Minority Report

A hybrid of national and local census coverage would be the ideal

The 2008 census results are out! And scanning local headlines, it looks like minority populations are growing at warp speed. “El Paso County population at 742,062; Hispanic majority grows to nearly 82%” is the headline at the El Paso Times. “Hispanics fuel Nevada’s recent growth,” writes the Reno Gazette-Journal. “Wisconsin’s Hispanic population increases 48%,” reads the headline for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The New York Times, adopting the local paper mantle to cover New York City, trumpets, “Hispanic Population’s Growth Propelled City to a Census Record.” Fuels. Propelled. Record. Tie back your hair; these are full-speed-ahead headlines.

The following characterizations, meanwhile, suggest that while the car is still moving forward, it’s also shifting into second gear: “Growth of Hispanic, Asian Population Slows Unexpectedly, Census Reports” (Associated Press); “Asian and Hispanic Minorities Growing, but More Slowly” (The New York Times); “Downturn Slows Growth of Hispanics, Asians in U.S.” (The Wall Street Journal).

Different papers, different pictures. That’s not all that surprising, given that increases in local minority populations are more likely to resonate with local readers than analyses of an overall slowdown in growth. Meanwhile, the latter gets touted in national headlines because of its implications for, among other things, assessing the tipping point of the majority minority—for demographers, the almost mythological moment at which the minority population will become a majority in this country.

But it’s interesting to see what each camp tends to exclude. With local coverage, you tend to get the bird’s eye view of a city or county, but not much analysis of surrounding areas (say, changes in comparative populations in urban vs. suburban areas) or contextualization with national statistics. For instance, an AP article about Warren County, Mississippi—one of six counties to become majority minority between 2007 and 2008—skips any mention of the slowdown in Hispanic population growth nationwide. All we get is the fact that Warren County has passed the threshold, and that its non-Hispanic white population now comprises less than 50 percent of the county’s total population. Similarly, the El Paso Times story mentioned above excitedly reports on El Paso’s “truly binational, bicultural and bi-literate” community (its Hispanic population has grown to 82 percent), but makes no mention of how its growth fits into the national picture, or why that growth has occured.

With national coverage, meanwhile, you get the overarching trend, but also run the risk of giving too much weight to projections. For instance, an AP article notes prominently that the national majority-minority tipping point could be pushed back by ten years because of this slowdown in Asian and Hispanic population growth. This information, stated by the chief of projections at the Census Bureau, is not even an official projection; it is essentially a projection of a projection that will be released later this year. But that is the nugget of information that appears in the lead of the AP story.

Similarly, the national focus on the growth rate and what it means for majority minority is a bit obsessive. As D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer at the Pew Research Center in Washington, says in a Wall Street Journal piece, “The bigger picture, though, is that Hispanics have accounted for at least half the nation’s overall growth….The pace may slow, but the basic trajectory is in place.” Cohn is right. That kind of perspective—acknowledging a slowdown without sensationalizing it or projecting too far into the future—is important to maintain.

Still, the benefit of these overarching, trend-focused stories is that they connect some useful dots—say, between a decrease in construction and service jobs in suburban areas and the decrease in migration among immigrants. The NYT notes that “the recession appears to have slowed [immigrants’] dispersal from traditional magnet metropolitan areas to other parts of the country,” and the Journal, referring to a “migration drop-off,” writes that “this slowdown in dispersion means central cities and gateway states are holding on to more people of all races, while suburbs and exurbs are gaining fewer.”

These are important points that hold water, and it would have been great had the El Paso or Warren County stories included some of this sort of analysis, honed to their particular regions. On the flip side, it’s worth remembering that any analysis that seeks to explain the numbers in the context of the recession is far from complete—next year’s numbers will include late-2008 and onward, offering a fuller picture of recessionary effects on both immigration and migration. So yes, reports—local and national—should try to make sense of the numbers, but they should also resist any impulse to offer up a premature frame. Projections are enticing, but they can also shift kaleidoscopically. Beware.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.