Brittany Farr1Brittany Farr is a Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She thanks Allison Page, Melissa Murray, Gina-Gail Fletcher, Guy Charles, Craig Konnoth, Colleen Campbell, along with The University of Chicago Law Review Online editors for their thoughtful feedback on this piece.
* * *
A part of the symposium, Reckoning and Reformation: Reflections and Legal Responses to Racial Subordination and Structural Marginalization.
In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau released a new population projection based on Census 2000. According to the projection, which reached all the way to the year 2050, the country’s non-Hispanic white population would fall below 50% in the year 2042. After 2042, the United States would be majority-minority. This impending demographic shift received significant coverage in mainstream news media. Journalists described these projected changes as unprecedented, monumental, and taking place faster than expected. In the words of one commentator, the “[U.S.] white majority will soon disappear forever.”
Over the last thirteen years, news coverage of demographic changes has regularly used anxiety-provoking rhetoric to link the majority-minority shift to white decline. The following headlines illustrate the tenor of much of this reporting:
- “Census Shows White Decline, Nonwhite Majority Among Youngest Americans”;
- “As America Changes, Some Anxious Whites Feel Left Behind”;
- “The Declining Influence of White Christian America, in Charts”;
- “Growing Pains: Multicultural Explosion Rattles Residents”;
- “Minority Report: New U.S. Data Shows More Ethnic Babies than Whites”;
- “White Women Influencing Shift to Minority-Majority Nation”; and
- “Whites to Lose Majority Status in U.S. by 2042.”
These articles, which exemplify the news coverage considered in this Essay, cast the country’s changing demographics as a story of profound racial transformation. On one side of this story is a multicultural “explosion.” And on the other side is white “decline” and “loss.” This relationship is zero sum: minorities can become the majority only at the expense of the white population. And the proliferation of white anxiety in the face of this “loss,” suggests that the nonwhite population stands to inherit something more than just majority status. Indeed, this rhetoric suggests that the reputational value of whiteness, meaning its value as a privilege-conferring identity, is bound up with the white population’s status as the demographic majority. Since the 2008 Census Bureau projections, there has been a wealth of similar reporting by mainstream news sources across the ideological spectrum.
Many scholars have responded to the news media’s anxious framing of demographic changes with concern and public critique. They have illustrated the numerous ways in which this reporting can be inaccurate or misleading. Headlines and articles that refer to the declining white population often omit the fact that it is the non-Hispanic white population that is shrinking. Using the more inclusive term “white” to describe the smaller population of non-Hispanic whites dramatically distorts the Census projections.2For example, while the 2008 Census Bureau projections stated that the non-Hispanic white population would be less than 50% in 2042, the total white population (meaning Hispanic and non-Hispanic) would still be the majority at 74.6% of the overall population in 2045. In addition, reports of a future white minority ignore the ways in which the boundaries of racial categories change over time. Scholars have also been troubled by the racial categories used by the Census, arguing that they are out of step with the lived experience of many racial minorities.3For more scholarship on this topic, see Volume 677 of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, a special issue on “What Census Data Miss about American Diversity.” If the Census categories themselves are misrepresenting the racial landscape, any projections based on these categories will be skewed. As Kenneth Prewitt highlights, and other scholars of race have noted, there has been (and likely always will be) a disjuncture between the “statistical race” measured by the Census Bureau and race as lived experience.
Furthermore, scholars have shown that the media’s framing of demographic changes can lead to feelings of anger, fear, and racial resentment among white readers and viewers. Notably, demographers Dowell Myers and Morris Levy found that the media’s dominant treatment of demographic changes—i.e., framing the changes in terms of an impending “white minority”—increased white readers’ self-reported anxiety and anger and dampened their hopefulness. Studies also indicate that the majority-minority demographic reporting can create a feeling of “status threat” among white readers, which then impacts their political ideology. For example, psychologists Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson found that this status threat can lead to greater conservatism on both race-related and race-neutral political issues. Feelings of ethnic antagonism have also been shown to strongly correlate with antidemocratic sentiments among Republicans, suggesting that these feelings may “erode[ ] Republicans’ commitment to democracy.” A recent study even found that white demographic anxiety makes some white Americans more supportive of the use of torture on terrorism suspects. These trends are not exclusive to the United States either.
Nevertheless, the news media has carried on reporting on the majority-minority future in much the same way: there is a shrinking white population that will soon be outnumbered by a minority majority. And this “significant transformation” is making white Americans feel threatened.
This Essay contends that this anxious majority-minority discourse persists because the United States is currently in the midst of a demographic panic—a moral panic about the country’s projected majority-minority future.4I use the phrase “moral panic” to refer to a sociological phenomenon first theorized by criminologists and cultural studies scholars in the 1970s. Although there is overlap in meaning between everyday usage of the term “moral panic” and its scholarly conceptualization—namely that both describe a distorted public response to a perceived social threat—moral panic theory has a concrete set of criteria for what constitutes a moral panic. As such, moral panic theory offers a robust theoretical framework for thinking through the allure, longevity, and consequences of the demographic anxiety that has circulated in the United States since 2008. Part I introduces the idea of a moral panic—a theoretical framework first developed by sociologists—and explains the key components of the contemporary demographic panic. Part II examines how the fearful and hostile rhetoric present in news coverage about demographic change establishes and reinforces anxieties about white population dominance, anxieties that are tied to the property value of whiteness. Part III addresses the ways in which the news media presents a binary conception of race, which in turn amplifies the message that the white population is shrinking and that the value of whiteness is depreciating. I conclude by illustrating how even news reports that ostensibly celebrate diversity risk fueling the demographic panic.
I. Elements of a Demographic Panic
A moral panic is a widespread reaction to a social problem. The subject of any moral panic is more than just a problem, however. It is an incident, set of conditions, or turn of events that threatens core values. The fear of satanic ritual abuse that took hold of the U.S. popular imagination in the 1980s and early 1990s is a familiar example of a moral panic. Beginning in 1983, fears that day care providers were performing satanic ritual abuse on young children swept across the country. These fears tapped into more deeply rooted societal concerns about the ways in which women’s work outside the home threatened to upend family life and the nuclear family ideal.5The panic erupted at a time when day care was in high demand and short supply. More mothers of young children were entering the workforce, yet federal funding to public day cares had recently been cut. Fundamentally about who was raising the nation’s children, these latent concerns became the “raw material” for the satanic panic—i.e., a “widespread, volatile, hostile, and overreactive” response to reports of abuse taking place in day cares. As with most moral panics, this overreactive response led to state intervention. A congressional hearing was held. States passed laws requiring day care providers to be screened for criminal and psychiatric history as well as for evidence of “good moral character.” And criminal charges were brought against dozens of day care providers. Nine years after the moral panic first emerged, it subsided. Subsequent analyses indicate that the scale of the problem—to the extent satanic ritual abuse occurred at all—was exaggerated in the hyperbolic media frenzy that covered it.
News media, which was integral to the emergence and persistence of the satanic ritual abuse panic, is central to all moral panics. News reports are the primary way that the subjects of moral panics are established as a problem. To be sure, the germ of a moral panic may originate elsewhere. For example, QAnon conspiracy theories and unfounded presidential tweets have been the source of several moral panics in recent years. It is the presentation of these theories as news stories—meaning objective and verifiable—however, that gives them particular potency and elevates certain of these theories to the level of moral panic. Regardless of where the fearful response originates, it is through its mediation as news that the response to a social problem becomes a moral panic.6See Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke & Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order 32 (1978). See generally, e.g., Erich Goode & Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (2d ed. 2009).
Among news media outlets, mainstream news representations are ground zero for moral panics. In the contemporary media landscape, social media platforms and niche media outlets occupy a significant portion of Americans’ screen time. Nevertheless, mainstream news media outlets remain an important source of information for individuals. These outlets curate less well-known sources and fact-check theories first put forward on social media.
When mainstream news sources represent something as a problem in a disproportionate way and use “all but identical terms” to describe it, a moral panic is emerging.7In Policing the Crisis, one of the foundational works on moral panics, Stuart Hall and his coauthors write: When the official reaction to a person, groups of persons or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered[;] when ‘experts’[ ] in the form of police chiefs, the judiciary, politicians[,] and editors perceive the threat in all but identical terms[ ] and appear to talk ‘with one voice’ of rates, diagnoses, prognoses[,] and solutions[;] when the media representations universally stress ‘sudden and dramatic’ increases (in numbers involved or events) and ‘novelty’[—]above and beyond that which a sober, realistic appraisal could sustain[—]then we believe it is appropriate to speak of the beginnings of a moral panic. Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke & Roberts, supra note 5, at 16. The key here is the representation and response out of proportion to the threat. In a moral panic, there is a disconnect between the panicked representation and a sober, realistic portrayal. Thus, the response to the coronavirus pandemic would not meet the definition of a moral panic. Representing a global pandemic as a crisis is clearly warranted. These identical terms share several key features: the use of fearful and hostile language, a degree of disproportionality, and a reliance on statistics.8See Goode & Ben-Yehuda, supra note 5, at 156–59 (describing the key elements of moral panics). Fearful rhetoric and disproportionality establish the problem as important and worthy of concern. Statistics support these claims, thus providing a sheen of objectivity and facticity. And when the statistics are about the future, they contribute to feelings of anxiety by indicating possibilities that might come to pass if the problem remains unresolved.
In the context of the current demographic panic, these features appear in mainstream news representations in the following ways:
- describing recent and upcoming demographic changes as unprecedented or historic
- suggesting demographic changes will fundamentally change the nation’s identity
- using natural disaster rhetoric to describe demographic changes
- representing race in the United States as a binary via both word choice and statistics
- visualizing data in ways that show the white population being surpassed or overtaken by the nonwhite population in the future.9The occurrence of the elements described in the second and fourth bullet points has been documented in Deenesh Sohoni’s recent article on the news coverage of the majority-minority shift.
In the sections that follow, I offer several paradigmatic examples of these recurring word choices, statistics, and data visualizations.
Importantly, I am not contesting that demographic changes are occurring in the United States. They are and have been for a while. By using the moral panic framework, however, my focus is on the news media’s response to these demographic changes rather than the demographic data itself. Shifting the frame helps illuminate the ways in which the uniformity of the reporting on these demographic changes invokes longstanding fears about racial difference and white political power in the United States. Moral panics feed on latent, preexisting fears. These fears are a panic’s “raw material.”10Goode & Ben-Yehuda, supra note 6, at 71. Anxieties about a majority-minority nation tap into one of the longest-standing racial fears in the United States—losing the value of whiteness as property. As Cheryl Harris and many other scholars have shown, the property in whiteness is valuable precisely because it has historically conferred access to rights and privileges that have been denied to others. In the United States, one of these privileges is membership in the demographic majority. As I discuss in Parts II and III, the moral panic response to demographic changes reveals the importance of majority status to the value of whiteness as property.
II. An Unprecedented Change and an Existential Threat
Demographic panic reporting regularly features rhetoric that characterizes recent and upcoming demographic changes as unprecedented, catastrophic, or an existential threat.11See Veronica Majerol, The New Face of America: For the First Time, More Minorities Are Being Born in the U.S. Than Whites. What Does
That Mean for the Nation’s Identity?, N.Y. Times Upfront (Jan. 7, 2013); Conor Dougherty, New Faces of Childhood, Wall St. J. (Apr. 6, 2011) (“The changing makeup of the [United States] could play a significant role in setting national priorities.”); Rebecca Trounson, U.S. Reaches Historic Demographic Tipping Point, L.A. Times (May 18, 2012) (“Frey and other demographers said the continuing changes in racial makeup have implications for the nation’s economy, politics, and identity.”); NPR Staff, US Will Have Minority Whites Sooner, Says Demographer, NPR (June 27, 2011) (“[W]hat will America look like at the next census, in 2020? And could predictions of a minority population becoming the majority by 2050 be wrong[ ] or be changed by some as-yet-unforeseen circumstance?”). These rhetorical moves contribute to the disproportionate quality of the demographic panic in three ways. First, articles that frame recent and upcoming changes as unprecedented largely overlook the history of immigration in the United States.12Note that not all reporting does this. Historically high rates of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also generated concerns about a changing national identity.13The foreign-born population in the United States reached a historic high at the end of the nineteenth century. These concerns led to a refashioning of the category of whiteness, such that a coherent white race remained the demographic majority. Second, when journalists use language such as “tidal wave” and “tectonic [ ] shift” to describe demographic changes, it associatively links these changes with natural disasters. Tidal waves and earthquakes are not good news. They are natural phenomena over which humans have little control and which rarely have positive consequences for those involved. Lastly, articles suggesting that demographic changes will transform the nation’s identity rely upon a simplified model of racial and national identity. These articles overestimate the fixity of racial identity and assume a simplistic correlation between the country’s racial composition and its national identity. By constructing an image of demographic changes that presents them as extraordinary, portentous, or transformative, this demographic panic rhetoric contributes to the feeling that these changes are worthy of anxiety.
These three rhetorical moves often work in tandem to construct a feeling of demographic threat.14For more on the relationship between personal feelings, public sentiment, and socio-political change, see Allison Page & Jacquelyn Arcy, #MeToo and the Politics of Collective Healing: Emotional Connection as Contestation, 13 Commc’n, Culture & Critique 333, 338 (2019). Consider, for example, a 2018 Washington Post article titled, “White, and in the Minority.” The subheading continues: “She speaks English. Her co-workers don’t. Inside a rural chicken plant, whites struggle to fit in.” The article describes the work experience of two young white people—Heaven Engle and Venson Heim—at a chicken plant in rural Pennsylvania. The profile of these two young, rural white Americans is framed as a glimpse into the future of a majority-minority America. For Engle, Heim, and everyone who is similarly situated, this future seems bleak. They are alienated and frustrated at work, convinced that their employers “don’t give a rat’s ass about people with white skin.” Yet changing jobs is pointless because they believe they will be “minorit[ies] [at work] no matter what.” And they are regularly faced with the ever-present feeling of being “an outsider in [their] own community.”
The grim future painted by “White, and in the Minority” is also described as rapidly approaching. Descriptions in the article of current and upcoming demographic changes underscore this sense of urgency. The article’s author, Terrence McCoy, writes that in twenty-six states whites “are dying faster than they’re being born.” While technically correct—non-Hispanic white deaths have exceeded births in twenty-six states—this phrasing obscures the more complex dynamics that contribute to demographic growth and decline.15Demographers describe this phenomenon—when deaths outnumber births—as “natural decrease.” It is a result of a confluence of factors—notably the aging baby boom population, a population of childbearing-aged white women that is relatively smaller than the aging population, and the decrease in fertility rates caused by the Great Recession. Instead, this language conjures an image of racial replacement: whites, as a coherent racial group, are dying without enough white babies to take their place.
Furthermore, to write of how “fast[ ]” whites are dying is an evocative way to describe the relationship between mortality and fertility rates. Indeed, this phrasing echoes journalistic coverage of race suicide from the early twentieth century. This news coverage peaked when President Theodore Roosevelt publicly expressed concerns that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was at risk of shrinking and causing “race suicide, complete or partial.”16Roosevelt expressed these fears in a letter to the authors of The Woman Who Toils: Being the Experiences of Two Gentlewomen as Factory Girls, a book about women factory workers. The letter was subsequently included as the book’s preface. According to Roosevelt “there is a most melancholy side to [women working], when you touch upon what is fundamentally infinitely more important than any other question in this country—that is, the question of race suicide, complete or partial” (emphasis omitted). Many of the articles, op-eds, and letters to the editor that were written at that time attempted to use fertility and mortality rates to determine whether the white population was in fact “rapidly dying out.”17Though it is beyond the scope of this Essay, race suicide discourse was also an integral part of the burgeoning eugenics movement. Over one hundred years later, contemporary news pieces with headlines such as “More White Americans Dying than Being Born” and “White Extinction Anxiety” harken back to this rhetoric, deliberately or otherwise.18“White Extinction Anxiety,” which was written by regular New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow, critiques the “[w]hite extinction anxiety” expressed by Pat Buchanan. The title of Buchanan’s 2011 book, Suicide of a Superpower, clearly evokes race suicide discourse. Even though Blow is critiquing this discourse, the op-ed’s headline also reproduces this same discourse. Other recent articles do this as well. McCoy’s description of whites “dying faster than they’re being born” is consistent with the tenor and language used in these headlines and articles. Other journalists have described the mortality-fertility relationship similarly.19A New York Times article by Sabrina Tavernise uses nearly identical language, noting that “whites are dying faster than they are being born now in 26 states.” Notably, the report that both McCoy and Tavernise reference in support of this statement does not use that phrasing. For example, a Time magazine article described the white population as “all but stagnant” and stated that “[n]on-Hispanic deaths outpaced births . . . for a third year in a row.”
If the mortality-fertility framing speaks to the speed and scale of demographic changes, other word choices emphasize the suddenness and singularity of the majority-minority shift. McCoy writes that there is a “tectonic” demographic shift taking place, one that has “little historic precedent.”20The full sentence explains that studies have shown that some whites become more conservative or react negatively when they learn that “whites are dying faster than they’re being born” which is “a demographic shift that will, with little historic precedent, reconfigure the racial and ethnic geography of an entire country.” McCoy does not trouble to verify the accuracy of this information; he instead lets it stand on its own. Again, McCoy is not alone in his use of these descriptors. Other journalists have described upcoming demographic changes as “seismic” or a “tidal wave.”21See, e.g., Michele Norris, As America Changes, Some Anxious Whites Feel Left Behind, Nat. Geo. (Mar. 12, 2018) (“It would not be an overstatement to say a tidal wave [of Latinos arrived in Hazleton].”); Mike Schneider, Census Report: US Population Will Get Older, More Diverse, Assoc. Press (Oct. 24, 2019) (referencing a “demographic tidal wave”); Annie Linskey, Being White, and a Minority, in Georgia, Bos. Globe (Sep. 11, 2016) (describing how “some whites struggle with their role as the new minority” in a Georgia community after a “tidal wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants” moved there). This language intersects with and builds upon well-worn anti-immigrant rhetoric that describes immigrants and refugees via language of floods, invasions, and other de-humanizing metaphors.22See e.g., Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness, 79 Fordham L. Rev. 1545 (2011); Otto Santa Anna, ‘Like an Animal I Was Treated’: Anti-Immigrant Metaphors in US Public Discourse, 10 Discourse & Soc’y 191 (1999); Megan Strom & Emily Alcock, Floods, Waves, and Surges: The Representation of Latin@ Immigrant Children in the United States Mainstream Media, 14 Critical. Discourse Stud. 440 (2017). In this context, words like “surge,” “hurtling,” and even the idiom “sea change,” begin to accumulate more devastating associations.
This emotive language establishes the stakes of the main concern of “White, and in the Minority”: the threat demographic changes pose to white Americans’ way of life. As McCoy writes, “the story of the coming decades will be . . . the story of how white people adapt to a changing country.” The implication is that Engle and Heim’s experiences at the chicken factory are a precursor of experiences to come. They are in the minority at the factory—the majority of the plant’s workers are Latinx and speak Spanish—and the language difference feels insurmountable to Engle and Heim. As a result, Engle feels profoundly isolated and alienated while on the job. For Heim, the experience has led him to anxiously “imagine[ ] what might await America” when whites are a minority. Both young workers feel increasingly resentful of their situation.
Yet the degree to which things are changing is always a matter of perspective. Emphasizing the challenge of feeling “outnumbered” downplays the extent to which other aspects of Engle and Heim’s life have not been changed by race. Their town of Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, is 95% white. Even if Engle and Heim feel like a minority while at work, they are likely still a racial majority in every other part of their lives.
In the context of the demographic panic, McCoy’s treatment of demographic changes and racial feelings is commonplace. “White, and in the Minority” is one of a number of articles that have been written on white anxiety, and these kinds of pieces have grown in popularity since the 2016 election. There have been pieces about anxious white Christians, anxious white Republicans, anxious white baby boomers, and anxious white Americans in general. These articles foreground whiteness as a racial category and for many of the articles’ subjects, it is a racial category in need of protection.
Mainstream news pieces such as these—meaning articles and op-eds that examine the causes and consequences of white anxiety—reinforce the notion that white racial anxiety is a problem that matters. In turn, these representations help solidify the idea that demographic changes are threatening an established (white) way of life and the “settled expectations” that go along with it. As the story of Engle and Heim’s alienation and resentment makes clear, one of these expectations is majority-group membership. Indeed, white people’s settled expectations of continued access to white privilege is one of the key elements of whiteness’s property value. As a result, articles like “White, and in the Minority,” which highlight how changing demographics can unsettle these expectations about privilege, suggest that a majority-minority future threatens to destabilize or depreciate the value of whiteness.
III. Imagining a Racial Binary and White Decline
Logically, in order for the white population to become a minority, some other racial group must assume the place of majority. In the contemporary demographic panic the “majority” is everyone who is not white. Within this reasoning, Hispanic whites, Blacks, African Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and anyone who checks two or more “race” boxes on the Census are all lumped into one “minority” majority. This majority-minority framing transforms the country’s complex racial landscape into a more simple racial binary—whites on one side and minorities on the other.
There are two primary ways that demographic-panic reporting represents and reinforces a binary conception of race: (1) through the use of the more inclusive term “white” to describe the “non-Hispanic white” population and, (2) in data visualizations that represent the U.S. population as consisting of only two racial groups, white and nonwhite. In addition, the construction of these graphs—both in terms of their scale, as well as their choice of x and y axes—often creates images that suggest there is a competition between racial groups where one group is falling behind.
A 2008 Wall Street Journal article titled, “Whites to Lose Majority Status in U.S. by 2042,” exemplifies both this language usage and imagery. Throughout the piece, the author Conor Dougherty uses the term “white” and “non-Hispanic white” interchangeably. Doing so is both imprecise and misleading. The difference between white and non-Hispanic white is an official distinction used by the Census Bureau and is critical to making sense of the racial demographic data and projections that the Bureau releases. It is the non-Hispanic white population that has been projected to fall below 50%. The total white population is projected to remain above 70% in the coming decades. Yet, as sociologist Deenesh Sohoni has documented, journalists and media sources frequently ignore this distinction or use the two categories interchangeably.
In addition to imprecisely using the term white, Dougherty dichotomizes the white and minority populations along the lines of generational difference, politics, and employment. Dougherty contrasts the political issues that will concern minorities with those of “white baby boomers.” He also points out that “as whites retire” they will increasingly see “the jobs they left go to minorities.” In addition, Dougherty suggests that demographic changes might “stratify American politics.” None of this rhetoric is exclusive to Dougherty’s article either.
This kind of language lends itself to the us-versus-them thinking that is common to all moral panics. As moral panic scholars have shown, it is those who belong to them that threaten the way of life of us. In the contemporary demographic panic, the nonwhite majority threatens to “weaken American culture.” With phrases such as “going into decline,” “stratify American politics,” and “the first group to tip,” journalists produce a vision of the United States divided simply into two racial groups: whites and minorities.
The graph included in “Whites to Lose Majority Status” further communicates a message of white population decline.
The graph is merely a series of downward slanting horizontal lines. The y-axis is the percentage of total population from zero to 100. The x-axis is the time in years from 2008 to 2050. These lines illustrate the projected future loss of the white population percentage. Because the graph starts in 2008, it offers no historical context for how population percentages may have fluctuated in the past. Nor does the graph’s key clarify that the term white refers exclusively to the non-Hispanic white population. As a result, the graph primarily communicates, exactly as its title states, a sense of decline. In conjunction with the graph’s title, its descriptive text, and the article in which it is situated, the graph conveys a future where white demographic power is waning. For many, loss of demographic power portends a decline in the privileges that make whiteness a valuable racial identity.
A New York Times cover story published on the same day as the Wall Street Journal piece included similar visual rhetoric.
In Figure 2, the line representing the non-Hispanic white population is a straight line.23The line is straight because the actual number of white Americans is estimated to remain at a constant 200 million between 2008 and 2050. A thick, black, upward slanting diagonal line labeled “[o]ther” bisects the faint dotted non-Hispanic white line in the year 2042. Unlike the “Declining Share”graph, which represented the white population in terms of overall population percentage, the “Population Projections” graph charts the population changes in terms of absolute numbers. Yet the message remains similar. The white population is shrinking or stagnating but never growing. Both graphs communicate a sense of inevitability with respect to white demographic decline.
Many similar graphs have been circulated in mainstream news media since 2008. Notably, in 2015 the Census Bureau itself released a graph “Projecting Majority-Minority” that visualizes when the country will become majority-minority. The graph was included in a longer reportprojecting the size and composition of the U.S. population.
Graphics like these provide concrete images of a speculative future. They do so even though there is no official federal purpose for race-specific population projections. Instead, these graphs, and racial population projections more generally, exist to both pique and satisfy the public interest. By the time the Census Bureau released this graph in 2015, the demographic panic was already well underway. Much like the Bureau’s 2008 announcement about the majority-minority tipping point, this 2015 update generated its own media storm.
In general, numerical data and statistics are important to moral panics. Statistics help provide a sense of the scale and the urgency of the problem. In addition, they provide a seemingly objective foundation upon which to base claims. Even though statistics are the “products of social processes,” they tend to be treated as facts, “regardless of how they came into being.”
With respect to the subject of race, Census data is an especially powerful source of statistical information. The current demographic panic is part of a longer history of Census data being used to fuel demographic racial anxiety. This history can be traced all the way back to the late nineteenth century, during which social scientists, politicians, and journalists alike used data from the federal censuses (as well as some local censuses) to try and quantify the effect of newly granted Blacks’ citizenship status. News coverage of these analyses featured titles such as: “The Negro in Virginia: Roving Propensities of the Blacks,” “Growth of the Two Races,” and “The Southern Problem, Relations of the Two Races and Their Relative Population, Ratios Shown by the Census, No Danger of Colored Domination—Negro Enfranchisement and Its Results—Questions That Will Solve Themselves an Interesting Historical Retrospect.”Similar articles were published in newspapers across the country. In the fifty years after Emancipation, over 300 news articles addressing the “Negro Problem” used Census data as evidence for their claims.24This is based on searching “Negro problem” or “colored population” or “Negro population” and “census” between 1865–1915 in Proquest’s Historical Newspapers database. The search returns 2,503 results. This number is likely both overinclusive and underinclusive as Proquest’s database is not comprehensive, and not all of the historical papers are full text searchable. As historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad has written, this early example of racial science and reporting was foundational to contemporary understandings of race.25Khalil Gibran Muhammed, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America 6 (2010).
Helping scientists and commentators quantify “The Negro Problem” is not the only way that the Census has contributed to racial knowledge either. The Census Bureau has played an integral role in the construction of racial categories throughout the country’s history.The racial categories that are used on the census profoundly influence racial categories and racial understandings used elsewhere in society. Given these histories, in a moral panic related to race, statistical data whose authority is rooted in the Census Bureau carries additional associations of facticity and expertise.
IV. Conclusion: When All News Might Be Bad News
Not all of the news media’s references to a majority-minority nation feature hand wringing or proclaim that the sky is falling. Indeed, many articles on the United States’ demographic changes are overtly positive. The 2020 U.S. Presidential election engendered one of the most recent spates of this kind of news coverage. The success of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with other nonwhite down-ballot candidates, has been explained by several political analysts as being partially due to the country’s shifting racial demographics.
These articles are part of a broader genre of political reporting that speculates about what demographic changes will mean for the Democratic Party and electoral politics broadly. There was an explosion of similar reporting in 2008 and 2012, during President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and his successful election (and re-election) as the United States’ first Black president. President Obama was described as a symbol of the demographic changes that had already occurred, as well as a harbinger of racial demographic changes to come. He “represent[ed] the blurring of racial edges that will be part of the American future.”26This quote is from a Wall Street Journal article about President Obama’s inauguration: its central premise is that President Obama “inherited” a country on the cusp of “vast shifts in race relations, economy, and culture.” Even though “many of the changes are for the good,” according to the author, these changes still “raise[ ] issues of national identity and cohesion.” It is thus unsurprising that Vice President Harris’s election has fostered similar pronouncements and analysis.27Though it is beyond the scope of this Essay, the political reporting on President Obama and Vice President Harris picks up on another theme of the positive reporting on demographic changes: multiracialism. This multiracial motif highlights the likelihood that the multiracial population will help mitigate any racial tensions caused by demographic changes. According to the reports, this might happen for one of two reasons: (1) because multiracial individuals are likely to identify as white, thus maintaining a demographic majority of people who identify as white, or (2) because an increase in the multiracial population will lend itself to colorblindness. This discourse harkens back to the discourse about multiracialism in the United States in the 1990s. In the words of one New York Times headline, “Kamala Harris, Daughter of Immigrants, Is the Face of America’s Demographic Shift.” Much like former President Obama before her, Vice President Harris is described as symbolizing changes that “have broad implications for the country’s identity.” These changes are “transforming a mostly white baby-boomer society into a multiethnic and racial-patchwork.” That changes to the country’s demographics necessarily mean changes to the nation’s identity is taken as a given. The nation’s longstanding investment in white political dominance is implied, or referenced obliquely, but never fully interrogated.
Part of what makes the demographic panic unique is precisely the fact that for many people a majority-minority future is something to embrace. The hope and optimism surrounding demographic changes has contributed to the wealth of reporting on the subject. News coverage of the supposed upcoming majority-minority shift has not been driven by fear alone. Yet, as countless scholars of race have demonstrated, racial fear is rapacious. Feelings of racial fear can attach to previously innocuous ideas, objects, and people, and transform them into catalysts for anxiety and dread. A hooded sweatshirt can appear to be a tool of crime and harassment—hoodies have become a “sinister signal” to some white here and abroad. Religious observance can seem to be terrorist sympathy. And in the context of changing demographics, even positive news coverage can contribute to the majority-minority moral panic. Which is to say, articles that celebrate the country’s changing demographics can also contain fodder for white racial anxiety. This can occur, for example, when authors raise questions about how changing demographics will “transform” the country’s identity. For years, observers have wondered how “white Americans fit into [the new mainstream].” Alternatively, stories that engage the problem of white anxiety and resentment risk reinforcing the validity of these feelings.
These continuities between positive news coverage of changing demographics and their more overtly anxious counterparts provide insight into the latent fears driving the demographic panic. These resonances point toward an investment among white Americans in remaining the demographic majority. And they indicate that majority status is more than just a benefit of whiteness in its own right but instead corresponds to a constellation of privileges that enhance the property value in whiteness. News coverage of demographic changes—whether positive, neutral, or clearly anxious—raise the question of what these changes will mean for the country’s identity, for electoral politics, and for white economic power. And in so doing, reveal what the demographic panic is all about: protecting the value of whiteness for generations to come.
* * *
Appendix: Representing a Demographic-Panic
Each of the charts included in this appendix either uses the word “white” to describe the non-Hispanic white population or represents the nonwhite population as a single “minority” or “non-white” bloc. Of course, some charts, such as those discussed in the main body of the Essay, do both.
* * *
Brittany Farr is a Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She thanks Allison Page, Melissa Murray, Gina-Gail Fletcher, Guy Charles, Craig Konnoth, Colleen Campbell, along with The University of Chicago Law Review Online editors for their thoughtful feedback on this piece.
* * *
Featured photo: Kristin Wall, brownstones in SOHO.