New stats on the United States’ diversity reveal one nation undergoing unprecedented existential change. Whether the nation’s ready for it is another matter.
It had been expected for weeks and months, but its arrival on August 12 – a chronicle of an evolution foretold - announced itself like a thunderclap: According to results of the 2020 census, the United States of America is experiencing unprecedented growth in its minority communities, with black and brown populations showing robust growth, and numbers of white Americans growing more slowly, so much so that the nation’s white majority is the smallest it’s been in more than 200 years.
Data from the official U.S. Census 2020, the decennial survey of the nation’s people prescribed in the Constitution, finds that the United States experienced panoramic change in its demographic makeup, with its white non-Hispanic population dropping to 57.8 percent (191 million), an 8.6 percent decline since the 2010 census (196 million), and the lowest percentage of white Americans since 1790. In addition to that, the Hispanic population of the country has grown to 18.7 percent, African Americans grew their numbers to 12.4 percent, and the Asian population increased to 6 percent.
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The census data reveals how, now more than ever, American life is shot through with diversity as an increasingly baseline experience. The major unknown is whether the nation is prepared for the browner, blacker diversity it can’t escape.
Indeed, in the run-up to the data release and in the weeks after, we’ve seen powerful pushback against the data’s implications, with concerted resistance to voting and reproductive rights, and hysterical pronouncements against critical race theory by legislators around the country.
That granular census data is more revealing of our national mosaic than ever before. Example: The probability of two people in America chosen at random being of different racial or ethnic groups, known by demographic experts as a diversity index, is now at 61.1 percent. That’s markedly up from 54.9 percent in the 2010 census.
The descriptors “black” and “white” have long been generalities. The census addressed the matter with write-in boxes that let respondents reveal more refined specifics: white could also include Egyptian, Italian or Lebanese origins. Black responses offered insights into Jamaican, Haitian or Somali roots.
It’s all provided for a richer, more comprehensive national overview. “These changes reveal that the U.S. population is much more multiracial, and more racially and ethnically diverse, than what we measured in the past,” said Nicholas Jones, the director of race, ethnicity, research and outreach for the Census Bureau's population division, to USA Today.
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But for many Americans, now comes the hard part. For them, an apparently expanding cohort of the country enamored of the white supremacist mindset, this evolution of the nation has been deeply unsettling. It’s aroused racial and ethnic insecurities borne of a longstanding belief that white identity is the foundational fact of the national life.
The new census data rattles these extremist Americans, calling their isolationist tendencies into question. The snapshot that revealed 331.4 million Americans on April 1, 2020, is one of a country more racially and ethnically diverse and more urban-based than ever before.
“While Republicans may hang on to some of their base in Congress in the short run through selective gerrymandering, broad demographic forces, as seen with the new census data, clearly favor Democrats,” said Brookings Institution demographics expert William Frey, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 13.
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There’s a multitude of arguments for how white America and the Republican Party will thwart the nation’s evolution toward a majority minority population. Most of them amount to an attempt to forestall the transition through the legerdemain of partisan gerrymandering, and mathematical tricks intended to dilute the potent demographics now emerging. They may work in the short term – there’s deep belief that such sleight-of-hand will carry the day for the Republicans in 2022 and 2024.
But sooner or later, they won’t. Population shifts carry their own intrinsic force, imparting their own tidal momentum. Those tidal forces are aided by, among other things, a political party that doesn’t trust the very citizens it purports to attract.
When your party doesn’t believe in the power of the citizen vote, it will eventually fail to attract that vote. The number of minority citizens self-identifying as Republican has ticked up, but only slightly, and not in the numbers required to counter a countervailing trend favoring Democrats.
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Writing Aug. 16 for CNN, Justin Gest, a professor at George Mason University, says (without supporting evidence) that “[S]ome social scientists also expect greater numbers of biracial and Hispanic Americans to self-identify as 'White.' And, indeed, the number of mixed-race Americans increased almost threefold since 2010 alone. This will further undercut Democrats' identity-based appeals and could reduce any penalty Republicans endure for their nativism.”
But Gest tidily assumes that those biracial and Hispanic Americans would undercut their own emerging self-identity, a self-identity that rejects the generalization of “white” and embraces the particulars of their specific ethnic experience. Why would mixed-race people trade the specifics of their own heritage for a monochromatic descriptor, one that “white” people themselves are less and less attracted to? Without proof, Gest’s assumption fails to be convincing.
More convincing, and more of a dovetail with the national reality, is Dream Hampton’s tweet from Aug. 31: “[The] 2020 census was deeply meaningful to the white power movement. It was their equivalent to a video tape of a police killing. For them, [it] was evidence white ppl are endangered and every and anything is fair game in preserving their survival & dominance.”
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Some of that sense of endangerment is right there in the census data itself. Citing the data, the Associated Press reported that “[s]ome demographers cautioned that the white population was not shrinking as much as shifting to multiracial identities. The number of people who identified as belonging to two or more races more than tripled from 9 million people in 2010 to 33.8 million in 2020. They now account for 10% of the U.S. population.
“People who identify as a race other than white, Black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander — either alone or in combination with one of those races — jumped to 49.9 million people, surpassing the Black population of 46.9 million people as the nation’s second-largest racial group ...”
That shift in ethnic identity partly explains the angry passions of lawmakers and educators over the allowance of critical race theory into schools and colleges. That hue and cry about making the genesis of our racial history -- the “how we got here” of America’s racial past, warts & all – part of the curriculum of higher education anticipated what the census data would say.
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All this dilution of Caucasian statistical primacy is proving to be unnerving to white supremacists; that nervousness is making itself felt in ways that don’t reveal themselves in a strictly racial context. Consider the actions of the Texas Legislature on May 18.
The Legislature passed and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 8, which bans abortion for Texas women at six weeks, at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat, when most women don’t even know they’re pregnant. No exceptions are made in the case of rape or incest. Abbott and state lawmakers effectively criminalized abortion by deputizing private citizens and letting them sue abortion providers, or anyone assisting a woman in securing an abortion. The law makes provisions for bounties up to $10,000 (to be paid for by the woman seeking the abortion) for citizens who alert authorities of any attempts on a woman’s part to secure an abortion. Rat out your terrified, desperate neighbor for 10 grand.
Significantly, when the law went into effect earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to intervene to stop SB8 from taking effect, the Nine choosing to remain on summer vacay until that first Monday in October, offering no prospect of injunctive relief, or any review of the Texas law.
Who are the targets? It’s not hard to see: Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest provider of abortions, counseling and reproductive health information. African American and Latino women have more abortions than any other demographic groups in Texas.
For the conservatives who've been tirelessly looking for a way to eviscerate Roe v. Wade since the Supreme Court ushered it into law in 1973, recent events in Texas are their main chance to get Roe overturned nationwide. That’s why within days of the Texas law's effect, news circulated of governors and legislatures in other deep-red states at least considering how to follow Texas’ lead.
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The battle line between the retrograde of conservative supremacy and the forward velocity of the nation’s better angels is always changing. When the oversize statue of Confederate Civil War icon Robert E. Lee was taken down on Sept. 8, in Richmond, Va., for example, it was the latest shot against the antebellum iconography that white conservatism has increasingly taken to its heart. The optics of the statue presiding over Monument Avenue for generations being dismembered and carted away on a flatbed truck could well be the most visually arresting recent evidence of our American makeover.
Those diehard extremists mourning the statue’s removal will be looking for another way to move the ugly ball down the field. They’re holding out hope for lightning to strike on Sept. 18, when some of the traitorous crazies who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 will gather again. The so-called “Justice for J6” rally is being launched by allies of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. They summoned fresh extremist vitriol when Lt. Michael Byrd, who is African American, was identified as the Capitol police officer who fatally shot insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt, a white woman, as she tried to break into part of the Capitol with the mob trashing the building where the government does its work on behalf of the people.
Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, right-wing darling of the moment, had the lunatic nerve to call it an “execution,” and (never one to miss an opportunity for cultivating outrage) former presidential asterisk Donald Trump called Byrd a “murderer.” A new memo from Capitol Police strongly suggests that, with provocations like these, there’s likely to be violence in Washington – an attempt at a replay of the madness in January – in nine days time.
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According to the Worldometer elaboration of United Nations population data, the population of the United States right now is 333,336,470 – just over a literal one-third of a billion people.
The American makeover hinted at in the census data preceding that latest astronomical figure is well underway, but ours is a country undergoing this most dramatic change in a potentially dangerous time. It’s the change of civil strife, a quietly percolating strife borne of a need for unity that the nation as a whole doesn’t endorse.
Like a patient in therapy torn by warring instincts: half of the person on the couch believes in getting better; the other half believes in getting off the couch altogether, secure in the empty certainty that therapy wasn’t needed in the first place.
That’s not a condition for a prognosis favoring the patient’s survival.
About the author
Michael Eric Ross writes from Los Angeles on politics, race, pop culture, and other subjects. His writing has also appeared in TheWrap, Medium, PopMatters, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, msnbc.com, Salon, and other publications.