Whites will comprise less than a majority of Virginia’s population by 2040 — 47.4% — according to recent projections by the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia. That’s down from a forecast 58.6% in 2020.
The percentage of non-Hispanic whites and blacks in the state’s population will shrink by 5.7% and 8.3% respectively, while the percentage of Asians and Hispanics will increase by 96.0% and 114.3% respectively.
To some degree, demographic projections reflect underlying demographic reality. But they also are influenced by politics and culture, as Hamilton Lombard points out in a post yesterday on the StatChat blog. “It can be easy to read too much into very long term population projections,” he warns. “All the racial/ethnic projections only make sense if you understand the haphazard way we categorize and track race in the U.S.”
For example, a large majority of Hispanic Americans self-identify as white, but the Census Bureau categorizes them as a “non-white” minority because they also identify as Hispanic. Before 1970, they were categorized as white.
But after the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, the National Council of La Raza successfully lobbied to have anyone with a “Spanish origin” counted as a separate ethnic population in the 1970. Armed with data for the newly categorized Hispanic population which the 1970 census supplied, organizations could apply for various grants and develop policies specifically for Hispanic Americans. Other groups, after seeing the success of La Raza, have lobbied to have various U.S. ethnic populations counted separately. As a result, the number of race/ethnic categories on the census has risen from four in 1960 to possibly nine by 2020.
Another example of how the Census Bureau shapes perceptions of ethnicity and race: Since the Census began allowing respondents to identify as more than one race in 2000, the U.S. “mixed race” population, 86% of whom select white as one of their races, has grown from zero to nearly 10 million.
Yet another example: Census has proposed counting Middle-Eastern and North-African Americans as a separate race. Because most self-identify as white, the new classification would accelerate the decline of the “white” population and increase the “non-white” population.
Bacon’s bottom line: Two mega-trends are colliding here. On the one hand, the Great American Assimilation Machine continues to do its work, eroding ethnic and racial identities. On the other hand, by creating a racial spoils system (dispensing funds and perks to non-whites), government policy creates material incentives for people to nurture separate ethnic identities.
A century ago, white ethnic identities such as English, Scotch-Irish, Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Swedish, Jewish, etc. were as strong as racial identities today. Over time, intermarriage and the dissolution of ethnic enclaves merged white Americans into the melting pot. Today, white Americans are less likely than ever to define themselves by the national origin of their ancestors and more likely than ever to simply think of themselves as generically “white.”
The Ancestry.com ads running on cable TV are a striking illustration of this trend: There would be no need to utilize DNA to identify peoples’ ethnic origins unless most people had forgotten those origins. I thought I was Hispanic and found out I was half Italian! I thought I was German and found out I’m a mutt!
Meanwhile, the rise of “multi-racial” populations is proceeding apace. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, one-in-seven U.S. infants (14%) were multiracial or multi-ethnic in 2015, nearly triple the share in 1980. This is not just a matter of “light skinned” ethnicities intermarrying. Increasingly, Americans are broaching the color line.
One would think that all but the racial purists among us would welcome this trend. But political forces are driving the population in the opposite direction. Many politicians believe that the path to political power lies in the cultivation of racial grievances. These politicians (I won’t mention names) exist in both parties. By enabling the doling out of government spoils (usually at the behest of the political party that favors activist government — but, again, I won’t mention names), the Census Bureau’s ethnic/racial classifications perpetuate the sense of separateness.
It is impossible to predict which force — assimilation or the urge to political power — will win out in the end. But we can count on one thing: Changes in politics and culture undoubtedly will influence which races and ethnicities the Census Bureau Sam counts, and, consequently, how Americans perceive themselves. In the meantime, readers should understand Census ethnic and racial classifications for what they are: increasingly meaningless distinctions imposed and maintained for political reasons.