What Happens When White People Become a Minority in America?

Other majority-minority societies offer positive examples—and cautionary tales.

By , an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
Hands are shown holding a small U.S. Flag and a folder that says "U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services."
Hands are shown holding a small U.S. Flag and a folder that says "U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services."
An applicant holds a U.S. flag and a packet while waiting to take the oath to become a U.S. citizen at a naturalization ceremony in Salt Lake City on April 10, 2019. George Frey/Getty Images

In 2021, the U.S. population expanded at its slowest rate in history, and for the first time, the majority of its population growth came from immigration. So, despite four years of former President Donald Trump’s policies limiting the admission of foreigners, the United States is on track to reach its anticipated 2044 “majority minority” milestone: the moment when the majority ethnic group, non-Hispanic white people, becomes one of multiple minorities.

For centuries, countries like the United States have been built on the idea of an inviolable nation, implicitly or explicitly united by a common ethnicity, race, or religion. Large-scale migration fundamentally alters the composition of that nation, and therefore many of today’s political conflicts in the United States—over school curricula, affirmative action, and Confederate monuments—can be understood as attempts to reconcile earlier understandings of the nation’s identity with what it has become.

Yet currently, we know little about how societies respond when the majority status of a native group feels threatened. To anticipate future responses to transformational demographic change in the United States, I’ve spent the last five years studying other sovereign societies—first historically and then with contemporary fieldwork—that reached earlier majority-minority milestones similarly driven by immigration.

In 2021, the U.S. population expanded at its slowest rate in history, and for the first time, the majority of its population growth came from immigration. So, despite four years of former President Donald Trump’s policies limiting the admission of foreigners, the United States is on track to reach its anticipated 2044 “majority minority” milestone: the moment when the majority ethnic group, non-Hispanic white people, becomes one of multiple minorities.

The cover of Majority Minority

This article is adapted from Majority Minority by Justin Gest (Oxford University Press, 424 pp., $29.95, March 2022).

For centuries, countries like the United States have been built on the idea of an inviolable nation, implicitly or explicitly united by a common ethnicity, race, or religion. Large-scale migration fundamentally alters the composition of that nation, and therefore many of today’s political conflicts in the United States—over school curricula, affirmative action, and Confederate monuments—can be understood as attempts to reconcile earlier understandings of the nation’s identity with what it has become.

Yet currently, we know little about how societies respond when the majority status of a native group feels threatened. To anticipate future responses to transformational demographic change in the United States, I’ve spent the last five years studying other sovereign societies—first historically and then with contemporary fieldwork—that reached earlier majority-minority milestones similarly driven by immigration.

Majority-minority transitions are rare but not unique. In modern history, not even a dozen societies qualify. My research focuses on six of them: Bahrain, Hawaii, Mauritius, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago, and the islands that made up 19th-century New York City. In most of these societies, settlers brought violence or epidemics, then slavery, and then migrants to fill labor needs.

These six societies, though all islands, are very different. They have different Indigenous populations, labor sectors, regime types, and histories of slavery, immigration, and enfranchisement. But their histories feature similar patterns of segregation, identity politics, and backlash that produced unique social outcomes and political responses.

If present trends continue, it will take another generation before the majority-minority milestone is reached in the United States, and a couple more for Canada and Australia. Before that takes place, we can learn from the successes and struggles of the societies that have experienced these milestones. In particular, we can identify the critical junctures where their leaders—and the institutions they run—pivoted toward conflict or greater coexistence. Then, we can begin to redefine the boundaries of national identity—that vexing, existential question: “Who are we?”


While all six societies I studied inevitably experienced a wave of nativism—and sometimes quite intense backlash—their stories then diverged.

Singapore and Bahrain responded to demographic change through suppression. In Singapore, the regime has used meticulous administrative laws, immigration policies, and public narratives to secure ethnic Chinese hegemony over a city-state that was a small, though important, part of modern Malaysia until 1965. Bahrain’s Royal Court and Sunni minority retain power over a predominantly Shiite citizenry by gatekeeping access to Bahraini nationality and the privileges it guarantees.

Trinidad and Tobago and Mauritius, meanwhile, suffer from racialized political parties and enduring social tensions. The former has been bitterly split into factions of predominantly African and Indian origin since it elected its first Indian-origin prime minister, Basdeo Panday, in 1995. In Mauritius, parties are similarly divided by religion and ethnicity, where the Catholic African Creole population has been consumed by a nostalgic politics that has sought to combat their social and economic marginalization since Mauritians of Indian origin took control of the country’s political institutions with independence from Britain in 1968.

But New York and Hawaii went a different route. After considerable social strife, their populations eventually reconciled through a redefinition of local identity. The state of New York, which controlled its immigration admissions and removals until U.S. immigration laws were federalized in 1882, saw virulent ethnic politics after the arrival and enfranchisement of Irish Catholic migrants fleeing the Potato Famine in the mid-19th century. To counter their exclusion, the Irish in New York City established powerful voting blocs and Catholic-specific institutions until America’s concept of its “white mainstream” evolved to include them.

As for Hawaii, its Indigenous population was decimated by Western disease after contact was first made in 1778 and became outnumbered in the mid-19th century when U.S.-run sugar plantations recruited immigrants from countries such as Japan, China, and the Philippines. Before an 1893 coup by the United States, the Indigenous population contested foreigners’ power and landownership with a wave of nationalism that pressured the monarchy to pass laws that privileged the status of Native Hawaiians. When that status was lost with the U.S. takeover, Native Hawaiians intermarried extensively and developed a cross-ethnic, civic coalition of Hawaiians who organized to preserve their endangered culture against U.S. assimilationism.

The state has always had a strong interest in unifying diverse peoples sufficiently to govern them.

Many believe demographic shifts such as those faced by these six societies are so difficult because of individuals’ inability to cope with social change and persistent human tendencies toward racism and xenophobia. And indeed, social exclusion and prejudice are unquestionably pervasive. However, any approach that relies upon individuals’ self-realized enlightenment for successful coexistence discounts the constructed nature of national identity and the power of the state to manage the process of demographic change through its institutions and rhetoric. Majority-minority relations are the product of leaders’ political choices. In other words, they are governed.

The state has always had a strong interest in unifying diverse peoples sufficiently to govern them. National anthems solemnly croon of glory from centuries-old battlefields; national flowers symbolize the nation’s indigeneity; national museums assemble artifacts to crystallize narratives about the origin, tragedies, and victories of an indomitable people. Identity and unity, while individualized, are also something we construct as a society. If the government doesn’t have a hand in coordinating these efforts, they will be left to markets, algorithms, and opportunistic politicians—which is where the world finds itself right now.

Much like any individual, societies are composed of opposing instincts: to honor their heritage and preserve their traditions, and simultaneously to acknowledge, adapt to, and progress into the future.

These dueling tendencies express themselves in the politics of inclusion and exclusion, particularly at two critical junctures. First, states must decide if all peoples will be recognized and treated equally as citizens before the law. Second, they must decide whether the construction of the nation and its identity reflects the diversity of their people or seeks to promote one group over others. While inclusive redefinitions can override historic inequities, as was the case in Hawaii and New York, governments that pursue exclusive identities or don’t equally recognize constituencies face either suppressed or overt social tension.

National identities can—and must—be broadened to include newcomers of different ethnicities or religions and produce a reconstituted majority if peaceful coexistence in majority-minority societies is to occur. Yet these are also among the hardest public attitudes to change.

It is not surprising, then, that across the societies I studied, backlash to transformational demographic change was effectively unavoidable. But even though demographic change has remained a persistent attribute of human civilization for centuries, it has become even more politicized today as white majorities in some of the world’s largest democracies fear their numerical decline.

The trend toward more liberal norms and democratic institutions has meant that political power is increasingly subject to the makeup of national populations and the logic of majoritarianism. Expanded freedom of expression allows for more combative language about ethnic identities. Greater freedom of assembly facilitates mobilization and uprisings along ethnic lines. And because democracies distribute resources according to population data, they raise the stakes of relative group size.

In this environment, nationalism has experienced a rebirth. In the face of destabilizing demographic change and the uncertainties of globalization, nationalism is a familiar security blanket. In democracies particularly, nationalism asserts precisely what demographic change threatens: a specific ethno-religious people’s social dominance and entitlement to the state.


The six cases I explore cannot predict what the future holds for the United States. Rather, they offer microcosmic glimpses of the country’s alternative futures, depending on how its leaders navigate demographic change and social relations. Already, U.S. leaders are falling into the same short-term thinking that plunged earlier societies into social conflict. Rather than inspiring new, broad forms of nationhood that leverage nationalism toward inclusion, some civic leaders are seeking to intensify support among their political or ethno-religious base. And unless political, business, and civil society leaders change course, the United States will remain just as divided as some of the societies I studied.

A far worse scenario would be if social division drives Americans to embrace illiberal forms of governance that seek to undemocratically entrench the dominance of one subgroup. While it is unlikely that the United States will adopt political systems like those in Singapore or Bahrain, today’s polarization and partisanship are producing a growing appetite for illiberalism. Early indications of this abounded when Trump sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election result and pursued various other abuses of power, all tolerated and often defended by his primarily—even if not exclusively—white, Christian supporters. Such are the risks when people place their ethno-religious subgroup over country.

Ultimately, the goal of government institutions and their leaders under such circumstances is to expand the sense of who “we” are. This goes far beyond who holds citizenship; it is a question of the people with whom we share a perceived common experience, such that we may identify with them, empathize with their plight, and expect them to listen to our own. Over the decades, the share of U.S. society that feels this connection with other Americans has dwindled with the closure of houses of worship, the shuttering of neighborhood bars, and the bankruptcy and consolidation of local newspapers. The internet has atomized social life into ever more nuanced subcultures—a separation that deepened amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most hopeful prospects for the United States rely upon a reconsideration of what it means to be American, a community reimagined. This reimagining and unification of disparate groups must become a criterion for governance—a multidecade endeavor, the greatest social challenge of our times.

Justin Gest is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and the author of six books about immigration and demographic change, including his latest, Majority Minority. Twitter: @_JustinGest

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