We have a new oxymoron that's entered our popular culture vocabulary. Recent front page news announcements in many leading newspapers reported the first ever demographic shift of non-white births outpacing white births, which has created a "minority-majority" youth population. This oxymoron has come into common parlance, as accepted as George Carlin's famous "jumbo shrimp."
Why do we need such an odd term? To understand how this oxymoron has come to pass, we need to first better understand the underlying nuances of the term "majority." Several recent commentaries on the phenomena bring up two important considerations: first, that demographic shifts from Caucasian to non Caucasian are accurate at all, and second, that Caucasian majority status somehow correlates to a core of American identity.
Starting with the focus on the demographic shift, the following points were captured by the Pew Hispanic Center:
• The bureau reported that minorities--defined as anyone who is not a single-race non-Hispanic white--made up 50.4% of the nation's population younger than age 1 on July 1, 2011
• Hispanics are more than a quarter of the nation's youngest residents, according to the new population estimates, accounting for 26.3% of the population younger than age 1.
• Results from the 2010 Census showed that racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 91.7% of the nation's growth since 2000. Most of that increase from 2000 to 2010--56%--was due to Hispanics.
This article focuses on the "just the facts" approach, with a helpful (although arguably dubious) definition of "majority" as "anyone who is not single-race non-Hispanic white." This very definition, as seen recently by the New York Times' description of George Zimmerman as a "white Hispanic," leaves something to be desired in terms of its accuracy. If single-race non-Hispanic white is the standard, then Carol Channing, Kim Bassinger, Charlie and Martin Sheen, Johnny Depp, and Brett Favre are also members of the minority, for example.
This demographic focus cites relevant statistics, but asks the reader to simply accept an underlying assumption of "white" that leaves one wanting.
That wanting is outwardly questioned in Matthew Yglesias' cogent Slate article "The Myth of Majority-Minority America". Yglesias cites his own ancestry as an example that fundamentally challenges the "white" assumption. Despite his Cuban grandfather, which makes him a Census minority, "in the real world I'm just another white dude. My three other grandparents are all of Eastern European Jewish extraction. I grew up speaking English at home, though I once took a summer Spanish class at NYU." He goes on to note that at one time, neither Irish nor Jews were considered white in this country. He demonstrates how definitions of "white" are somewhat fluid.
Which leads us to a Caucasian majority being somehow "more American." Syndicated columnist Rich Lowery also notes that there are questionable definitions of white vs. non-white. Lowry acknowledges the failed assumption as well, noting that "About half of Hispanics identify their race as white on the Census." His concern is with the pace and scale of immigration in general, specifically citing the rise of the Hispanic population in the U.S. from 4% to 16% in one generation without the ability to assimilate:
"At its best, this country absorbs immigrants and makes them fully American. The question is whether we can do it now, with our common culture under assault at the same time we are experiencing a historic wave of immigration."
Of course, what "fully American" means is not defined by Lowry, but perhaps encapsulates why the oxymoronic term "minority-majority" has become front-page news.
It is this interpretation that underlies the assumptions of all these headlines in general. The association of White Anglo Saxon with "American" is as old as the Mayflower. The notion is that the country's identity is changing, and straying away from its historical roots.
So, a couple of observations:
• In all cases, the definition of "white" is at best amorphous.
• In some cases, there is a positive or negative interpretation of this demographic development.
• In one case, there is a fairly overt connotation placed on American identity and ethnicity.
In all this confusion, it may not be a surprise that we have such a fine mess of a term like minority-majority to describe it.