Anxiety Over Racial Changes: Nothing New

(The Root) — Recent census data reveal that, for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half of all children born in the United States, with 50.4 percent of children under age 1 identified as Hispanic, black, Asian American or members of another ethnic minority group.

In terms of the overall population, African Americans are the second-largest minority group in the nation (after Hispanics), with a 1.6 percent increase between 2010 and 2011. Minorities now make up nearly 37 percent of the overall U.S. population, and it's predicted that by 2042, a minority of Americans will be non-Hispanic whites.


What do all of these numbers mean for our understanding of race, for the issues that affect communities of color and for our very concept of who is a "minority" in this country? The Root has gathered a variety of perspectives on the significance of America's becoming a browner nation for a series of interviews on whether, and why, we should pay attention to these demographic changes.

For the fifth in the series, we spoke to Jelani Cobb, Ph.D., an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Rutgers University and author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress. He explained that a national focus on — and anxiety about — a decrease in the country's white population is nothing new for the United States, and cited historical examples to prove that an increase in the population of blacks and Hispanics will by no means necessarily translate into an increase in political power for either group.

The Root: For the first time in U.S. history, most of the nation's babies are members of minority groups, and the census has forecast that non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered in the United States by 2042. What might be the positive and negative effects of these changing demographics when it comes to issues affecting communities of color?

Jelani Cobb: It's hard to summarize it as positive or negative. I think a lot of things will be different. One, in raw numbers, large populations should translate into a larger share of political influence and cultural power. But that's not necessarily the case. For instance, the number of Hispanics in the country is technically larger than the number of African Americans, but the Congressional Black Caucus is larger than the Congressional Hispanic Caucus because a large portion of the Hispanic population has not been organized. So, in and of itself, the demographic change doesn't necessarily mean anything.

TR: The idea that America will be a "majority minority" nation gets a lot of attention. Is there anything you wish people would focus on instead of, or in addition to, the numbers?

JC: Oh, sure, there are other things, like what proportion of people are going to college? What proportion of people are going to prison? What are the median-income comparisons? What is the degree of political organization in communities? There are a ton of variables that are much more important.


So people also focus on the number, but the nativist paranoia that some whites have — that society is going to change, that it won't be the same America — is, not coincidentally, the same perspective that Anglo-Saxon whites had in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when they were being outnumbered not by people of color but by different types of white people from different parts of Europe. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said it was the duty of every Anglo-Saxon woman to have as many children as she could.

That was also one of the reasons why the initial opposition to abortion in the country took place, because people were concerned that the native-born white population would not increase fast enough and abortion would diminish the number of Anglo-Saxons in American society. So it's the same kind of paranoia that occurred when people were confronted with the Italians, the Irish and other people who were coming to the United States in large numbers then that we see currently when we look at some of the nativist concerns about immigration, the Arizona bill and the immigration law that passed in Alabama. Those are echoes of things we've heard before. It's the same group fear with the same pure numerical basis.


TR: As more Americans have nonwhite ancestry, will the definition of whiteness itself be affected?

JC: No. I think the definition of whiteness in this country has always been fluid. It's always been subjective, and these dynamics won't make it change any more than it already has. There's never been a unified idea of whiteness. For example, a person who's white anywhere else might not be white in New Orleans.


Even well into the 20th century, there were restrictive covenants that would prevent Jews from living in certain areas. There was residential segregation. Now, in America, people think of Jews as just one particular variety of white person — just like a person of Italian descent, Irish or Eastern European. The definition has always been fluid. It's hard to predict how it will change in the future, but that it will continue to change is not that hard to see.

TR: Do you see the demographic trends continuing, and if they do, will that affect the work you do?


JC: Besides, of course, that there will be more people in the African-American-studies department, I honestly don't know whether they will.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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