The 2020 Census and America's racial future

Some possible scenarios.

With all the attention on Afghanistan this week, it was easy to miss the release of Census race and ethnicity data. But those who were paying attention noticed quite a bombshell — an enormous shift in the way Hispanic Americans describe their race. The number of Hispanics who identify as “White alone” fell by 14 million, while the number who identify as “two or more races” rose by 17 million, and the number who identify as “some other race” rose by 7 million. For a group whose population is only 62 million total, this is an absolutely enormous change!

When people say “race is a social construct”, this is one of the things they mean — the whole racial identify of tens of millions of people can change in just a few short years.

What’s going on? One obvious possibility is that the Trump Era made Hispanic people feel more like a racial minority. The Right’s targeting of immigrants, Trump’s well-publicized disparaging remarks about Mexicans, and violence like the 2019 El Paso shooting might have sent a message that Hispanics are not in the White club, and Census respondents might simply be acknowledging that.

Another possibility is that Hispanics don’t feel rejected by whiteness, but are choosing to reject it:

To woke folks who see America as dominated by White hegemony and want to see that hegemony broken, this is likely a welcome development. To anti-woke folks who fear the creation of a new hegemonic “POC” (or “BIPOC”) racial overclass, it’s probably something to be feared:

In both of these tellings, whiteness’ star is fading, and Hispanics see less upside from being associated with that grouping.

Note that all of these viewpoints see race in terms of political coalitions. Implicit in that idea, it seems to me, is the notion of society as a zero-sum struggle for supremacy between unified racial blocs, sometimes acting in coalition with one another. In other words, society as perpetual race war.

I see this as a very dark, pessimistic worldview. It reminds me a little of Timothy Snyder’s description of Adolf Hitler’s idea that “races struggle against each other, kill each other, starve each other to death, and try and take land.” Of course, most of the Americans who believe this aren’t yet to the point of contemplating genocide (though a few will talk a big game on Twitter), but whether it’s by the ballot or the bullet, I personally do not want to live in a world where I have to fight alongside my co-racialists to dominate or be dominated.

Fortunately, there are also more optimistic visions out there — visions of an America where racial groups coexist peacefully with one another. One such scenario is that offered by sociologist Richard Alba. In his latest book, The Great Demographic Illusion, Alba puts forth the idea of a new American “mainstream” in which racial differences — and, presumably, racial-political conflict — will become less salient. It’s a future in which Americans won’t have to look at racial identity shifts like the one on the 2020 Census with either apprehension or triumph, but merely as a matter of innocuous personal choice.

Alba’s “mainstream”

Alba sees the emerging “mainstream” as a tacit racial grouping in which race simply doesn’t matter as much. He doesn’t see it as a consciously self-defined racial majority, like “White” after World War 2. Instead, he sees it as a sort of post-racial majority, within which racial differences exist more as a matter of personal distinctiveness and heritage than as social divisions or classes.

Alba marshals statistics to show that racial identity is blurring among mixed-race kids, whose population is increasing steadily. He also relies on new theories of assimilation, in which minorities and majorities blend culturally with each other on equal terms to create something totally new. In other words, his prediction of a new “mainstream” is basically just a prediction that race in America will become less clear-cut, and that this blurring of lines will make it less important. It’s possible to see the big Hispanic shift toward a “Two or more races” identity in the latest Census as a harbinger of this future.

Being an academic, Alba doesn’t do a very good job of bringing his envisioned “mainstream” to life in vivid language. But it’s possible to imagine future Alba has in mind. Imagine a world where Americans discuss their racial heritage like they might discuss their hometowns or their hobbies — things that are important to their sense of identity, but which don’t place them on discrete social teams or limit their social possibilities. You’re Chinese-Peruvian-Polish? That’s cool, I’m from Texas and I lived in California, Japan, and New York!

It sounds nice, and in many ways it would be nicer than what we have. But we shouldn’t mistake Alba’s vision for some kind of post-racial utopia. First of all, though he’s hopeful that Black Americans will be included in the new mainstream, Alba allows for the possibility that a substantial fraction will not. This might be because of continued anti-Black racism, or it might be because some Black people want to maintain distinctiveness and separateness, or perhaps some combination of the two. If this happened, it wouldn’t mean that the new “mainstream” would be like the hegemonic White race of eras past, but it would mean that racial division would endure.

Alba also discounts the possibility that America would fall prey to the colorism that afflicts the racially mixed societies of Latin America. The erosion of clearly-defined racial blocs might reduce the risk of out-and-out mass conflict, but it would still leave plenty of room for discrimination, privilege, and exclusion. Which is not to say colorism is inevitable or universal, but the danger is there.

Also, one fairly questionable assumption Alba makes is that White people in general will join the new “mainstream” grouping. And if a mainstream does emerge, it’s hard to imagine that many Whites won’t be part of it. But I forsee the possibility that many others — especially White people living in exurban and rural areas and inculcated with right-wing ideas — could become a second racialized group excluded by choice or by force from whatever new mainstream emerges.

The “Trinidad” future

Traditionally, Trinidadian politics was divided along racial lines. A more urbanized Black population and a more rural Indian population roughly aligned with the country’s two major political parties, while a smaller and more economically elite “mixed” group — a blend of Indian, Black, White, Hispanic, and East Asian — acted as the swing vote. Things are a bit less polarized these days, but the basic pattern is still there. Via Wikipedia, is how the demographics have evolved over time:

The “mixed” group looks an awful lot like the multiracial grouping Alba sees emerging in America. But even at 24% of the population, it’s nowhere near a majority — most of the population is still contained in one of the two traditionally opposed blocs.

It seems pretty clear that a large number of White Americans will not join a multiracial mainstream. More Whites are marrying people of other races, but it’s still a small percentage:

This is true even for college-educated Whites and Whites in urban areas, for whom intermarriage rates are far lower than for other races. But geography certainly provides another reason to expect that many White people won’t be part of a multiracial mainstream. Most parts of rural and exurban America are simply very homogeneously White:

It seems possible, though far from certain, that the Trumpist movement could contribute to the creation of a White racial group that rejects — or is rejected by — Alba’s “mainstream”. Though Trump gained substantial Hispanic support (and more modest Asian support) in 2020 relative to 2016, it’s not yet clear whether the nonwhite Trump voters will actually mingle with the White ones and come to think of themselves as one people. Certainly it’s possible to imagine a strain of racial purity thinking among a subset of White Trump supporters that turns them into a racialized — and economically and educationally disadvantaged — minority.

In that future, Alba’s “mainstream” starts to look more like an elite project — a bit like Trinidad’s “mixed” category — than a broad majority grouping. It would be easy for racial struggle politics to continue in that sort of world; the mixed group would find itself poised between racialized, implacably opposed blocs of urban Black Americans and rural White Americans. If that happens, Alba’s somewhat-happier future of decreased racial salience will not come to pass.

Racial verticals

But in fact, there’s another, even stranger alternative racial future for America — and for the world — the possibility that people will begin to organize their racial identities and affiliations not according to who they live near, but who they affiliate with online.

In his description of the two-way assimilation that he thinks will lead to the creation of the new mainstream, Alba tells the story of the funeral of a cousin of his — a volunteer firefighter — and the multiracial grouping that shows up to the wake. It’s a touching story, but I noticed how it revolved entirely around in-person interactions — the implication being that Americans will create the new mainstream by living in close proximity and interacting in physical space.

But physical space is a shrinking part of Americans’ lives. As the amount we spend online grows, it may matter less and less who our neighbors are. In an extremely online world, people inside America and outside of it may start to reorganize themselves along “verticals” — shared interests and identities rather than shared living space. Some of those verticals will be things like fandom cultures and international politics, but racial groupings will doubtless be very important.

This possibility occurred to me a few years ago when I was reading about the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, which brings together Asian people across a variety of countries and inculcates them with a sense of shared Asian-ness that transcends any national boundary.

What if that Facebook group, and not Alba’s cousin’s funeral, represents the future of race? What if online pan-Asian-ness, pan-African-ness, pan-European-ness, etc. create enduring distinctions of self-identification that don’t respond to any amount of local mixing? What if these turn into transnational political blocs — a Samuel Huntington-style “clash of civilizations”, only with social graphs instead of colored maps to delineate the battle lines? It sounds preposterous, but perhaps we can already see the beginnings of this in the alt-right’s trans-national White supremacism, in which online radicals inspire each other to similar acts of racist violence across the world?

Of course, there is as yet no online substitute for sex and marriage, or — as we discovered during the pandemic year — for the in-person aspects of friendship. The physical world has diminished somewhat in importance, but it will continue to be a big part of our lives for a long time to come. So perhaps the integrative forces Alba documents will be enough to overcome the siren song of online racial verticals in the long run.

But I think I’ve managed to demonstrate that the kind of racial detente Alba envisions is far from a foregone conclusion, even if current trends in intermarriage and mixed-race identification continue. If we want a future where society doesn’t consist of a struggle between racial armies, we can’t just expect the vast inevitable forces of sociology and history to produce that future for us. We have to fight for it.