Demographics as Destiny? 2042, 2050, and the End of Race.


The PolicyMic piece “National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It’s Beautiful” has been trending quite nicely. Over the past few days, I’ve noticed many people sharing it enthusiastically as a sign for optimism in America’s future. It features a colorful cast of interracial faces, including what will become the “average American” face in 2050. Yet, something noticeably absent from this spread of photos is people with darker skin. Additionally, this piece suggests that increasing amounts of interracial unions and their offspring might, in essence, end racism.

While many are gushing over America’s beauty in 2050, this vision has also come under heavy criticism. Writer Gene Demby, in my opinion, has provided great commentary on twitter. Here’s one tongue-in-cheek tweet from Demby: “Entrenched inequality getting you down? What you need is a boo of a different [race] and [a] beige child to untether you from our histories.” Participating in the conversation, Erika Nicole Kendall tweeted: “My features are beautiful when they come wrapped in fairer skin?”

It’s troubling to see America’s future beauty predicated on the absence of black people with darker features. From a whiter person’s perspective, the photo spread might look like his own diversification. But from a darker person’s perspective, it looks like she is desired more when she’s become lighter. The aesthetics and assumptions behind this piece on America’s future “beauty” are deeply problematic. What it shows and reminds us is that interracial realities and futures can be built upon a disdain for black bodies.

I see this piece on 2050 as part of broader and increasing conversations about America’s predicted demographic changes. Besides 2050, the other hot-topic year is 2042. That’s when white Americans are supposed to become a “minority” in this country—though I think it's more accurate to describe America as becoming a plurality and not a new majority/minority, unless you think all minority groups are the same or unify in the way that white people do. To say nothing about those who see 2042 as doomsday, I’m deeply puzzled by those who hold up 2042, and the demographic changes it represents, as a solution to the problem of race in America. It’s as though the demographic change in and of itself will make the importance of race disappear.

Just today in the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza has written a post titled “Is Barack Obama 'black'? A majority of Americans say no.” in which he suggests that increasing rates of interracial marriages will make race a moot point in coming years. I’ll add this, along with the piece on America’s 2050 beauty, along with many others, to the catalogue of arguments that I like to call “Demographics as Destiny.”

For those who see demographics as destiny, the increasing number of non-white Americans and interracial unions will practically eradicate the negative consequences of race. America’s multicultural future from now through 2042 and beyond is one of linear progress, not discounting hiccups along the road. But is this true? Can America literally screw its way beyond race?

I’m not convinced. Consider Jamelle Bouie’s piece, “Could America Become Mississippi?” Bouie highlights a study conducted at Northwestern University that shows that white Americans become more politically conservative when they learn that demographic changes are putting them in the minority. Using this, Bouie points to American history and argues that increased segregation is a possibility in America’s future. Granted, this is somewhat of a worst-case scenario. But what I think Bouie demonstrates is that demographics alone can’t predict a more equitable future. Demographics still need to be interpreted. Changing demographics can lead to a number of results.

I find most of the optimism behind 2042, and 2050, to be too naïve. Will conditions for non-whites in America improve? Yeah, sure. Will race and the significance of racial identities go away? That is not determined. Time alone doesn’t dismantle. One just has to look at the history of colonialism. One just has to look at the history of this country, at the fluidity of racial categories, at how whiteness has changed to incorporate many into its melting pot. To remain glibly optimistic in light of all of this is simply to participate in the American evasion of history.