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AMBRIDGE, Mass. In recent weeks, reporting and commentary that misinterpret early census results have been persistently misinforming the nation about its ethnic and racial composition. The misinformation is dangerous, since it fuels fears of decline and displacement among some whites, anxieties that are not only divisive but groundless. The Center for Immigration Studies, for example, a think tank in Washington, recently warned that by the middle of the century non-Hispanic whites will cease to be a majority and that "each group in the new minority- majority country has longstanding grievances against whites."
Many articles have echoed the view that whites are fast becoming a
minority in many areas of the country, largely because of the growth of
the Hispanic population. The New York Times
These articles and too many others have failed to take account of the fact that nearly half of the Hispanic population is white in every social sense of this term; 48 percent of so- called Hispanics classified themselves as solely white, giving only one race to the census taker. Although all reports routinely note that "Hispanics can be of any race," they almost always go on to neglect this critical fact, treating Hispanics as if they were, in fact, a sociological race comparable to "whites" and "blacks."
In any case, the suggestion that the white population of America is fast on the way to becoming a minority is a gross distortion. Even if we view only the non-Hispanic white population, whites remain a robust 69.1 percent of the total population of the nation. If we include Hispanic whites, as we should, whites constitute 75.14 percent of the total population, down by only 5 percent from the 1990 census. And this does not take account of the 6.8 million people who identified in the census with "two or more races," 80 percent of whom listed white as one of these races.
Even with the most liberal of assumptions, there is no possibility that whites will become a minority in this nation in this century. The most recent census projections indicate that whites will constitute 74.8 percent of the total population in 2050, and that non-Hispanic whites will still be 52.8 percent of the total. And when we make certain realistic sociological assumptions about which groups the future progeny of Hispanic whites, mixed couples and descendants of people now acknowledging two or more races are likely to identify with, there is every reason to believe that the non-Hispanic white population will remain a substantial majority and possibly even grow as a portion of the population.
Recent studies indicate that second-generation Hispanic whites are intermarrying and assimilating mainstream language and cultural patterns at a faster rate than second generation European migrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The misleading reports of white proportional decline are likely not only to sustain the racist fears of white supremacist groups but also to affect the views of ordinary white, nonextremist Americans. A false assumption that whites are becoming a minority in the nation their ancestors conquered and developed may be adding to the deep resentment of poor or struggling whites toward affirmative action and other policies aimed at righting the wrongs of discrimination.
How do we account for this persistent pattern of misinformation? Apart from the intellectually lazy journalistic tendency to overemphasize race, two influences are playing into the discussion.
One is the policy of the Census Bureau itself. Though on the one hand, the census has taken the progressive step of allowing citizens to classify themselves in as many racial ways as they wish, breaking up the traditional notion of races as immutable categories, on the other hand it is up to its age-old mischief of making and unmaking racial groups. As it makes a new social category out of the sociologically meaningless collection of peoples from Latin America and Spain, it is quietly abetting the process of demoting and removing white Hispanics from the "true" white race native-born non-Hispanic whites.
There is a long history of such reclassification by federal agencies. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Irish, Italians and Jews were classified as separate races by the federal immigration office, and the practice was discontinued only after long and vehement protests from Jewish leaders. In 1930 Mexicans were classified as a separate race by the Census Bureau which reclassified them as white in 1940, after protests. Between then and the 1960's, people from Latin America were routinely classified as whites; then, when vast numbers of poor immigrants began coming from Latin America, the Hispanic category emerged.
The first stage of racial classification, now nearly successfully completed for Hispanics, is naming and nailing them all together while disingenuously admitting that they can be "of any race." Next, the repeated naming and sociological classification of different groups under a single category inevitably leads to the gradual perception and reconstruction of the group as another race. Much the same process of racialization is taking place with that other enormous sociological non-group, Asian-Americans.
The other influence on perceptions of who is "white" originates among the so-called Hispanics. For political and economic reasons, including the benefits of affirmative action programs, the leadership of many Hispanic groups pursues a liberal, coalition-based agenda with African- Americans and presses hard for a separate, unified Latino classification. This strategy is highly influential even though nearly half of Hispanics consider themselves white.
For African-Americans, the nation's major disadvantaged minority, these tendencies are problematic, although African-American leaders are too shortsighted to notice. Latino coalition strategies, by vastly increasing the number of people entitled to affirmative action, have been a major factor in the loss of political support for it. And any fear of a "white" group that it might lose status tends to reinforce stigmatization of those Americans who will never be "white."
In this volatile transitional situation, where the best and worst are equally possible in our racial relations and attitudes, the very worst thing that journalists, analysts and commentators can do is to misinform the white majority that it is losing its majority status something that recent surveys indicate it is already all too inclined to believe. We should stop obsessing on race in interpreting the census results. But if we must compulsively racialize the data, let's at least keep the facts straight and the interpretations honest.
Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of "Rituals of Blood," the second volume of a trilogy on race relations.