(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 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 second in the series, The Root talked to Marcia Alesan Dawkins, visiting scholar at Brown University and author of the forthcoming Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity. She describes her extensive writing on racial identity as an expression of her interest in "how people figure out who they are and how they connect with others," and has warned against rushing to assume that demographic changes will do away with America's troubled racial past.
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?
Marcia Alesan Dawkins: As with any demographic shift, there will be positive and negative outcomes we can anticipate. On the positive side, this new "tan generation" might have a broader and more progressive view of social and political issues — such as immigration reform, education reform and civil rights — based on changing ideas about race and ethnicity. There will also be cultural changes, as there have been in recent years with changing definitions of who or what is an American, for example.
The increased numbers of people of color also represent a larger potential pool of candidates who will be eligible to run for political office and enter fields like law, technology and education — or start new businesses aimed at meeting new needs — where some changes can be enacted.
On the negative side, we must know now how many of these children are born into economically disadvantaged environments and make sure that proper reforms are enacted today to ensure equality of opportunity for the tan generation. In addition, we must account for a sharp rise in white-supremacist groups who feel that they are now acting on behalf of all white Americans as a besieged minority group.
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?
MAD: Yes, two things: vocabulary and power. In terms of vocabulary, the phrase "majority minority" just isn't accurate. Not only is it an oxymoron, but it also subtly implies that the balance of power has shifted along with the ratio of white-to-nonwhite births. Using the term "majority minority" implies that white supremacy disappears, but that's just wishful thinking. All we have to do to see evidence of this is to look at South Africa, where, even though whites are in the numerical "minority," they hold the most political power.
Increasing rates of nonwhite births today in the U.S. does not automatically equal increasing social justice for tomorrow. More accurate ways to predict the end of inequality, for instance, would be the present-day elimination of disparities in income, employment, health care, education, housing, crime, punishment and family structure for this new generation, as well as their parents.
TR: Are we going to need a new vocabulary, a new word for "minority," when minorities become the majority? As more Americans have nonwhite ancestry, will the definition of whiteness itself be affected?
MAD: Yes, on both counts. We are going to need new terms that reflect numerical reality and social-political reality. Part of that implies thinking about what race and ethnicity mean in general and what specific racial and ethnic, and multiracial and multiethnic, identities mean in particular. At the same time, we've got to remember that every racial or ethnic community has some issues and experiences in common and is also unique.
For one, these changes mean that the white-black and white-people of color binaries need to be rethought and replaced with a full-color perspective on race and ethnicity. A full-color perspective acknowledges that racial and ethnic mixing has been part of our social fabric since Europeans met and mated with Native Americans; that it continued on through African enslavement and segregation and Asian exclusion and internment; that it progressed with increased rates of Hispanic immigration and is still with us as increasing numbers of interracial and multiracial couples get together and have children today. A full-color perspective must also acknowledge that racial and ethnic mixing has been occurring for centuries in same-sex communities as well.
On one hand, sociologists predict that the definition of whiteness will expand to include Hispanic and Asian groups but will always exclude those with African-American descent in order to maintain political and social power. On the other hand, this prediction is reductive because it assumes that only those who will continue to identify as white will be privileged and that those who will continue to identify as black will be non-privileged. It also ignores the fact that, generally speaking, to be African American is to be racially mixed.
TR: Do you see the demographic trends continuing, and if they do, will that affect the work you do?
MAD: Yes, I do see the trends continuing. These shifts will require increased focus on U.S. history. We must understand that we've been a diverse nation since the days of exploration and colonization, and what we think of as increasing diversity today doesn't automatically translate into the creation of a more just society.
Being mindful of our history will also allow us to look more accurately and creatively at our future. We must remember that it isn't the tan generation's sole responsibility to make our nation a more perfect union. It's everybody's responsibility, and the time to do this important work is now.
Next: Rashad Robinson of ColorOfChange.org.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.