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Racial identity is fluid, not fixed. Time for the majority-minority narrative to shift

Benjamin Beltran, 26, poses for a portrait, Tuesday Aug. 18, 2020, in Washington. For most of his childhood, Beltran identified with his dad’s roots as a Filipino growing up. At times, that made his white mother worry he was forgetting her ancestry, which traces to Scotland and Ireland.
Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve explored data highlighting the complexity of America’s racial and ethnic heritage. The lines are much blurrier than is generally acknowledged in public dialogue.

There are two primary reasons for this. One is the growing number of Americans who have a mixed racial and ethnic heritage. My most recent survey found that 17% of voters claim at least two racial and ethnic backgrounds in their family history. The most common are white people of Hispanic backgrounds. According to the Census Bureau, there are more than 50 million such residents in the country today.

The second reason is that racial identity is fluid, rather than fixed. Data cited by Richard Alba in “The Great Demographic Illusion” shows that about 6% of Americans reported their own racial or ethnic backgrounds in different ways on different census reports. My own research has confirmed that even slight differences in wording on questions of race and ethnicity can generate different results.

This past weekend, I asked voters which one category “best describes how you would define your own racial and ethnic heritage.” One of the options given was American and 39% of voters said that was the label they would choose. Another 39% said white, 10% said black, 5% Hispanic, 3% Asian, and 4% said other. Those selecting “other” gave responses including Native American, human, Hungarian, Iranian, Latino, and Middle Eastern.

Looking a bit deeper into the demographic backgrounds found some interesting dynamics.

First, there is a substantial generation gap. Among Americans 45 and older, 49% say that American is the best term to define their own racial and ethnic heritage. Among voters younger than 45, just 24% chose that label.

Next, there is also a partisan divide. Among Republicans, 51% would define their heritage as American. So would 42% of independent voters. However, only 25% of Democrats agree. Looking at the gap from a different perspective, Democrats are far more likely to identify as white rather than American. The opposite is true for Republicans and independents.

Perhaps the most interesting data, however, is found along racial and ethnic lines.

Among voters who would be defined as Black by the Census Bureau, 74% chose Black as the best definition of their heritage. That’s true for all Black voters and for Black voters whose parents were born in the United States.

The dynamics are much different among those who would be defined as Hispanic by the Census Bureau. Just 40% of such voters say Hispanic is the best definition of their lineage. A slightly larger number — 43% — say they would describe themselves as either American (22%) or white (21%).

Last week, I noted that there were significant political differences between voters of Hispanic descent depending upon the birthplace of their parents. There is also a significant difference in terms of identity.

· Among Hispanic voters whose parents were born in the United States, 54% defined themselves as either American (23%) or white (31%). Just 35% defined themselves as Hispanic.

· Among other Hispanic voters, those with at least one parent born outside of the country, just 30% identified as American (21%) or white (9%). Nearly half of these voters — 47% — say Hispanic is the best definition of their heritage.

The numbers suggest, in the words of Richard Alba, that “The current dominant narrative, that of the majority-minority nation, is deeply problematic.” In his book, Alba says that the problems are “not just on grounds of accuracy.” He believes that such a dominant and inaccurate narrative “is inherently divisive.”

In its place Alba offers a different perspective, one based upon a careful review of both the data and our nation’s history. In his view, “Assimilation into an expanding and increasingly inclusive mainstream offers a superior way of understanding” the changes taking place in our society today.

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”