playing out between sociologists who study race and knowledge production.

Last year, Richard Alba published a lengthy essay on “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority.” Alba argues that despite Census projections to the contrary, the United States rates to remain majority White in 2050. In a NYT op-ed this week, Herbert Gans reiterated Alba’s argument. Alba and Gans argue that the Census projections ignore the likely possibility that many children of Latino and Asian American parents will come to identify and be identified as white – either through intermarriage or through a similar process that transformed Irish Americans into white ethnics. The Census projections, in effect, translate the historically contingent “one drop” rule into demographic destiny. As Alba explains:

Although the Census Bureau declared in 2012 that nonwhite births for the first time outnumbered white ones, 60 percent of the 2013 infants have a white parent. About 10 percent, then, have both a white and minority parent. These infants are counted as minorities in census statistics. And they are regarded as permanently so in census projections.

Alba goes on to argue that these children often identify as white, are more likely to marry white partners when they grow up, and so on. As a result, Whites will remain the majority for much longer than the Census projects. Though Alba also notes that this process is bypassing Black Americans and their children (mixed-race or otherwise): the one-drop rule and the Color Line will still be in force for some, as they always have been.

Cristina Mora and Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz published a response to these arguments in The New Labor Forum. Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz (M&RM) agree that Census categories are historical constructions and thus potentially mutable. But they criticize Alba for ignoring the politics of these constructs. While Alba urges a call for more “accurate data,” M&RM remind us that what constitutes “accuracy” is itself a political question: accurate for what? M&RM remind us that Census data are not simply a state legibility project in the vein of James Scott, but they are also (potentially) statistical weapons of the weak in the vein of James Scott and should be evaluated as such:

In a political context that values numerical forms of knowledge, statistical evidence of underrepresentation and inequality has been indispensable to racial justice campaigns. For example, although Mexican-American and Puerto Rican activists in the 1960s argued continuously that their communities suffered from poverty and low levels of education, it was not until they possessed official census figures showing disparities that their arguments gained traction in many government sectors. Census race data have also been—and continue to be— vital for monitoring voting districts and curtailing the gerrymandering practices that often disenfranchise people of color.

We argue that proposals for making changes to census categories or reporting practices must address the political utility of race statistics for racial justice. In other words, questions and analysis of racial classification must also grapple with the issue of how changes in reporting, classifying, and collecting race data will affect racial justice projects.

M&RM go on to discuss the various ways in which the Hispanic Census category reveals social exclusion and discrimination, and on the other sorts of data that show how Latinos in the US are not benefitting from the “wages of whiteness” (while acknowledging Alba’s argument about the partial assimilation of Latinos as measured by intermarriage and racial self-identification). Beyond that, M&RM note that the current political moment is one of resurgent white nationalism and anti-Latino nativism, forces that may alter the politics of racial identification going forward.

Beyond ignoring politics, demographic projections are also themselves political. That is, demographic projections are used as political weapons, and guide political strategies:

On the liberal left, the “browning of America” prognosis has quickly fueled a race to secure the Latino and Asian vote, because these communities are believed to be the impetus behind the nation’s demographic changes.

On the right, arguments about the browning of America can fuel paranoia, backlash, and hate campaigns. The forecasts become twisted into narratives that minorities, especially immigrants, are “taking over” and thus diminishing the values and morals upon which the nation was founded.

To summarize, M&RM argue (in agreement with Alba and Gans) that demography is not destiny, but that demographic projections (both the Census’s and Alba’s) ignore politics. Alba pitches his claims in terms of the quest for a more accurate racial count, but M&RM remind us that the Census is itself part of the politics of racial construction, not simply a more or less precise reflection of the current state of race.

Alba responds by doubling down on what he calls “sociological realism” in contrast to M&RM’s “critical race theory.” Alba explains that sociological realism “has the goal of identifying and understanding important ongoing social processes and discerning their implications.” I admit to finding this contrast unpersuasive – I would wager that M&RM would argue that critical race theory is essential to just that task of “understanding important ongoing social processes and discerning their implications.”

Beyond that somewhat unclear distinction, Alba seems to put demographic processes causally prior to political ones. That is, Alba agrees with M&RM that projections have political power, and he writes in part because he fears that our (inaccurate) projections are excessively fueling white backlash: “I have no doubt, however, that the current distortions in demographic data contribute to the toxic miasma in our political discourse enveloping questions of diversity.” But Alba seems to put the demographic processes before the political ones, referring back to various studies of racial identification processes and intermarriage, while downplaying M&RM’s concerns about white nationalism and nativism and their potential to rewrite the racial order.

My take on all of this is that Alba’s point is correct on its own terms, but narrow. If we think of the role of demographic projections as capturing current trends and mechanically forecasting them into the future, then Alba is right to focus his argument on trends already evident but not captured by the Census. Just as the Census projections must model future births based on historical patterns, should the Census not also model future racial self- and other-identification based on patterns of identification for children of mixed race couples now? And if they were to do that, Alba’s argument stands; the projections would say that America will be majority white long past 2050.

But Alba’s argument, and the whole “style of reasoning” that undergirds demographic projection, misses the possibility for history to be “eventful” in Sewell’s terms. The political forces that M&RM point to are not (just) the linear and pervasive sorts of “frictions” that Alba seems to imply, but the potential ruptures of mass deportations, dramatic reductions in legal immigration, explicitly or implicitly state-sanctioned violence, and so on. Race is a social and historical formation, and social formations change in messy, discontinuous, and sometimes violent fashion. In this case, fears of the “browning of America” may even be counterperformative, as demographic projections power nativist politics which in turn reshape demographics. It is probably unfair to ask Alba or the Census Bureau to account for these sorts of potential ruptures in making their projections. But as sociologists (and not Census Bureau officials with a narrow charge), we must step back and remind ourselves that demographic practices are, like all forms of knowledge production, social practices, with their own peculiar histories, politics, and potentials to liberate or dominate.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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