The Shifting Meaning Of 'Minority' In America

The Census Bureau projects that by 2043, the United States will have a majority-minority population for the first time in its history. In a piece in The New York Times, columnist Charles Blow writes that this demographic shift is one we should meet with "as much ease and grace as we can muster."

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ARI SHAPIRO: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. This month, the Census Bureau released new data showing that white people will make up less than half the U.S. population just 30 years from now. According to census projections, non-Hispanic whites will still be the largest group by 2043, but people of color will collectively outnumber them. New York Times columnist Charles Blow writes that this browning of America has already happened in many cities. And he raises questions about how this demographic shift will affect race relations and power dynamics in our society.

If this shift has already happened where you live, we want to hear from you. What's changed? Call us at 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Charles Blow is a New York Times columnist. His op-ed entitled "The Meaning of Minority" ran in The New York Times on December 12th this year. And he joins us now from the studios at The Times in New York.

SHAPIRO: Welcome to the show.

CHARLES BLOW: Oh, I'm glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: What difference does it make whether whites are in the minority or not?

BLOW: Well, I think that's the question that we begin to have to ask ourselves, because, you know, the history of this country has kind of been built on this premise that there was a majority group and many minority groups, and that that dynamic is about to change in America. And then what does that mean, going forward? Do we still have - you know, when you can no longer have the majority-minority dichotomy in this country when you just have a collection of minority groups?

And, in fact, if you even pitch out a little bit further than what the Census Bureau did and you look at projections of individual groups like Hispanics and the growth - if growth continues among that group, eventually, you will have a Hispanic majority, or at least a larger share of Hispanic people than of any other group. What does that mean in terms of traditional power structures in this country...

SHAPIRO: Well...

BLOW: ...and how we view ourselves as a country?

SHAPIRO: Or is it - so white people have traditionally been - historically been the majority. And white people have historically held the power in the United States. Does white people no longer being in the majority equal white people no longer being the most powerful group?

BLOW: Well, that's not how it's happened, you know, across the world. I mean, I guess the closest parallel will be South Africa. Just because you are not the majority group doesn't mean you relinquish power. But it does mean that the way that we interact with each other, how we elect officials in a democracy, all of that can change. And it can slowly eat away at traditional sources of power, and I think that that becomes a source of agitation for people.

And, in fact, I think if you look at the idea of race - which is a kind of a strange, artificial construct just based on, you know, how dark your skin is, or something - being a majority group, you don't necessarily have to assume a racial identity, necessarily. You know what I mean? You don't have to say, you know, whiteness defines me. The definition of racial-ness is kind of part of the minority plight.

SHAPIRO: And so once white people become a minority, do white pride groups or marches take on a sort of acceptability that they might not have today? Do they become comparable to a black film festival or a gay pride march, whereas today they sort of have this somewhat races overtone to them?

BLOW: Well, that's what - that's - those are some of the questions that I was raising, but not answering in the piece, but kind of sparkle a kind of dialogue about those things. You know, at what point does the stigma fall away? Or does it ever fall away? Does white pride - is it always weighted with the kind of weight of history and the negative parts of what that has traditionally meant? Or is it - is there an equalizing point at which you say that we are all now minority groups within the society? We are a gumbo of people, and that each group can choose to organize around what their principles say, one(ph), and exercise some of that level of pride about doing so. I'm not sure I know the answer to that. But I do look at these numbers, and that date of 2043 is fast approaching and, hopefully, will be in my lifetime and definitely will be in my kids' lifetime. And I think we do have to start talking openly about what it means to be a minority. What does it mean to have racial or cultural pride? Does that fit into our future as a country? And if it does, it must be equally applied. And if that is the case, you know, what does it mean to have that sort of wide cultural pride and lack of taking - not taking offense to people exercising that?

SHAPIRO: You know, we talk about 2043 as sort of this bright, red line that the country crosses where whites are no longer more than 50 percent of the country. But it's a process, and there are cities in which this is already the case. You know, 2043 might just be in those cities a much bigger gap between the minority and white population and a smaller gap in the places where whites are still the majority. When you look at places like, you know, Baltimore, which is roughly a third white, what do you see that tell us about the future of this country?

BLOW: Well, I mean, I think, you know, there's a - you make a very good point about big cities. I looked at the 10 largest metro areas in the country, and eight of those are already majority minority. But there's a growing split between kind of urban centers and suburban and rural places in this country. And you see that every time we have a presidential election because you get to see people exercise their beliefs on a national scale. And what you invariably see is these kind of very regional splits between the South and the Plain States where they're not as many really large cities and between the coastal areas and the major metropolitan areas in individual states.

And so we see that happening already, the kind of pulling apart of these more diverse places from the less diverse places. And so, I don't know what it tells us, you know, taking a city tells us more than it does about taking some of the less populated rural places, which may be more white, and what either of those things tells us about the future of this country other than that people are choosing places where, you know, things are either more or less diverse and those are places that they want to be in and be surrounded by people who kind of had - who look like them or have - share beliefs that they fear.

SHAPIRO: Let's hear from somebody who's experiencing this firsthand. We're going to go to Fisal(ph) in Detroit, Michigan. Hi, Fisal.

FISAL: Hi. Yeah. I'm in Detroit. Thanks for letting me be on the air.

SHAPIRO: Sure. Tell me what you're seeing.

FISAL: Yes. So here in Detroit, you know, since the '50s, '60s, it's well known that Detroit's been, you know, basically a majority black, a black populated city. But in recent decades, we've also seen, you know, in Dearborn, we have the largest Arab-American population. In Hentranic(ph), we have one of the largest Mexican, you know, Mexican-American populations in the Upper Midwest. And we even have a huge, you know, Bengali, Indian, Pakistani immigrant population in Hentranic. And, you know, we can see basically here in Detroit, basically, you know, the white people once, you know, they're just getting pushed out of the city and out and out and out into the suburbs more and more every single year.

SHAPIRO: And how do race relations change as the demographics change? As it becomes more diverse, do things get better or worse?

FISAL: I'm not - look, to be honest, you know, I live in a suburb, you know, 25 miles north of Detroit. And, you know, I'm in the only brown family in my entire neighborhood. You know, people don't even know how diverse the city is because it's become so polarized. With the minorities in the city and the urban areas, and then basically the white and maybe the more well-to-do immigrant population, minority population in the suburbs.

SHAPIRO: Well, that's interesting. So even as the city becomes more diverse, people are not mingling. They're sticking in their own little groups, you're saying.

FISAL: Yeah, exactly, exactly, exactly. That's exactly it.

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, thanks for the call, Fisal.

FISAL: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And, Charles, something else that you write about in your column is the incredible income disparity between demographic groups, that as people of color become the majority, they don't necessarily economically reach parity with white people.

BLOW: Exactly. I mean, I lived in Detroit for two years as well, and I saw that up close. I actually lived in the city of Detroit. I didn't move out to the suburbs. And this kind of income disparity is very apparent in places like Detroit. In the column, I point out that the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanics. And there's a rub there in that kind of inequality and that as people - and you see that actually in the national debate about taxation, whether or not there should be more taxation or cut programs. And people who were - have less wealth may be dependent on more programs, and people who have higher levels of wealth and income may be more resistant to taxes.

And that whole debate is largely about this subject and where people - different segments of the population have different kind of financial interest in that debate. And so, you know, when you see a place like Detroit, it is - you can clearly see what's happening in terms of how people are collecting themselves into groupings. It's not necessarily - it's not completely a racial issue. It is partly this economic issue where people are collecting themselves into groupings that are about, you know, people who have the same sorts of interests as me, and a lot of that boils down to the kind of racial categories and kind of political ideologies.

SHAPIRO: You quote an AP study that suggests the diversity of America may not reduce racism in America at all.

BLOW: Right. And so since Barack Obama has taken office, was elected the first time, both levels of explicit racism and implicit racism against blacks has actually increased and not gone down. And, you know, that is a worrisome trend because it suggests a sort of circling of the wagons among people and that it has surfaced a sort anxiety about whether or not the ideal of America as it existed pre-Obama will continue to exist or does he herald the end of that sort of power structure?

SHAPIRO: And so do you think things will get worse before they get better if, in fact, they do get better?

BLOW: It's a good question. I mean, I'm not sure that I know the answer to that. But the - there are signs that things has become a bit more strained, and that people are very worried about the concept of America as they have understood it continuing in that way. And that ripples across society in all sorts of ways, both of these have racism measures, it touches on, you know, what we've been talking about recently in terms of the gun debate. I mean, a lot of this gun debate is not, you know, the kind of hoarding of guns. It's not necessarily about people fearing their Second Amendment rights being taken away, although, there's a huge portion of it that's about that.

But part of it is genuinely people nervous about what they feel the country will become or whether or not kind of it will - the center will hold and that society will be civil at the way that it has always been. And people are just nervous about the future when I think that part of that is what comes out in that kind of hoarding.

SHAPIRO: We're talking with New York Times columnist Charles Blow about what happens 30 years from now when the U.S. becomes a majority minority country. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Charles, I had experience several years ago that I'm curious to get your take on. When I was covering the Justice Department under the Bush administration, I went to a Mississippi county where the Justice Department was filing its first-ever voting rights case, alleging that black-elected officials were discriminating against white voters on the basis of race. This was a majority black county where Democratic elected officials who were black, were accused of racial discrimination against white voters.

It was the first ever case of its kind. The Justice Department ended up putting a settlement decree in place. Is this sort of the face of things to come when people of color are in the majority? Do they just turn the tables and do the same thing to minority white people that majority white people have done to people of color for so many years?

BLOW: Well, I will say this: I don't know the answer to that question. But I will say this: I don't think that racism has a race of preference. I believe that, you know, people will be - there are small groups of people who will be racist regardless of what color they are. And I think when, you know, when power shifts and people have an opportunity to exercise that racism and combine it with exercising power, then that can happen regardless.

And so we see people, you know, I've dealt with some of these implicit racism tests and kind of dug down into the numbers of that. We see people who are black, who have implicit racial biases against other blacks. I mean, there's not - there's no - you can't say, you know, only this group of people can and be racist and are ever going to racist. So I think that some of that can happen. I don't know if there will be some sort of mass retribution, if that's the question.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to another call. This is Earl(ph) in Honolulu, Hawaii. Hi. Welcome to the program.

EARL: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Hi. Tell us what you see in Honolulu.

EARL: Well, you say that white people continue to hold power. And that has been true in Hawaii since long before statehood and continues to be true right now. If you look at the boards of all the corporations, the presidents of the corporations, white people still holds up and lots of power, and they have always been in the minority. Always.

SHAPIRO: And so why doesn't the power of one person, one vote, counteract that disparity that you're describing?

EARL: I think that racial voting is not that strong in Hawaii. You know, we recently elected Abercrombie, a white person for our governor. But, you know, when I thought of him as the Democrat, a liberal, not a haole. A haole is a white person.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious, Charles, Earl raises this question of, you know, can you distinguish between decisions that are made based on race, that are made based on income, that are made based on party? She was saying she voted for Abercrombie because he was a Democrat, not based on race.

BLOW: Well, you can absolutely distinguish between those things. But I think that what - there's an underling premise in the comment she was making, which was there may be a difference between political power and economic power. And you could've seen those things grow up in different ways. However, the recent Supreme Court case, which allowed, you know, kind of unfettered money to be flowed into political campaigns, maybe upsetting that balance and mixing it up, again, in way that I didn't think that it would be before, where that people who hold the economic power will continue to have an outsize influence on the political power in this country for some time to come.

SHAPIRO: Well, thanks for joining us on the program.

BLOW: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Charles Blow, he's a New York Times columnist, whose op-ed, "The Meaning of Minority," ran in the paper December 12th of this year. Tomorrow, Celeste Headlee fills in hosting. She'll talk with Joel Kotkin about life without family. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington.

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