The New Word for 'Minority' Is 'American'

Cornell Belcher (The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Cornell Belcher (The Washington Post/Getty Images)

(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 fourth in the series, we spoke to Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, a boutique polling firm based in Washington, D.C., where he designs opinion and market research for political, policy and corporate clients. Belcher served as a pollster for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign and is the first African American to serve as a pollster for either national party. He told us why that he thinks threats to voting rights in the South are the "opening shots" in a period of political turmoil set off by the country's demographic changes, and that those changes are a call to action to acknowledge the "value threads that hold us together," versus those that divide us.

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?

Cornell Belcher: From a political standpoint, you're going to see monumental shifts over the next decade, and we're going to see a period in politics as tumultuous as the 1960s. We're going to see a shift as far as who, demographically, we are. Political power is never given up without a fight. This is already starting to unfold in the South, in central battleground states like Texas. We're seeing the purging of people of color from voting rolls in places like Florida. These are the opening shots in the battle, as the demographics are changing rapidly. You're going to see a browner electorate, and an electorate that is ideologically different than it is right now. So, I'm optimistic, but I think we're going to see a very tumultuous decade politically because of these changes.

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?


CB: I wish people would pay more attention to the idea that whether you're black, brown, white or what have you, we have far more in common than not. We have more value threads that join us together than people realize. It's important over the next decade or so for us to really connect those value threads and use those threads to pull us all together, as opposed to what you see from the Tea Party, for example. Regardless of what some might say, what you see there is not about the deficit; it is about some people being very uncomfortable with the way the country is changing. It's about polarization, bitterness and extremism that clearly is not helpful to the country moving forward.

If we have a decade more of this type of polarization and extremism, we won't be able to compete as a superpower. We can't compete with India and China when we're locked in an extremist stalemate. This bitter, divisive, extremist politics, where it's my way or the highway, is undermining our ability to do so. It's fundamentally unpatriotic, and un-American. We've never had this level of entrenched extremism.


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?

CB: We have a word for minority — it's called "American." What was so uplifting for so many Americans about Obama's candidacy was that this was quintessentially a hardscrabble American story — a child of mixed race pulling himself up by his bootstraps — that represented American exceptionalism. However, that's not to say that I think we've become postracial, at all. I don't fall in that category.


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

CB: I measure attitudes, opinions and values or people in the political marketplace and in the overall marketplace. So, the changes pose challenges to people like me because frankly, minorities are harder to poll, to be straightforward. They're typically younger, tend to be more transient, overrepresented in social media, underrepresented on land lines — a lot of different things. Other than that, I don't think it will affect the work I do.


Next: Jelani Cobb.

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

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