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Re-Counting America: Professor Richard Alba’s New Book Resonates with this Moment in America and Speaks to the Future

Richard Alba and the cover of his book, "The Great Demographic Illusion"

Sixty years ago, John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic man to be elected president. Just last month, Kamala Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian parents, became the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream, Distinguished Professor Richard Alba’s (Sociology) latest book, illuminates the parallels between these two watershed political moments and how immigration and identity both reinvigorate American society and challenge it. 

Alba explains that “just as the white Protestant mainstream that prevailed from colonial times until the middle of the twentieth century evolved through the mass assimilation of Catholic and Jewish ethnics after World War II, the racially defined mainstream of today is changing, at least in some parts of the country, as a result of the inclusion of many nonwhite and mixed Americans.” 

In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that, by mid-century, demographic changes were moving the United States toward a society in which whites would be a minority and nonwhites would be the majority for the first time in the country’s history. It was a finding that amplified the view of the divide in American society into two distinct and opposing groups. 
 

The Graduate Center, CUNY · Richard Alba on The Thought Project - Episode 86


That sense of a divide, Alba writes, contributed white Americans’ anxiety that they were losing ground to non-whites, particularly Black Americans and immigrants. Barack Obama’s elections further challenged whites’ assumption that they were “the incarnation of the nation.” This anxious realization, fueled by “demographic imaginings,” contributed to Donald Trump’s 2016 election, Alba writes.  

Alba, an expert in ethnicity and immigration, argues that the Census Bureau’s divisive interpretation obscured what was already in front of our eyes, “a surge in the number of young Americans who come from mixed majority-minority families and have one white parent and one non-white parent.” It also did not take into account the more fluid ways the children of multi-racial families choose to identify themselves.

His research dives beneath the numbers and challenges the idea of an intensified contest along ethno-racial lines as he offers a view of assimilation in which the mainstream is reshaped and expanded. 

At the same time, Alba addresses how systemic racism and exclusionary policies that target unauthorized immigrants limit mainstream expansion. He argues that effective social policies targeting economic inequality and mass incarceration, as well as reparations, must be considered.

Reviewers have lauded the book, calling it a “masterful marshaling of demographic data, sociological theory, and historical fact” and a “provocative and optimistic book” that is “essential reading.” 

Alba calls the book “the culmination of a decades-long effort to reinvigorate assimilation ideas.” His previous books, Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration; Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance for a More Integrated America; Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America; and Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity cover aspects of the assimilation narrative and lay the foundation for his latest work. 

Submitted on: SEP 1, 2020

Category: Faculty Books | General GC News | Sociology