Are America’s babies officially majority minority? It depends on how you look at the data.
The Census Bureau released new data on America’s infants on Thursday and found that 50.2 percent of babies a year old and younger are Hispanic, African American, Asian American, or "other."
The information is not surprising. The Pew Research Center projects that America’s population will become majority minority by 2055. And while these babies just barely outnumber their white peers — 1,995,102 to 1,982,938, respectively — the difference has been steadily growing over the past few years. In 2013, census data showed racial minorities accounted for about 1,000 more infants than non-Hispanic white babies, and in 2014 the difference grew by nearly 16,000.
But the different ways that data is collected and analyzed can challenge that claim.
As the Pew Research Center noted, the Census Bureau collects data on both biological parents’ racial identities and includes a category of children with multiracial backgrounds. By contrast, a similar report on births the same year by the National Center for Health Statistics showed that 53.5 percent of babies were non-Hispanic white.
The difference: The data set is far less nuanced. Only the mother’s racial background was considered, and there was no option for multiracial backgrounds.
In quantitative research, it may be convenient to view race through an essentialist model that treats it like an immutable characteristic. But in a 2016 paper published in the Annual Review of Political Science, Harvard University professor Maya Sen and Princeton University professor Omar Wasow argued that researchers should instead examine race as a "bundle of sticks."
"In a lot of traditional social science, by using a simple measure of race, we are often smoothing over all of this complexity and ignoring all of the ways that what we’re calling race might be class, it might be neighborhood, it might be the experiences of our forbearers — it is really the composition of many, many experiences," Wasow told Vox in March 2015.
The "bundle of sticks" model aims to account for race’s malleability. A number of factors contribute to how we understand race. Physical attributes like hair texture and skin color, ancestry, class, religion, and educational background are just a few. And the best way to understand race is to examine how each characteristic is manipulated and redefined in different social contexts — the changing faces of America’s babies included.
America’s current demographic shift is occurring in part because people of color account for most of America’s growth. The immigrant population in the United States has nearly tripled from 5 percent in 1965 to 14 percent in 2015, with the majority migrating from Latin America and Asia. There are also more deaths than births among white Americans.
However, when data sources like the NCHS deduce race through a narrow, essentialist model, the forces driving the change are skewed and the social and political dynamics may remain absent.
One of the ways white supremacy has been upheld in American history is by forcing mixed-race Americans to identify with their nonwhite ancestry. Nativist anxieties around immigration from the 1930s to today have also determined how stringent certain categories can be. And it was not until 2000 that the census even allowed people to self-report their racial identity using more than one category.
How race is defined holds a mirror up to the present moment. So does NCHS’s data mean that most American babies aren’t really racial minorities? Not necessarily. But it’s important to remember that when researchers try to work the complexities of race into quantitative data, something gets lost in translation.
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