I have been deliberately holding off on election-related comments on matters about which I have little novel to contribute. On one critical issue, though, contemporary debate and theorizing really is trespassing on my areas of expertise.
For some 15 years now, I have been writing about the idea of the U.S. becoming a majority-minority country, in which no single ethnic or racial group constitutes a majority. I discussed this, for instance, in my book The Next Christendom, back in 2002. That idea has recently become quite standard and orthodox, and is an increasingly familiar element of political rhetoric, especially among liberals and Democrats. But at least as the idea is appearing in the media and political discourse, it is being badly misunderstood, in two critical ways. For some, these misunderstandings arise from excessive optimism; for others the flaw lies in pessimism. These points may seem stunningly obvious, but as I say, they escape a lot of otherwise informed commentators. Consciously or otherwise, observers are letting themselves be deceived by the fluid nature of American ethnic classifications.
Firstly, and obviously, “minority” is not a uniform category.
After the recent election, I saw plenty of articles saying this was the last gasp of White America before whites lost their majority status, maybe sometime around 2040. Well, 2040 is a long way off, but let us look at the projections for what the U.S. population will look like in mid-century, say in 2050. The best estimate is that non-Latino whites will make up some 47 percent of that population, Latinos 29 percent, African-Americans 15 percent, and Asians 9 percent. Allow a couple of percentage points either way.
In that situation, “whites” will indeed be a minority. But the future U.S. will be a very diverse nation, with multiple communities whose interests might coincide on some issues but not others. The fact that whites will be a minority in 2050 does not, for instance, mean that African-Americans will have unlimited latitude to achieve their goals, or that blacks can count on the reliable support of Asians and Latinos. On some issues, yes, on others, no. Just to take a specific issue, a distinctively African-American issue like reparations for slavery is presumably not going to appeal to the mass of Latino or Asian-American taxpayers any more than it presently does to old-stock whites.
I have actually talked with people who are convinced that by 2050, African-Americans will be a majority in this country. No, they won’t, not even close. Actually, the African-American share of the population will not even grow that substantially. The figure was around 12 percent in 1980, rising to 15 percent by 2050. Much of that growth reflects newer African migration, from communities that generally do not identify with African-American politics or traditions.
Also, what do we mean by “white”? Historically, the category of “whiteness” has been very flexible, gradually extending over various groups not originally included in that constituency. In the mid-19th century, the Irish were assuredly not white, but then they became so. And then the same fate eventually befell Poles and Italians, and then Jews. A great many U.S. Latinos today certainly think of themselves as white. Ask most Cubans, or Argentines, or Puerto Ricans, and a lot of Mexicans. Any discussion of “whiteness” at different points in U.S. history has to take account of those labels and definitions.
Nor are Latinos alone in this regard. In recent controversies over diversity in Silicon Valley, complaints about workplaces that are overwhelmingly “white” were actually focused on targets where a quarter or more are of Asian origin. Even firms with a great many workers from India, Taiwan, or Korea found themselves condemned for lacking true ethnic diversity. Does that not mean that Asians are in the process of achieving whiteness?
Meanwhile, intermarriage proceeds apace, with a great many matches involving non-Latino whites and either Latinos or people of Asian origin. (Such unions are much more common than black-white relationships.) Anyone who expects the offspring of such matches to mobilize and rise up against White Supremacy is going to be sorely disappointed.
The second point specifically concerns the book The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones, a work I found rewarding and provocative. But the title has been much cited and misused (not Jones’s fault!). Typically doom-laden was the Washington Post’s headline, “White Christian America Is Dying,” and the takeaway for most liberals is: and good riddance.
Reading some post-election comments, it seemed as if commentators were expecting the “white Christian” population to evaporate, which it won’t do. Firstly, non-Latino whites will of course remain, and will still, at least through the 2050s, constitute by far the nation’s largest ethnic community. A 47 percent community still represents an enormous plurality. Actually, the scale of “white Christian” America will be far more substantial even than that figure might suggest, given the de facto inclusion of other groups—especially Latinos, and possibly Asians—under the ethnic umbrella. Intermarriage accelerates the expansion of whiteness.
Whites are not going away, and nor are Christians. One great effect of the 1965 Immigration Act was to expand vastly the range of ethnic groups in the U.S., who were overwhelmingly Christian in origin. That is true obviously of Mexicans, but also of Asian-Americans and Arab-Americans. New generations of Africans trend to be fiercely Christian. The American Islamic population, for instance, was and remains tiny as a proportion of the national total, and it will continue to do so.
So no, we are not looking to the end of white Christian America, nor to the passing of white Christian America. In 2050, this will be a much more diverse country religiously and ethnically. But if you are waiting for the White Christian Apocalypse, you may have the wrong millennium.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.