Richard Alba

Aug 12, 2021

The Great Demographic Illusion

Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream

Princeton University Press 2020

Richard Alba, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, has written an intriguing new book on our understanding of American demographic data, and how we, as citizens, see each other as part of the fabric of the United States. The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream (Princeton UP, 2020) examines the long historical narrative of the experience of immigrants to the United States while also mapping out various forms of data to help us understand the actual experience of immigrants, over time, in the U.S. Part of Alba’s research in this project is highlighting the issue of what kind of assimilation actually happened in the U.S., especially in the post-World War II period. He explains that there was mass assimilation, after World War II, of the children of immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. in the earlier waves of immigration, prior to WWII. But Alba is not only interested in the immigrant experience, what he is really digging into is the experience of those who are not white, or who were not considered white initially but subsequently were seen as white citizens of the U.S. Alba is examining the reality and interrogating the narrative that has come to be associated with particular waves of immigrants to the U.S. In order to unpack the reality of these immigration narratives, Alba is also digging into the demographic data about where people live, who they marry, and the way that children are categorized according to the United States’ census.

The census generates a lot of data, which is used in a host of different ways, including in a traditional political fashion, in the allocation of goods and services. This is not the story that Alba is telling in The Great Demographic Illusion, which is mining the census data to determine what assimilation actually looks like in the U.S., and how citizens perceive themselves, and how they go on to raise their children, where they choose to live, and the kinds of communities to which they are connected. The Great Demographic Illusion also highlights the problems with the census data, in the aggregation of the data that is compiled in the survey, especially in regard to the questions of racial identification. While the census has innovated by expanding the capacity for individuals to indicate more than one race, thus adapting to the individuals who have parents of different races. In order to tease out the problems in the ways that the census data is reported, Alba compared the information from the census in terms of racial identification with what birth certificates indicate about the racial identity of parents of the child; he also compared the census data to the Pew Research data on intermarriage. This really gets at the heart of what Alba is calling the “great demographic illusion” – since the reporting of the census data is indicative of a greater and faster racial change in the country, which Alba has noted is not exactly accurate. Another dimension of the research that Alba finds particularly engaging is the sociological position of these individuals who come from mixed backgrounds, since they are socially flexible in ways that their parents and grandparents were unable to be. This is a sophisticated and multi-dimensional study of what we know, assume, and possibly are misguided about, in regard to the tapestry of the American citizenry and all those who live in the U.S.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at or tweet to @gorenlj.

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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