The Myth of a Majority-Minority America

The narrative that nonwhite people will soon outnumber white people is not only divisive, but also false.

An illustration of the United States with multi-colored dots covering the map.
The Atlantic

About the authors: Richard Alba is a distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His most recent book is The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream. Morris Levy is an associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. Dowell Myers is a professor of policy, planning, and demography at the University of Southern California.

In recent years, demographers and pundits have latched on to the idea that, within a generation, the United States will inevitably become a majority-minority nation, with nonwhite people outnumbering white people. In the minds of many Americans, this ethno-racial transition betokens political, cultural, and social upheaval, because a white majority has dominated the nation since its founding. But our research on immigration, public opinion, and racial demography reveals something quite different: By softening and blurring racial and ethnic lines, diversity is bringing Americans together more than it is tearing the country apart.

The majority-minority narrative contributes to our national polarization. Its depiction of a society fractured in two, with one side rising while the other subsides, is inherently divisive because it implies winners and losers. It has bolstered white anxiety and resentment of supposedly ascendant minority groups, and has turned people against democratic institutions that many conservative white Americans and politicians consider complicit in illegitimate minority empowerment. At the extreme, it nurtures conspiratorial beliefs in a racist “replacement” theory, which holds that elites are working to replace white people with minority immigrants in a “stolen America.”

The narrative is also false. By rigidly splitting Americans into two groups, white versus nonwhite, it reinvents the discredited 19th-century “one-drop rule” and applies it to a 21st-century society in which the color line is more fluid than it has ever been.

In reality, racial diversity is increasing not only at a nationwide level but also within American families—indeed within individual Americans. Nearly three in 10 Asian, one in four Latino, and one in five Black newlyweds are married to a member of a different ethnic or racial group. More than three-quarters of these unions are with a white partner. For more and more Americans, racial integration is embedded in their closest relationships.

Multiracial identities are gaining public recognition and approval. Numerous young Americans consider themselves both white and members of a minority racial or ethnic group. One in every nine babies born in the U.S. today will be raised in a mixed minority-and-white family, and this group is steadily growing. These children have kin networks—including grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins—that include both white people and minorities. Among Latinos, identifying as white or as simply “American” is common, and belies the notion that Latinos should be classified monolithically as nonwhite.

Furthermore, most Americans of both white and minority descent are not positioned as minorities in American society. For example, people who identify as Hispanic and white, or Asian and white,  tend to start life in more economically favorable situations than most minority groups, are typically raised in largely white communities, have above-average educational outcomes and adulthood incomes, and frequently marry white people. They have fluid identities that are influenced by both minority and white ancestries. Children with Black and white parents face greater social exclusion and more formidable obstacles to upward mobility. But their social experiences are more integrated than those of Black Americans who identify as monoracial.

These trends expose the flaw lurking behind the headline-grabbing claim that America will soon be a majority-minority society. That narrative depends on the misleading practice of classifying individuals of mixed backgrounds as exclusively nonwhite. The Census Bureau population projections that relied on this practice first predicted the majority-minority future in 2008. The idea quickly took on a life of its own. Some Americans now instinctively think of rising diversity as a catalyst of white decline and nonwhite numerical dominance. But as more recent news releases from the bureau have begun to acknowledge, what the data in fact show is that Americans with mixed racial backgrounds are the most rapidly growing racial group in the country. ​

As much as they are competing for economic resources and political power, America’s racial groups are blending now more than ever. According to the most detailed of the Census Bureau’s projections, 52 percent of individuals included in the nonwhite majority of 2060 will also identify as white. By the same token, the white group will become much more diverse, because 40 percent of Americans who say they are white also will claim a minority racial or ethnic identity. Speculating about whether America will have a white majority by the mid-21st century makes little sense, because the social meanings of white and nonwhite are rapidly shifting. The sharp distinction between these categories will apply to many fewer Americans.

The public deserves to hear an accurate narrative about rising racial diversity that highlights the likelihood that society’s mainstream will continue to expand to include people of varied backgrounds. Our recent research demonstrates that most white people are not only receptive to such an inclusive narrative but can be powerfully influenced by it. In multiple survey experiments, we asked white Americans to read a news story describing the rise of mixed-race marriages and the growth of a multiracial population. They expressed less anxiety and anger, anticipated less discrimination against white people, and evinced more willingness to invest in public goods, such as education, than others who read a news story predicated on the false narrative of white decline in a majority-minority society by the mid-2040s. Notably, the narrative of racial blending was especially reassuring to white Republicans, who felt most threatened by the conventional majority-minority account. In our most recent study, 67 percent of white Republican participants expressed anxiety or anger after reading a news story modeled on the majority-minority narrative, compared with 29 percent of white Democratic participants. Among those who instead read a story of rising multiracialism and blending, anxiety and anger were much lower, reported by 26 percent of white Republicans and 13 percent of white Democrats.

Moreover, Latino, Black, and Asian participants in these studies expressed overwhelmingly positive reactions to the story of racial blending. Anticipation of equal treatment in the future was as high among minority respondents who read the blending story as among those who read the majority-minority account. Minority Americans were most optimistic and least fearful after reading about the rise of multiracial families. Eighty-five percent of Black, Asian, and Latino respondents expressed hopefulness or enthusiasm after reading this account—more than the approximately two-thirds of minority respondents who expressed these positive emotions in response to the majority-minority story.

For all the talk about racial polarization in America, the broad consensus is that an expanding and more diverse mainstream portends a better future. Journalists, subject-matter experts, and political leaders have an obligation to tell Americans the full story about rising diversity and racial blending. At the same time, discussions of demographic change must not fuel complacency about the unequal opportunities that minority groups, especially Black Americans, continue to face. Narratives are aspirational as well as informational. One that highlights our growing connections and interdependence should more effectively call attention to our collective obligation to break racial barriers and overcome bigotry than to retain historical zero-sum thinking about racial division.

Americans need to remember that they have been here before. A century ago, the eugenicist Madison Grant asserted that Nordic Americans were committing “race suicide” by letting in millions of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who would out-breed them and destroy their nation’s identity. Swayed by this narrative, the United States Congress enacted drastic, racist restrictions on immigration that lasted for 40 years.

But during the “melting pot” era of the 1950s and ’60s, the descendants of the very immigrants Grant had maligned emphatically refuted his ideas. Many white Americans had come to recognize that their ethnic differences were eroding rather than solidifying. Parents of that time weren’t so surprised when an adult child brought home a possible partner from a different ethnic or religious background, though the color line remained painfully formidable. Interethnic and interreligious marriages among white Americans soared. By the ’90s, only 20 percent of white Americans had chosen partners from the same ethnic background.

While the rising number of multiracial Americans today does not exactly mirror the dynamics of the ’50s and ’60s, the dangers of ignoring ethno-racial blending are the same. The myth of an imminent majority-minority society revives the misconception that American ethnic and racial groups are fixed, bounded, and separate. It breathes new life into old fears that rising diversity must entail white decline. Our ailing democracy needs a narrative now that recognizes how changing demography can unite us rather than divide us. Or, as the slogan goes, “E pluribus unum.”