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Majority Minorities

By Donna R. Gabaccia, Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota

Immigration has repeatedly reshaped American populations. Can history help us understand what is happening today in American cities as “minority becomes majority?�

A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt worried about “race suicide.� New immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were having more babies than “old stock,� white American women with the result that the newcomers—viewed as too racially different from Americans to become good citizens--would soon outnumber them.

In our own times, demographers have been reporting that “minority� would soon become “majority� as a result of immigration. In New York City, as in several west coast and southwest cities, whites have been a minority since the 1980s.

Most Americans are very well aware that immigration is re-arranging the U.S. demographically. So why was the headline “Whites to be a Minority in N.Y. Soon� newsworthy this week? (New York Times, March 7, 2006)

The answer is that a recent Brookings Institution report focused on metropolitan regions, not just central cities. The suburbs, of New York, like many western and southwestern regions, also now attract large numbers of immigrants. If, as is often asserted, white Americans had fled to the suburbs to escape newcomers with darker skins, then their strategy is clearly not working. Minorities are following them. Like most reports on urban population dynamics, the New York Times made this a story about whites and immigrant minorities. But a careful reader would have learned a more complex story.

In recent years the black population of New York City, too, has been declining--for the first time in over a century.

It is too often forgotten that both black and white Americans claim deep roots in the U.S. and that both react to the arrival of newcomers. Over a decade ago, responding to a Times Magazine portrait of the “new face of America� (in the form of an attractive coffee-colored young woman), Toni Morrison declared that immigrants made it in America “on the backs of blacks.� (Dec. 2, 1993) http://www.time.com/time/community/morrisonessay.html

Immigrant minorities will not become majorities if they become white. But if, as Morrison suggests, becoming white means becoming “not-black,� then cities, and indeed the country, will remain as troubled by race as it was under the old majority.

Contributor Contact Information:

Donna R. Gabaccia Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History
Research and Director Immigration History Research Center
311 Elmer L. Andersen Library
222-21st Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
612 625-4800
FAX: 612-626-0018
Email: drg@umn.edu