Demographers have been telling us for the past several years that Census Bureau data indicate people of color will make up the majority of the population in the United States by mid-century (it’s what many people oxymoronically describe as our “majority-minority” future). The latest population numbers, for example, point out that for the first time in our nation’s history, white, non-Hispanic people are a minority of infants and toddlers. The bulk of new births have been, as expected, largely among Latinos.
This demographic shift can stir a broad range of reactions—pessimism, optimism and ambivalence about our country’s future. And new research by Colorlines.com’s publisher, the Applied Research Center, indicates that which reaction you have depends greatly upon who you are, with political ideology unsurprisingly being the most reliable predictor.
Notably, however, in a national survey of about 2,400 adults, gleaned from SurveyMonkey’s millions of users in late spring, we found that the majority of people have no feelings one way or the other about the changing face of the U.S. Rather, the people who are most inclined to contribute their voices to the collective narrative on our national identity are those who are most pessimistic about it.
It is perhaps human nature: Those with grievances speak the loudest and most often. So even though the Optimistic Olivia’s and Hopeful Harold’s in our survey outnumber the Fearful Fred’s and Racist Rebecca’s, those worried about demographic changes were much more likely to describe and justify their fears. The finding suggests that a small group of vocally concerned people have skewed the national climate. The proliferation of anti-immigration bills in state legislatures this year is perhaps one way in which that tilt impacts our political system.
Our survey found that ideology is the greatest predictor of an individual’s perspective on the multi-racial future of the U.S. Regardless of the respondent’s race/ethnicity, class background, age or education, a conservative person was far more likely to be “concerned” that the coming demographic changes will be “bad for our country in the long run” than a moderate or liberal person. More than a third, or 36.6 percent, of conservatives said they were concerned, compared to 18.5 percent of moderates and 11.9 percent of liberals.
The converse is also true: a liberal person is far more likely to be “hopeful” that the coming demographic changes will be “good for our country in the long run” than moderates or conservatives. The numbers are virtually mirror images: 36.5 percent of liberals said they were hopeful, compared to 20.5 percent of moderates and just 11.1 percent of conservatives.
But that doesn’t mean that political ideology is the only factor that affects perspectives on the question. Nor does it mean that either conservative or liberal sentiment is a majority perspective. In fact, the first key finding of our survey is that, despite the increasing influence of conservatives’ anxiety in moving anti-immigrant legislation, the majority of the population—54.8 percent of our respondents—is neither concerned nor hopeful (or have “no opinion”) about the projected demographic changes.
The majority of the population isn’t particularly taking sides in this debate. Some are shrugging their shoulders in ambivalence, or are too jaded or disconnected to really care. As one extremely liberal white male from Texas told us, “Does it really matter? Who cares what the majority race is? Not like we’ve been running something amazing anyway.” Or in the words of a moderate Catholic white male in Connecticut: “I will be dead in 10 years or so—I think the next generation has to deal with this garbage!”
Some think class or dollars and cents are far more consequential. One 19-year-old Latino New Yorker wrote in the optional comment section for this survey question, “It doesn’t matter. Race doesn’t equate to social status or class or economic wealth.”
This may be hard to believe or accept for people at the poles of the debate about the present and future racial demographics of the nation, but the majority of the population, at least for now, don’t really care all that much. And that majority ambivalence, for lack of a better term, generally cuts across the races. Only among Asian Americans did we find a majority of respondents either concerned or hopeful, and still a solid plurality of 44.2 percent were ambivalent.
The racial distribution at the two poles, on the other hand, is not at all uniform.
The worriers in our sample of approximately 1,500 whites nationwide were slightly more common (24.5 percent of the total) than the hopefuls (19.7 percent). The proportions amongst Latinos and blacks were similar to each other, but completely different from whites. Just under 12 percent in each of those two groups were “concerned,” while about a third of each group was “hopeful.” That contrasts sharply with Asian Americans, who had about equal percentages of concerned versus hopeful respondents (more on that finding in a moment).
What other factors beyond political ideology impacted respondent’s perspectives? Holding all other factors constant, being white made a respondent a bit more likely to be concerned. For example, here’s a comment from a “slightly liberal” 58-year-old white man from Maine:
“Concerned mostly if the new majority doesn’t speak english (thus turning our english speaking country into a spanish speaking country). I feel that we make too many concessions for the spanish speaking population. When calling agencies, I find no other language choices except spanish & english & oftentimes, english is the 2nd choice. We do not coddle the vietnamese, sudanese, chinese or japanese—why the special treatment for spanish speakers?”
Meanwhile, being Latino or black had an even stronger independent impact in the other direction, making a respondent less likely to be concerned.
Age had a smaller impact than race (people aged 50 and above were more likely to be concerned than younger folks), while education exerted an influence somewhere between the two. Our survey didn’t find any statistically significant gender or class independent effects on respondents’ perspectives about the future people of color majority.
The education effect was strongest for whites and for African Americans. Those with a college degree in both racial groups were significantly less likely to be concerned. One fifty-something, black, female Southern California resident with a graduate degree wrote that the changing demographics are “good in respect of the US having to become more global & having to interact & deal with the world even more so in the future.”
But black respondents in particular who self-identified as coming from “low-income” backgrounds or who did not have a college degree were much more likely to be concerned than African Americans with higher education. While nearly one in five blacks without a college degree expressed concern about the coming non-white majority, fewer than 2 percent of those with a college degree said the same; that’s the lowest level among any racial or ethnic group.
One likely explanation for the striking difference in opinion among African Americans is the perceived competition for jobs between blacks and Latinos in the low-wage labor market. This is an issue the Applied Research Center plans to study further in a series of focus groups we’re conducting with young people on their thoughts and experiences with race. But the story of black-brown antipathy is likely overstated in the news media, at least in the sense that lower-educated blacks in our survey were still “concerned” at a comparable rate to college-educated whites (18.8 percent vs. 20.4 percent).
Asian Americans of various education levels also exhibited notably high rates of concern compared to other racial and ethnic groups. We cannot, however, say with confidence that holding all other factors constant, being Asian American makes a person more likely to be concerned about the coming people of color majority—that finding just barely missed the threshold for statistical significance. Instead, it appears that the elevated level of Asian American concern stems from the fact that there’s a higher rate of self-identified conservatives in this group compared to Latinos and blacks. That being said, one young, female New York-based respondent, who identified herself as slightly liberal, noted,
“The only concern I have is that they will not be educated in English or receive the education they need and employers will begin hiring them for lower than minimum wage and this will effect the work force and employment rates for the country as a whole.”
It’s also worth noting that almost as many Asians Americans in our sample responded that they were hopeful as placed themselves in the concerned corner.
Still, the data on heightened concern in the community further underscores the need for more funding for and increased attention to the in-depth study of “Asian Americans.” After 15 years of studying race and ethnicity in American politics, that umbrella term has become more and more meaningless to me, given the uniquely wide range of backgrounds the term is supposed to encompass. It purports to describe everyone from South Asian immigrants with uniquely high education levels to Cambodian Americans with uniquely low education. A team of Asian-American scholars based in California will be releasing a potential treasure trove of data this fall, and the Applied Research Center and Colorlines.com will be keeping tabs on those and other developments. Unfortunately, in our own sample from this national survey, Asian American respondents were less likely to express themselves in the optional comment section, so we have less in-depth information about their views than we’d like.
Which brings me to our second key finding from this survey: The “hopefuls” were far less likely to discuss their optimism when offered a chance as the “concerned” folk were to express their pessimism. In fact, those who are “concerned” that a people of color majority could be “bad for our country in the long run” were about twice as likely to voice that concern as the people who were “hopeful.” That’s even though the hopefuls outnumber the pessimists.
If you’re among the optimists, the lesson is clear: Start speaking up more, because the naysayers are not bashful. And they’re working to codify their fears into law.
“America is about being a melting pot of cultures,” wrote a 21-year old liberal white New Yorker. “We should not be hopeful to have it be a mostly white society. We should strive to find common ground in a highly diverse society,” she concludes. But are other “hopefuls” like her striving in passive aspiration only? Or will increasing numbers of them be willing to take an active role in making our multi-racial society as inclusive and fair as it can and should be? The answer will determine our future.
We asked 2,400 people the following question:
As you may know, the U.S. Census Bureau expects racial minorities / people of color to make up a majority of the U.S. population in the next thirty to forty years. Do you feel concerned or hopeful about that?
Response options included:
-Very concerned this could be bad for our country in the long run; -Somewhat concerned this could be bad for our country in the long run; -Neither concerned nor hopeful; -Hopeful that this could be good for our country in the long run; -Very hopeful that this could be good for our country in the long run; -Don’t know / no opinion