Tripping on tipping points

There you have it: since 2007, the number non-Hispanic White women having babies has fallen faster than the number of babies born to women from all the other race/ethnic groups in the U.S. combined — enough so that the Census Bureau determined that births from the second group outnumbered those in the first for the first time ever in 2011.

If that’s not an exciting enough lead sentence for you, how’s this?


If you followed my Twitter feed yesterday, I’m sorry. At first, my reaction to the New York Times story was disturbed…

Again @NYtimes says 50% is a “tipping point.” Agh! They even published my letter objecting to this & now ignore it.

The too-detailed history of my objecting is here, but it involves the same demographer, William Frey, repeatedly pitching 50% as a “tipping point” to the news media in reference to a series of demographic events. I don’t have anything against the term tipping point, I just don’t like to see it used to hype trends. Also, the figure is mislabeled, since the “Non-white” population there specifically includes White Hispanics. So the dark line should be labeled, “non-[non-Hispanic White],” and the light line should be labeled “non-Hispanic White.”

You’re probably beginning to see why these reporters rarely call me back, and attributing my tirades to sour grapes (which really turned soured after my slogan, “We are the 75%!” failed to catch on).

Anyway, after I settled down, I realized that the reporter, Sabrine Tavernise, had really written a very good third paragraph that attempted to capture the historic moment:

Such a turn has been long expected, but no one was certain when the moment would arrive — signaling a milestone for a nation whose government was founded by white Europeans and has wrestled mightily with issues of race, from the days of slavery, through a civil war, bitter civil rights battles and, most recently, highly charged debates over efforts to restrict immigration.

But then when I got to the Washington Post editorial, my tweeting devolved back to deranged…

America at a tipping point: <– tipping point in headline, AND “milestone” in lede?! Now they’re gaslighting me.

In fact, that Post editorial also used the term watershed, which they possibly picked up from Andrew Cherlin, who was quoted using it: “This is a watershed moment. It shows us how multicultural we’ve become.”

What is the right way to say it?

The Post was really just using terms randomly. But there must be a way to describe things. I think this event was definitely a milestone. In the Oxford English Dictionary, that is,

A significant stage or event in the progress or development of a society, a career, an individual’s physical and mental growth, etc.; a measure of progress or change.

I would additionally stress the socially-constructed nature of a milestone, since its namesake is a marker placed by humans at arbitrary intervals along a continuous path.

Cherlin may be right that this news will turn out to be a watershed, sometimes called a “watershed divide,” or the point at which water has to choose which way to flow:

Watershed can refer to an important point of division in time as well as geography, as in this from 1878:

Midnight! the outpost of advancing day!‥ The watershed of Time, from which the streams of Yesterday and To-morrow take their way.

All the media attention to this trend may in fact have made it a watershed moment in public discourse. But that is quite different from making it a tipping point, defined now nicely by the OED:

tipping point n. the prevalence of a social phenomenon sufficient to set in motion a process of rapid change; the moment when such a change begins to occur.

It’s very hard to announce the arrival of either watersheds or tipping points when they happen — which is one reason milestones are so useful for marking distance. Looking at the trends in births above, and projections of future demographic change, there is no reason to think this moment is a demographic tipping point. Here is the population projection to 2050, based on the Census Bureau’s current calculations (and using mutually-exclusive race/ethnicity categories):

Based on the 5-year intervals they use, I don’t see anything too non-linear here, suggesting an actual tipping point.

Finally, for some longer-range perspective:

15 thoughts on “Tripping on tipping points

  1. When a term from a specialized field crosses over into wider use, its meaning often becomes diluted or distorted or just changed. Physicists must cringe at most of the “quantum leaps” they hear about (the way I cringe at references to someone’s “track record”). George Herbert Mead would not recognize his “significant other” today.

    So “tipping point” comes to mean some significant moment of change. The moment when there’s more of them than there is of us seems like a big change even when there’s only one more of them, as though demography were a winner-take-all election. The scales have tipped — from us in the majority, to them in the majority. So it’s a tipping point.


  2. Good point from Jay. And how about the “double agent” who foiled the latest underwear bombing plot. He was an agent, not a double agent. A double agent is when of your spies is actually a spy for your enemy. This brave person was an infiltrator, not a double agent. Doesn’t anyone read Graham Greene anymore?


  3. Phil – There’s a real chance that Hispanics will assimilate into mainstream White and Black culture, and won’t be considered Hispanic anymore. This is why most Americans don’t consider Christina Aguilera and Charlie Sheen to be Hispanic in any real sense. While it’s true that by 2050, the US may be less than 50% non-Hispanic White, so many Hispanics are already White – this milestone (or “tipping point”) may have little, if any real impact on American identity – it will depend largely on whether in the coming decades, White Hispanics see themselves as being primarily Hispanic or White.

    In other words, even if we were to consider this a tipping point, it may turn our to be the weakest of tipping points.


  4. This reminds me a lot of Irish immigrants coming to America. Over time, they assimilated and many have Irish heritage in their family backgrounds. I think that over time, the same would happen with the Hispanic population.


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