Whitey Sings the Blues

Earlier in the week white America woke to the surprising news that for the first time it was no longer the majority group, at least in terms of births last year. As Sabrina Tavernise wrote in the New York Times:

Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 49.6 percent of all births in the 12-month period that ended last July, according to Census Bureau data made public on Thursday, while minorities — including Hispanics, blacks, Asians and those of mixed race — reached 50.4 percent, representing a majority for the first time in the country’s history.

This has really important implications for public policy, argued many pundits. As one commentator wrote at Conservative Daily News:

As this new generation grows, it will ultimately spell the end of notion of America as a largely Caucasian population. Non-Hispanic whites will simply be one of several minorities that make up the nation’s citizenry – which could cause problems for affirmative action programs, minority business designations and other social justice programs based on the concept of “minority”. How will those determinations be made once all races are in the minority?

Whites of European decent still make up a large portion of American society – roughly 70%. What this new report shows is that in just a few generations, that will change drastically.

Not really. While it’s true that the Census recently revealed a tiny demographic shift in birth rates, in fact the Census bureau changes the definition of whiteness so often that this shift is historically meaningless.

TheyMightBeWhite

As I wrote for a piece in Mother Jones back in 2008, race is an essentially arbitrary classification. The first census broke the population into “free whites,” “other persons,” and “slaves” exclusively. Differently immigration waves and pressure groups forced the Census to add and take away categories. The 1940 Census told Americans to:

Write “W” for white; “Neg” for Negro; “In” for Indian; “Chi” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “Fil” for Filipino; “Hi” for Hindu; and “Kor” for Korean. For a person of any other race, write the race in full. Mexicans-Mexicans are to be regarded as white unless definitely of Indian or other nonwhite race. Negroes-A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned as Negro, no matter how small a percentage of Negro blood. Both black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction. A person of mixed Indian and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, unless the Indian blood very definitely predominates and he is universally accepted in the community as an Indian. Indians-A person of mixed white and Indian blood should be returned as an Indian, if enrolled on an Indian agency or reservation roll, or if not so enrolled, if the proportion of Indian blood is one-fourth or more, or if the person is regarded as an Indian in the community where he lives. Mixed Races-Any mixture of white and nonwhite should be reported according to the nonwhite parent. Mixtures of nonwhite races should be reported according to the race of the father, except that Negro-Indian should be reported as Negro.

Got that? At other times in American history immigrants who identified as German, Greek, Hispanic, Irish, Italians, Slavic, or Ashkenazi Jews were not white people.

So, in fact, it all depends on what you call white. Using the above definitions, we ceased to be a white nation a long, long time ago. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer