(December 2009) Changing demographics in the United States present an opportunity for the advancement of minorities into higher-paying occupations. For minorities to fully benefit however, public policy must address the unequal quality of education before this window of opportunity closes. Richard Alba, distinguished professor emeritus at the State University of New York, Albany discussed the implications of changing U.S. racial demography at PRB's policy seminar on Nov. 18, 2009. Drawing from sociology, demography, and history, Alba laid out a narrative of race and social and economic opportunity in the United States over the 20th century and up to today. According to Alba, race relations and racial identity are not fixed; the way we perceive ethnic differences changes over time. Alba used the example of white ethnics—Jews, Italians, and the Irish—who were initially considered lower-class undesirables but who eventually entered the mainstream and gained access to higher-paying jobs.

Partly reflecting demographic trends, there have been increasing numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in the top occupations in the United States, but they may not replicate the success of white ethnics in the 20th century. There will likely continue to be more diversity in the top occupations in the United States, but also greater inequality. In addition, the opportunities for minorities as the baby boomers retire are contingent on continued economic growth in the United States. Alba based his presentation on his recent book, Blurring the Color Line: The Chance for a More Integrated America, published by Harvard University Press.

Alba talked with PRB after his presentation to discuss his research.

In your talk, you mentioned that historically, people have opted out of their minority status by self-identifying as "white." Can you describe how the concept of "whiteness" changed during the 20th century and what the implications are for the opportunities of minorities in the near future?

I think that the concept of whiteness provides only a limited window to envision the changes that may happen over the next several decades. It has been most meaningfully applied to describe some of the changes that took place as the descendants of early 20th century European immigrants assimilated. That assimilation did lead to a broadening of "whiteness" in the sense that the racial category now included darker-skinned Americans descended from southern and eastern Europe, along with those whose forebears arrived earlier from northern and western Europe. However, the term slights the profound expansion of the religious mainstream that happened at the same time, as religions, Catholicism and Judaism, that had been viewed as suspect by white Protestants came to be seen as legitimate American religions.

It seems implausible that the 20th century expansion of whiteness will be repeated for the descendants of the new immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean since they are so obviously nonwhite. In some respects, the expansion of the religious mainstream may offer a better model for the changes of the near future.

Is the conception of race likely to change as the demography of the U.S. shifts?

The conception of race is likely to shift. Up until now, race has generally been envisioned as a set of mutually exclusive categories, as the contrast between white and black suggests. The social recognition of racially mixed ancestry is very recent, and the number of Americans who claim it for themselves is still small. That number is likely to grow rapidly because the changing demography of American youth heralds a rise in racial intermarriage, especially for whites (since their absolute size will shrink, implying an increasing pressure to choose outside the group). Measuring the growth of mixed ancestry is going to be a major challenge for demographers, particularly since the census does a poor job of identifying the progeny of Hispanic/non-Hispanic marriages.

What are the limits of the opportunities and changes for minorities as the U.S. becomes a "minority-majority" country? How could whites retain their dominant status even if they are a minority numerically?

Barring something quite unforeseen, we will not see a revolution in U.S. race relations. This means that the privileged position of whites will continue, as reflected in their superior chances to acquire those resources and characteristics that are socially most valued, such as high-quality education, a well-paying job, residence in a desirable neighborhood and so on. However, they will share these privileges with a growing number of nonwhites; indeed, they already do so with U.S.-born Asians. At the same time, because our society has grown more unequal, there will also be a large number of Americans at the bottom—people who are not able to rise securely above poverty—and they will be mainly nonwhites.

Finally, what are some unanswered questions or what research do you think is still needed to understand the social and economic impacts of the changing racial demographics of the U.S. in the 21st century?

We need to understand a lot more about the fluidity of identity and how it impacts on the categories that we conventionally use to think about American diversity. The problem is most acute for the Latino population because the census does not recognize when individuals have ancestry that mixes Latino origins with other ingredients. All such individuals are classified at "Hispanic," as long as they indicate a Latino background. This is very problematic given the relatively high rate of marriage between Latinos, especially those born here, and Americans of other ethnoracial categories.

This failure to apprehend mixture in the case of Latinos undoubtedly affects our perceptions of the future since, for one thing, it contributes to an overstatement of the future growth of the Hispanic population as distinct from the white one. Hence, we arrive too facilely at the conclusion that we will be a society without a majority group in the not-too-distant future.

Eric Zuehlke is an editor at the Population Reference Bureau.