Author Talks: The great American demographic shift

Positive trends in immigration and fertility mean Black, Latino, and other minority groups are on track to collectively account for more than 50 percent of the country’s population.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Christopher Friedmann chats with Justin Gest, an author and associate professor of policy and government at George Mason University, about his new book, Majority Minority (Oxford University Press, March 2022). The United States is approaching a precedented milestone, where the current racial majority will comprise less than half of the population, as historically marginalized minority groups grow in size. It’s an opportunity, Gest says, to examine the demographic constructs that divide society and to foster progressive, inclusive nationalism. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

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This question lingers over the contemporary politics of the United States and other countries where persistent immigration has altered populations and may soon produce this majority-minority milestone where one ethnic or racial group loses its numerical advantage to one or more other minority groups.

I think this is the kind of demographic phenomenon that has been infusing so much of our social politics up to now, as well as the culture wars and nationalism that have characterized politics in recent decades, and I think it’s unlikely to go away.

The book challenges us not only to understand demographic change and our response to it, in terms of how to coexist, but also challenges us to ask the question of how we can break boundaries—how we can actually prepare ourselves for the demographic change in our future.

Why did I write this book? The prospects of demographic change, the specter of a majority-minority milestone, I found to be everywhere. It was almost like the sort of turf that we as Americans, and to some degree other countries, are playing on. It’s what the ocean is for fish, what the air is for us: barometric pressure.

So much of our politics, whether it’s healthcare, the economy, or immigration, was being inspired by demographic change and what the future holds. So, I wanted to explore how societies respond to enormous demographic change because the United States, as it turns out, isn’t alone. That was the crucial moment of, “Okay, this can be a book. This can be a really important study.”

When we think about demographic change in the United States, when we think about the upcoming majority-minority milestone, where the original ethnic or religious group loses its numerical advantage to one or more minority groups—that has always been thought of as somehow exceptional, as if the US is the first country where this is happening.

We are certainly the first big country where this is happening—and it’s all the more interesting because of democracy’s majoritarian logic—but we’re not the first country. We’re not the first sovereign society [where this has happened], and when I found that there were a number of smaller countries (all of which are islands), it was a breakthrough because I saw that we can learn something about the experience of transformative demographic change from other places. I was super inspired at that point, and off I went.

The power of leadership and the construct of Whiteness

What surprised you in your research and writing?

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What surprised me most as I was in the midst of my research, and as I was concluding it and reflecting upon everything that I had seen, calculated, and observed, was the power of leadership.

So much of our politics, when it comes to race, ethnicity, religion, identity politics, our culture wars—in the United States but also transatlantically—so much of those politics are focused on individual-level attitudes, individual-level prejudice. What consumes us is the extent to which we observe prejudice, stereotyping, and double standards in our society. That’s not to say that those things aren’t real—they’re very real, and they are structural.

It’s not to suggest that those things aren’t worth addressing, worth calling out, and worth doing something about, but where real change was taking place was when leaders defied those attitudes—when leaders took it upon themselves to shape those attitudes. Those attitudes are not necessarily determinant of where a society goes and how a society copes with its diversification. There’s an enormous place for leadership, and not just in terms of policy making, procedures, and vision—but also rhetoric.

The power of rhetoric, identity, and leveraging who you are to mobilize people to inspire change comes through in each of the different cases I studied and through the polling research and evidence that I collect. This is something we should be thinking about broadly. It’s not just about the role of president or prime minister; this is about leadership in a variety of places.

If we’re going to confront this enormous social challenge of how to respond to demographic change in a peaceful, coexisting kind of way, then you don’t need just one leader. You need to leverage the power of a million leaders. That means the leaders of companies, the leaders of civil-society organizations and associations, local and municipal leaders, and small businesses. Those are all leaders, too, because they have the power to model the changes that we need to see in our society.

If we’re going to confront this enormous social challenge of how to respond to demographic change in a peaceful, coexisting kind of way, then you don’t need just one leader. You need to leverage the power of a million leaders. That means the leaders of companies, the leaders of civil-society organizations and associations, local and municipal leaders, and small businesses. Those are all leaders, too, because they have the power to model the changes that we need to see in our society. I think that was probably the most surprising element.

How can people harness the power of media to understand the majority-minority demographic change?

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The first thing to recognize is that remarkably, and very counterintuitively, this isn’t actually the first majority-minority milestone that the United States has experienced.

We treat this as a very historic moment, but it really does depend on how you construe the American majority. In the 1800s and prior to the 20th century, Whiteness in the United States also embodied the majority, but what it meant to be White was different. In those days, Whiteness referred to a sort of Northern European Protestant identity, grounded in the Anglo heritage of the country. But don’t forget that there were also lots of Dutch people, and others.

Through the lens of the 19th century, Greeks, Jews, Slavs, Irish, Germans, and Catholic groups, like Italians who came into the United States toward the turn of the 20th century and thereafter, were not considered part of mainstream American Whiteness. They were considered White ethnics. The real challenge in those days was not that different from the one we face today: How do we coexist with all these different people?

What has changed, of course, is that in the United States, we no longer think of someone who is of Greek, Italian, or Irish heritage as too different, or somehow separate from the White mainstream. It’s quite the opposite, actually—we conventionally think of them as being White as well, but that just wasn’t true before. If we take the 19th-century understanding of Whiteness, we’ve been a majority-minority society for years. This is not anything new. What changed was how we understand who the American identity is, who we are—that changing definition of “we.”

Once we understand the subjectivity of Whiteness and the subjectivity of what it means to be an American, we realize two things: one is that the majority-minority milestone provoked a lot of White ethnics (as they were called at the time) to trade in their marginality—their minority status—to join the dominant White group in exchange for the continued subjugation of people of color. By joining Whiteness, the Greeks, Slavs, and Italians of those days perpetuated the subordinacy in American society of people of Black heritage, Asian heritage, and eventually Latinos as well. That was a trade-off.

The other thing that it tells us, though, is that the majority-minority milestone is completely constructed. We are inventing what it means to be a nation, we invent what it means to be a majority, and that means that our understanding of who we are is somehow flexible, and it evolves. So we come back to the power of leadership because leaders symbolize. They model how we understand who we are. They define who we are in very powerful ways.

The majority-minority milestone is completely constructed. We are inventing what it means to be a nation, we invent what it means to be a majority, and that means that our understanding of who we are is somehow flexible, and it evolves.

The best way of complicating discourse and the media’s treatment of this majority-minority milestone is to recognize that history, Whiteness, and what it means to be American may change again, and recognize that the real problem is the maintenance of these pesky racial, ethnic, and religious barriers in our society—that we even associate Americanness, or the American identity, with Whiteness at all. What we really want to aim for and strive for is a more civic understanding of who we are, such that the racial and ethnic boundaries become obsolete.

In a society based on competition, what is the advantage of broadening our sense of identity?

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How we learn to accept differences and how we learn to coexist with each other really comes down to contact, to intergroup relations. There are very strong forces right now that are pushing us into silos of people who are like us, whether they’re like us racially, ethnically, religiously, professionally, in terms of age cohorts, gender, subcultural elements and lifestyle, or sexuality.

Various innovations in communications and technology reinforce the boundaries between us because they allow us to connect across these senses of commonality in really powerful ways that, by the way, are not really reversible, so we’re just going to have to learn to live with them—even if you want to lament them. Breaking those silos and transgressing those boundaries is how we overcome the ossification of those boundaries. We can break down the rigidity only by actually interacting with people across them.

Unfortunately, it’s not just these communications and technological factors that are keeping us apart. We are physically apart from each other. Residential segregation is still real, not just from a racial or ethnic perspective, but from a partisan perspective. In the United States right now, Democrats are not living very close to Republicans according to a new study that came out. This is a really powerful trend because it demonstrates the way our politics are also becoming racialized and segregated in the way that our social relations previously were.

I think we need to find ways to facilitate bridge building. That comes down to how we design our businesses, our associations, our government, our public goods. I think we need to begin the process of getting in touch with each other because that’s where progress is made: listening, sharing stories, and getting to better understand the other—whatever the social boundary is that needs to be crossed.

Break the cycle

How do we honor heritage without reproducing historic inequalities?

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In many ways this is the trillion-dollar question: How do we reimagine who we are to be truly inclusive? To be truly inclusive, it means that we have to thread a very narrow needle. We have to be both inclusive enough to include everyone broadly, but exclusive enough so that the identity is something that is compelling, that is distinguished.

What is an identity if everyone shares it? It’s not actually identifying, so there has to be some degree of exclusivity there. You need a minimal amount of exclusivity to create distinction, and you want to maximize inclusion within that. That’s a really tough needle to thread.

Put another way, as I write in the book and as you’re alluding to, how do we honor heritage on the one hand and revere those backgrounds so that people feel included, without reproducing historic inequalities? I think this comes down to pulling the best of where we come from and identifying a common purpose about where we go. This is obviously easier said than done, but it’s a matter of remembering that our goal has to be inclusion, ultimately.

We need people to feel a sense of belonging, and what’s so challenging about this is that everything that we’ve learned about inclusion up to now has been about the inclusion of minority groups. What we are also witnessing is enormous backlash from White majorities in many European and North American countries who feel excluded from this sense of inclusion, or who feel like those kinds of programs are somehow off-limits to them.

This is where radical inclusion comes in. How do we make everyone feel invested? How do we make everyone feel a sense of belonging? Because right now, unfortunately, the debate is really unproductive. It’s often about who’s had it worse—whose vulnerabilities matter more. That is a debate where there is never going to be a winner, and people just talk past each other.

How do we make everyone feel invested? How do we make everyone feel a sense of belonging? Because right now, unfortunately, the debate is really unproductive. It’s often about who’s had it worse—whose vulnerabilities matter more. That is a debate where there is never going to be a winner, and people just talk past each other.

It’s really about how we identify across a common struggle and how we see one another in our dreams. I think that is how we pursue and thread that needle—when we have full inclusion and belonging in mind, while recognizing the power of identifying distinction, to the extent that that is possible.

What’s the first step in bringing people together?

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At the most individual level, it is to question yourself about who you’re ignoring. Who are you not hearing from? Whose stories do you not fully understand? We make a lot of prejudgments about people who we see as oppositional, people who we see as foreign, people who we see as too different from us. Those are precisely the people who we should be interacting with more—to learn their stories and to see the commonalities that we share.

Trying to diversify—not just who we have lunch with on a daily basis and who we have conversations with but where we shop and what we read—to diversify that is a really important way to understand where the other perspective is coming from.

On a more programmatic level, there are some really interesting examples of how this is taking place—how people are threading the needle of honoring history while also broadening a sense of identity. The best example, and the most inspiring one for me, is this group in West Virginia. It’s a political group and initiative that’s called West Virginia Can’t Wait. They’re quite progressive in their politics, but you wouldn’t know it prima facie because they identify as rednecks.

That’s actually the word that they use. Of course, “redneck” has become a derogatory term in American society. It’s one that has led to a lot of resentment among White working-class people who feel like they’re being prejudged on the basis of their Whiteness and on the basis of poverty or low educational attainment.

But actually, what this group has found through historical research and building bridges inside of West Virginia, is that the word redneck originates from an incredibly honorable origin. During the mining wars of the early 20th century—around 1919, 1920—nonunionized, nonaffiliated miners took up arms to protest the terrible work conditions in West Virginia mines and were actually attacked by the federal government in support of the mining companies.

They were in battle. They were engaged in a gun-shooting battle with the federal government and the security guards of the mines. During these battles they needed a way to identify their brethren, and they did so by tying red handkerchiefs around their necks. They didn’t have uniforms. They weren’t an army. This was not an organized group. Wearing a red handkerchief became known as being a redneck.

The rednecks were actually an incredibly diverse group of people. Not only were they a variety of White ethnic groups—many of whom were of immigrant origin because that’s who manned the mines—but there were also a number of African Americans. And they were incredibly diverse regionally and geographically inside the United States. You had this multiethnic group standing up for their rights as workers, and the idea of being a redneck has somehow been stigmatized in the years since.

Here, we have a proud tradition of American heritage that is often associated with poor White folks—and these days, in a very derogatory manner—that [this group is] reclaiming and letting inspire a progressive approach to labor and to social politics in West Virginia.

It’s such an inspiring approach that is inclusive and honors heritage on the one hand but is also quite exclusive—it’s a unique identity to this group of people. Many West Virginians have already identified themselves, kind of proudly reclaiming a stigmatized identity, as rednecks. I think that’s the way forward. Examples like that are how we can do this.

What impact did researching and writing this book have on you? And what impact do you hope it has on your readers?

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I think the impact that this book has had on me as an author is that I really find the challenge of unifying multiethnic, diversifying societies to be incredibly daunting. I think I appreciate the scale of the challenge before us, but I also now appreciate the weight of it and how important it is.

I think that how we decide to coexist, the actions we take to coexist as a society in the face of enormous demographic change, is the greatest social challenge facing our country and other diversifying countries for the next generation or two.

It will define who we are as a people, our strength as a country, and our ability to pass policies and not be paralyzed legislatively. It will affect the nature of our intergroup relationships. I have newfound respect for the gravity of this problem. It is even bigger than I ever thought it might be when I first started writing the book.

I also have a lot of respect now for the power of nationalism. Nationalism, up to now, has always been thought of as something quite vile, actually—quite exclusive, restrictive, a way of alienating people. And that’s largely true. Nationalism is usually not reared in a very nice way, politically and socially.

Nationalism, up to now, has always been thought of as something quite vile, actually—quite exclusive, restrictive, a way of alienating people. And that’s largely true. Nationalism is usually not reared in a very nice way, politically and socially. Yet, what I find is that there’s almost an inherent human need for nationalism. People want to be proud of the country that they come from. They want to maintain a certain veneer of distinction in a world where our borders are being blurred by global phenomena.

Yet, what I find is that there’s almost an inherent human need for nationalism. People want to be proud of the country that they come from. They want to maintain a certain veneer of distinction in a world where our borders are being blurred by global phenomena, like commerce, trade, climate change, and migration. All of those things blur the boundaries between us as countries.

Yet there is this backlash, a nationalist backlash, because there’s a value to distinctions, at least, in the minds of many, many human beings. I think the question for us when it comes to nationalism and if we are to confront this incredible social challenge in all of its gravity, is how to actually live with nationalism and wield it in a way that produces progress, that produces new forms of solidarity, that opens the nation to a country and all of its diversity and recognizes the evolving nature of who are we—who are the people?

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Justin Gest on the great American demographic shift

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