Reframing Race in the Census

Published on The American Prospect

Richard Alba’s analysis is a service to the country. I write to urge the Census Bureau and its various oversight agencies and committees to take his message seriously.

The current xenophobic, anti-immigrant political movement rests on the flawed premise that America will soon be a majority-minority country. The movement demands restrictive immigration policies to slow and even reverse what its leaders see as a demographic train wreck. But what if these anxieties are misplaced? By the time that becomes apparent, the damage will have occurred: Walls will have been built, families separated, deportations accelerated, and refugees refused.

If this is our future, it will be history repeating itself as tragedy. In the 1880s, members of Congress described recently arrived Europeans as a class of undesirables given to crime, uninterested in becoming citizens, unwilling to learn English, and stealing jobs from deserving Americans—in short, unfit for life in the United States. It took several decades, but in the 1920s the opponents of immigration shut America’s gates, which weren’t reopened for another 40 years. And what of the sizeable numbers already in the country, with their supposedly slothful habits, un-American tendencies, and alien religions? That story is well known. They became “American,” and quite successfully so.

One feature of the grand narrative of the 20th-century melting pot was a redrawing of the color line. To the white Protestants who dominated political, economic, and cultural life, the Irish, Italians, and central European Jews were alien races. But as these aliens merged into a more inclusive European race, they redefined what had been a WASP-only mainstream, greatly enriching the country in the process.

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