The “Coming White Minority”: Brazilianization or South-Africanization of U.S.?

To understand the so-called “browning of America” and “coming white minority,” we should accent the larger societal context, the big-picture context including systemic racism. “Browning of America” issues have become important in the West mainly because whites are very worried about this demographic trend. Black-British scholar, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, has noted that whites are fearful

because for such a long time the world has been their own. . . . There is an underlying assumption that says white is right. . . . There is a white panic every time one part of their world seems to be passing over to anyone else. . . . There was this extraordinary assumption that white people could go and destroy peoples and it would have no consequence.

Let us consider a few reasonable, albeit speculative, extrapolations of current social science data to social changes from now to the 2050s:

(1) Dramatic demographic changes are coming: According to US Census projections this country will become much less white, with the greatest relative growth in the Latino, Asian, and multiracial populations. By 2050 it will be about 439 million people, with a majority of people of color (53 percent), the largest group being Latino (30 percent). Long before, a majority of students and younger workers will be of color. Over coming decades immigrant workers of color and their descendants will keep more cities from economic decline. Census data for 2050 indicate the oldest population cohort will be disproportionately white and younger cohorts will be disproportionately people of color–thereby overlaying a racial divide with a generational divide, probably generating racial-generational conflicts (See William Frey, The Diversity Explosion).

(2) This growing population of color will likely mean significant increases in an array of significant US socio-racial patterns, including interracial relationships and marriages, number of multiracial Americans, more diversity in media presentations, and a major religious shift in direction of (Latin American) Catholicism and Asian religions. (In 2050 white Christians will probably be only about 30 percent of the population.)

(3) Uneven changes in still high racial (residential) segregation will occur: At the census tract level, we will likely see variable but decreasing group segregation within cities (for example, Latino replacement of whites or blacks, scattered white gentrification). At the larger metropolitan area level, we are likely to see continuing, substantial racial segregation (less-white inner suburbs or central city areas versus disproportionately white outer suburbs, exurbia, smaller cities). (On this macro-segregation, see D. Lichter et alia here) Likely thus is significant white migration favoring these segregated, white-run political entities, such as in the inner areas of the West. Likely too is significant continuing migration of immigrants and other people of color to coastal cities, but also increasingly to cities across the country. These migrations will increase regional diversity, but not necessarily at the metropolitan area level within them.

(4) The growing fear of ordinary whites about increases in Americans of color seems based substantially on concern about losing much racial privilege and related social status, and probably about more egalitarian interactions with those deemed inferior. Social science research has long shown that the relative size of black or nonwhite populations correlates not only with occupational, income, educational, health inequalities, and voter suppression efforts, but also with white racist attitudes, support for public programs, and votes for conservative candidates. With growing populations of color, many ordinary whites are likely to continue to insist on what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “public and psychological wage of whiteness” (white privilege, racial inequalities) as they accept more elite white actions harming them socioeconomically.

(5) Modest change will occur in a still oligarchical society. Elite white men will still run this country in their interest, with increased elite representation of white women. For centuries they have ruled as a minority and conceivably can do that for many more years. In the capitalistic economy there will be continuing large-scale inequality and control by a mostly white corporate elite, with token infusions of executives and professionals of color. Just below that elite, important professional and managerial spheres will remain disproportionately white. Great technological change will continue, substantially rooted in computerized automation of perhaps half of current U.S. jobs, thereby probably increasing unemployment–especially for the then majority of working and lower middle class workers of color). Income and wealth inequalities along racial/class lines will likely stay very substantial. Internationally, however, the U.S. is likely to lose some of its dominant position economically and politically as the world becomes more polycentric, with other countries becoming more powerful, most predominantly of color.

(6) Some significant changes in a firmly oligarchic government system are coming: We will have a majority of voters of color in many areas, but continuing undemocratic political institutions—nationally, an unelected Supreme Court, unrepresentative Senate, and unrepresentative Congress controlled directly or indirectly by the white elite’s political-economic power. Major political organizations will see more diversification as people of color participate more; the Democratic Party will probably become the major political party in numerous legislative bodies. (Liberal representatives of color will likely often replace white liberals, with less net change in liberal political influence.) U.S. foreign policy is likely to shift to a greater emphasis on Latin America, Asia, and Africa, because other countries are becoming more economically and militarily powerful.

At the local political level, we will likely observe significant political change, with many places having majorities of voters of color and greater representation for them and their perspectives. Some whites will try to create political coalitions with more “acceptable” middle class people of color. At local, state, and national levels, we will likely see conflict between (often younger) voters of color seeking greater political representation and necessary public services (e.g., good schools) and disproportionately older white voters (led by the white elite) who view many public services as “black/brown” services and fight as propertied taxpayers to keep government taxes and regulation low–preserving white political-economic interests. Impoverished communities of color will continue to suffer disproportionate overcrowding, poverty, and environmental racism (aggravated by major climate change). Over coming decades, white political and economic leaders will persist in a “neoliberal” emphasis on government austerity, deregulation, privatization, and lower taxes, protecting their elite interests. (See the pioneering work of Randy Hohle on racism and neoliberalism)

Additionally, the demographic trend toward a “majority minority” country will itself do little to redress the major effects of past racial oppression. Huge losses in people and resources suffered by Native Americans, the first victims of genocidal oppression, and of African Americans, the first whose labor was stolen on a large scale, top the list, but the oppression costs suffered by other groups of color, including Asian Americans and Latinos, are also massive. Few costs are likely to be dealt with by government redress in a world where whites still have disproportionate political-economic power. Generationally inherited unjust enrichments for whites from past oppressions will make major structural change very difficult.

A Panoramic View: Brazilianization or South-Africanization?

In recent years numerous scholars and media analysts have suggested the idea of significantly greater racial intermediation coming as the U.S. becomes much less white. Taking a panoramic view, they suggest a future that involves a “Brazilianization” or “Latinization’ of the United States.

Brazil’s racialization process has distinguished large mixed-race, mostly lighter-skinned groups and placed them in a middling status between Brazilians of mostly African ancestry and those of heavily European ancestry. Middle groups are relatively more affluent, politically powerful, and acceptable to dominant white Brazilians, who still mostly rule powerfully at the top of the economy and politics. About half the population, darker-skinned Afro-Brazilians and indigenous Brazilians, remains very powerless economically and politically. Possibly, in the U.S. case by 2050, a developed tripartite Brazilian pattern—with increasing and large but white-positioned intermediate racial groups, such as lighter-skinned middle class groups among Asian Americans and Latinos, moving up with greater economic and socio-political power and providing a racial buffer between powerful “whites” and powerless “blacks” and other darker-skinned people of color. Even then, it seems likely that many in U.S. middle groups will find their white-framed immigration, citizenship positions, or other inferiorized status still negatively affecting additional mobility opportunities.

An alternative future for the United States is somewhat different, at least in emphasis, what one might term “South-Africanization.” Both scenarios see whites in substantial economic control, but South-Africanization suggests, even if people of color gain large-scale political power, they will be severely handicapped by whites holding economic power. With the downfall of apartheid in South Africa two decades ago, black South Africans gained direct political control, but very modest increases in economic power. (Black South Africans are substantial majority of the population but control maybe 10 percent of the corporate economy.) From its beginning as a European colony, a large black African majority has been economically controlled by a small white minority. South Africa has an essentially two-category system, since intermediate groups of Asian and mixed-race citizens remain relatively small (if more powerful than blacks). This pattern might be an alternative U.S. future, with ever increasing Americans of color eventually gaining very substantial political power in local and national political systems, especially in areas where they are large majorities. Yet that political system will be one where the mostly white economic elite remains firmly in control of the national economy and will also directly or indirectly control most important policymaking by top officials, white or not-white, especially on major economic developments. As in South Africa, Americans of color will not gain major control at the top of the capitalistic system where much societal power lies. That has not happened in South Africa, and seems very unlikely for the U.S. over coming decades.

In my view, thus, the so-called “browning of America” and “coming white minority” will mostly mean a major demographic shift and probably modest political-economic changes, rather than a major departure from this country’s systemic white dominance in all its major, mostly undemocratic institutions.