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JEFF JACOBY

When ‘white’ is a trick of definition

ISTOCKPHOTO/GLOBE STAFF ILLUSTRATION

When the Census Bureau this month issued a press release headlined “Most Children Younger Than Age 1 are Minorities,” the media snapped to attention. News outlets nationwide covered the announcement, hailing it as a “historic demographic milestone” (CNN), as the “dawn of an era in which whites no longer will be in the majority” (Washington Post), and as an “important turning point for the nation” (McClatchy) that would “starkly … change the face of America’s next generations” (Time).

None of that was true.

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None of that was new, either. The Census Bureau keeps dangling commonplace demographic data as if they were a dramatic racial revelation, and the press keeps taking the bait. The stories this month about minority births becoming the majority could have been recycled from a year ago, when the same thing was being reported — and with the same air of history in the making. “For the first time,” an AP story declared in June 2011, “minorities make up a majority of babies in the US, part of a sweeping race change … that could reshape government policies.” Three months earlier, The New York Times had told its readers that babies born to minorities were “on the verge” of becoming the majority of all US births.

For years Americans have been hearing about the coming nonwhite majority. With every fresh tranche of census data, the issue is raised anew. “Minorities, now roughly one-third of the US population, are expected to become the majority in 2042,” the Census Bureau forecast in 2008, “with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050.” Savor the absurdity of the phrase “54 percent minority.” It isn’t the only thing about this issue that is irrational.

To begin with, all the ballyhoo about America’s impending metamorphosis from white to nonwhite makes sense only if white Hispanics aren’t what they say they are. Census Bureau guidelines specify that “Hispanics may be of any race” and that “The federal government treats Hispanic origin and race as separate and distinct concepts.” In the 2010 US Census, 50.5 million Americans identified themselves as ethnically Hispanic; of those, more than half — 26.7 million — were white. The only way to conjure up a looming nonwhite majority is to arbitrarily subtract whites of Hispanic origin from the nation’s overall white population.

That much-trumpeted “sweeping race change,” in other words, is all a trick of definition. You may relish the prospect of whites becoming a minority of the American population, or you may be alarmed by it. Or, in an era when more newlyweds than ever are marrying across racial lines, you may wonder why anyone is still obsessed with race at all.

But whatever your attitude, there is no point waiting up for The End of White America. It isn’t coming. Drill down, for example, into the Census Bureau’s latest population estimates. It turns out that of the 3,996,537 babies in the United States younger than age 1, nearly 72 percent are white. The only way to shrink that very hefty majority to less than half is to exclude the nearly 900,000 white babies whose ethnic background happens to be Hispanic.

For years Americans have been hearing about the coming nonwhite majority.

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The same is true of the “54 percent minority” scheduled to arrive by 2050. What the data in the bureau’s spreadsheets actually project is that white Americans, who now constitute nearly 80 percent of the population, will make up 74 percent by mid-century. Only if tens of millions of white Hispanics aren’t counted as white will America in 2050 be anything other than a majority-white nation.

There may be those who refuse to regard Hispanics as white, perhaps because of bigotry or ignorance or because they never saw Rita Hayworth, Martin Sheen, Raquel Welch, or Andy Garcia. But then, there have always been Americans with curious ideas of who could and couldn’t be “white.” Benjamin Franklin was sure that German immigrants were non-white and non-assimilable; Henry Cabot Lodge said the same thing about Russians, Poles, and Greeks. There was a time when US immigration policy classified Irish, Italians, and Jews as non-white, and when state laws required any resident with “one drop of Negro blood” to be listed as black.

To us, looking back, all those distinctions seem ludicrous. A generation or two down the road, it will doubtless seem just as ludicrous that anyone could have thought of Hispanics as anything other than part of the broad, “white,” American mainstream. Perhaps by then the very idea of race — white, black or anything else — will finally have been discarded, and American children will marvel at the idea that color of skin or shape of eye could ever have mattered so much to their forbears.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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