What Does It Mean to Be “White” or “Black” These Days?

Texas Senator Ted Cruz and family. Using Census definitions, three of the four Cruz family members picture here are “people of color.”

by James A. Bacon

As President Bill Clinton famously predicted in 1998 based on Census Bureau forecasts, white Americans would lose their majority status in the United States by the 2040s. The prospect of “people of color” comprising an “emerging Democratic majority” has undergirded the Democratic Party strategy of making racial/ethnic identity politics the core of their appeal. In parallel, fear of becoming a minority has inflamed the passions of many white voters. Ironically, due to an increase in the number of Hispanics and the offspring of inter-racial marriages, the percentage of Americans identifying as white is barely declining.

It is increasingly evident that the U.S. government’s system of racial classification is archaic. Indeed, recent numbers call into question what it even means to be “white” or “black,” both of which are classifications reflecting the obsessions of a by-gone era.

“The same Census projections that predict Americans who identify as white alone will become a minority during the 2040s also predict that about 75 percent of the U.S. population is expected to mark the box next to White on their Census form, either alone or in combination with another race or ethnicity,” writes Hamilton Lombard, a University of Virginia demographer, on the StatChat blog. “The race categories we use are struggling to keep up with our changing population.”

Lombard highlights several under-reported demographic trends nationally, all of which likely apply to Virginia:

  • “Hispanic” is an ethnic identification; people who identify as Hispanic also can identify as a race. The number of Americans who identify as white and Hispanic has risen by 67% since 2000.
  • Americans also can self-identify with more than one race. The number of people identifying as white and another race nearly doubled.
  • The story gets complicated for “blacks” as well. Eighty-five percent of the growth in the black population has come from black Hispanics, immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, or in combination with another race. Over half of the “black” undergraduates at Harvard University are immigrants, the children of immigrants or multi-racial. “If trends since 1995 continue,” says Lombard, “by the 2040s only a minority of blacks will identify as black alone and have ancestry in the U.S. that predates the Civil Rights area.”
  • Since 1990, the percentage of Americans identifying as American Indian has tripled. Many American Indians identify as multi-racial or Hispanic. Nearly a quarter cannot specify their tribe, up from 11% in 1990.
  • Asian-Americans have high rates of intermarriage, and nearly half who are not immigrants or children of immigrants co-identify as multi-racial or Hispanic, up from 26% in 2003.

Despite the continuing appeal of racial/ethnic identity politics in the 21st-century United States, everyday Americans refuse to follow the script in their personal behavior. The United States is still a mixing bowl — not just a cultural mixing bowl but a genetic mixing bowl. Where the 20th century saw the amalgamation of Americans of European descent into a single, largely undifferentiated “white” race, we’re now experiencing the slow-motion amalgamation of all ethnicities and races. This process will take generations to unfold, but unfold it will. The United States is truly the world’s first “global nation.”

“What [past] projections didn’t forecast is that the populations of each race would also become significantly more diverse by becoming more multi-racial and multi-ethnic,” writes Lombard. “Given the substantial changes in the composition of each racial group over the last few decades, by the time the population that identifies as white alone becomes a minority, it is difficult to project what any of our racial categories will actually mean.”

Despite the tenor of our public discourse, there is still hope that one day Americans will live up to Martin Luther King’s dream that people will judge one another by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

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5 responses to “What Does It Mean to Be “White” or “Black” These Days?

  1. The process won’t take generations to unfold, it has already unfolded. Great story in Style Weekly about the Richmond Free Press’s late publisher Ray Boone’s Japanese father (grandfather?), who was forced to move out of Hampton Roads during WWII, lost touch with his family and then died with none of them knowing his story. His ashes found their way back to Japan.

    If the government stops counting it, stops caring about it, that will make a huge difference. But good luck with that. Allowing people to check multiple boxes will eventually prove the point.

    • Excellent point.

      Race, tribe and “bloodlines” are most always built on deep seated phobias and fetishes of the human psyche. These biases typically twist the subject way out of shape in our futile effort to conform its images to our fears, prejudices and imaginings.

      Take for example, the typical genealogy. Everyone I’ve seen is nothing the a minuscule highly misleading sliver of who’s DNA feeds into ours. There are many reasons for this. Why is the world would a genealogy only follow a male line? Much less only a single strand of males, not to mention females? It’s absurd. In fact, each of us is a single tree, fed by thousands upon thousands of lines and strands and offshoots, and unknowns, and hidden events. And its time that single tree mates with another, the who mix and matrix is turned upside down and doubled massively all over again. Now, indeed, for many reasons of modern life, the dilution and intermixing is accelerating at an ever faster pace, exponentially. Claimed racial differences are in most always (but not always) pure inventions of the human mind.

      • “Each of us is a single tree fed daily by thousands upon thousands of lines and strands, offshoots, unknowns, and hidden events.

        When that single tree mates with another single tree, the who of each tree’s mix and matrix is turned upside down and doubled massively all over again.”

        How does this work? Here’s an example.

        Each man and woman has two parents, one a mom, one a dad, totaling 4 parents.

        Gen. 2. Each of those 4 parents had a mom and dad, for a total of 8 parents.

        Gen. 3 Each of those 8 parents had 2 parents, a mom and dad, for a total of 16 parents.

        Gen. 4. Each of those 8 parents had two parents, a mom and dad, for a total of 32 parents.

        Gen. 5. Each of those 32 parents had 2 parents, a mom and dad, for a total of 64 parents.

        Gen. 6. Each of those 64 parents had 2 parents, a mom and dad, for a total of 128 parents.

        Gen. 7. Each of those 128 parents had 2 parents, a mom and dad, for a total of 256 parents.

        Now at this point we are up to 7 generations. Let us assume a new generation a bit more than every 25 years, a conservative number. So now we have gone back only 200 years in the blood lines of a single person born in 2o20, who’s ancestors go back to roughly 1820, Andrew Jackson’s time. But in fact the bloodlines of that single human being born in 2020 go back millions of years, but lets say 100,000 years when fully modern human beings began walking this earth.

        Now, too understand that when that single human child born in 2020 mates and produces a son or daughter in 2040, their newborn child inherits double the ancestors, or complexity of blood, of each of their parents.

        Bottom line, we all just humans after all, and the real difference between each of us are tiny compared to what should bond us all together as human beings.

  2. Data regarding race/ethnicity and gender will soon be meaningless and useless.

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