The Census Bureau announced something of a turning point for U.S. demographics last week. The problem is, from a 21st-century perspective, the distinctions it is based on seem outdated, almost nonsensical.
A number of news services reported the story – including The Associated Press (Herald, May 19) – but it was the Wall Street Journal that phrased it best. It said that for the first time more than half the babies born in the U.S. “belonged to a racial or ethnic group that in previous generations would have classified them as minorities.” If there is no direct way of saying something, maybe it does not make sense.
Census figures show that between July 2010 and July 2011, fewer than 50 percent of the babies born in the United States were “non-Hispanic whites.” That is a first, and in some senses represents a dramatic shift.
But news agencies and the Census Bureau itself had to struggle to describe distinctions that increasingly do not matter. Take “non-Hispanic white,” which lumps together Americans whose ancestors came from Norway, Armenia, Britain or Bulgaria, but differentiates them from anyone whose ancestors spoke Spanish. (The Journal also referred to “non-Hispanic whites” as “whites of European ancestry” – although Spain is in Europe.)
Hispanics can be of any race or color. Often, Hispanic is simply a more-polite way of making a distinction that in U.S. history has usually meant Mexican or Mexican ancestry.
Things change, though. Fifty years ago, American society was largely seen as black and white. A generation or two before that, Italian and Irish immigrants, Jews and others now seen simply as white were often treated, if not exactly as non-white, certainly as less than fully American.
Demographers and other academics need to study society’s shifting makeup and changing attitudes. Those things matter, and there have to be ways to discuss them that are reasonably accurate and easily understood.
But the language needed to differentiate between Americans like that seems archaic. It feels not so much wrong as simply pointless. Diversity is no longer remarkable.