Don’t Tell Me the Odds

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How common am I?

Statistically speaking, I mean. And let’s limit things to just physical, in-born traits — nothing political or socioeconomic for now. If it’s within my control, it doesn’t count; I won’t even factor in weight, since I have been able to diet successfully. I want to know to what extent, through no activity or decisions of my own, I could be considered “average” or “normal.”

This is just a guess, just a thought experiment. It’s hard to find precise correlations on many stats, especially on things like eye color, which makes the whole thing even more of an estimate. I’m assuming even distributions, which isn’t exact but probably gets you in the ballpark. Even if it might make the numbers a bit… fiddly.

Here’s how I break down, according to various government and other sources:

Americans: ~324,385,000 (US Census Bureau)
…born in 1987: 3,809,394 (National Vital Statistics)
…that are white: ~2,758,001 (72.4%, 2010 US Census)
…with green eyes: ~261,146 (9.5%, National Longitudinal Survey)
…assigned male at birth: ~128,484 (49.2%, 2010 US Census)
…with black/brown hair: ~96,841 (75.4%, National Longitudinal Survey)
…measuring 6’2″: ~4,939 (5.1%, 2010 US Census)
…that are transgender: ~30 (0.6%, Williams Institute UCLA)
…with a mental illness: ~6 (19.2%, National Institute of Mental Health)

Safe to say: with only eight immutable traits, I’m statistically unlikely.

My estimated count of the statistically average American, a white cisgender woman born in 2007 with brown hair, brown eyes, no mental illness, and an eventual adult height of 5’6″: 58,279. Those people would hold the plurality, as far as those eight traits go. But at that level of detail, that’s approaching 0.02% of all Americans. A tiny fraction. My combination, however, comes in closer to 0.000002% and that’s 10,000 times rarer.

That makes an average of 1,165.6 of that typical American residing in each state.
And 0.12 of me.

This is, as I said, just a thought experiment. It may even seem a bit silly to hone in on such specific traits when there are more evident and important aspects about ourselves: our class, our education, our political views, and so forth. But it illustrates how easy it is to be in the minority, and how natural being in a minority is. Even the most statistically average person claims far, far below the 50% of the population needed for a true majority. And that plurality (the largest group when all are under 50%) is laughably small. There is always a way in which most people are not like you. You may be in a larger or smaller group, but majorities are rare; for most of the traits that a person can have, none of them are held by more than 50% of people in the first place.

The Social Odds

The same is true in socioeconomic traits. Leonard Beeghley’s class model, as described in Structure of Social Stratification in the United States, doesn’t give any one economic class the majority. The middle class and working class each come close, fighting for the plurality with around 40% each. Beeghley’s model has the largest groups of the three in common use, bringing us closest to any sort of majority. This also means that no model would consider “white working class”—the intersection of a non-majority socioeconomic class with a majority race—to be the majority of the population.

Depending on the model, those ranges could be too large to represent a consistent set of priorities and experiences, introducing an argument that they should be broken down even further. Beeghley puts “the rich” at 5% of the population, each with net worths over $1 million. Below that is “middle class,” but that encompasses a huge range, extending past 1/10th of that economic level. Would a couple making a combined $90,000, Beeghley’s “typical” middle class, really have the same concerns as one with just under $1 million in net worth, the upper end of his category?

All of this lack of pure majority holds politically as well. No party in the US has a majority in self-identification. “Unaffiliated” holds the plurality. Curiously, Democrats have an advantage in identification, even though conservatives have a plurality in self-identified ideology. Yet, again, no majorities. We can add, of course, the fact that Hillary got the most votes for president in the last election (and second-most ever, behind Obama). Even that was a plurality, both among voters and among the voting-age population (non-voters are the only majority in the whole election).

In fact, finding groups to consider a true majority — more than 50% — requires grouping together people with potentially disparate needs or perspectives. You can claim adults are the majority, if you’re willing to go from age 20 to age 60. But I would never claim to have all the same needs or perspectives as someone 10 or 20 years older than me, or even someone 5 years younger. These groups aren’t innate, either. Political affiliations change, people age, windfalls and tragedies shift people around economic classes. A social majority one year is a minority the next.

A Mass Delusion

Between immutable traits, socio-political status, and basic personality factors, it doesn’t take much to get to a point where any person is unique. But, that assumes that all of those traits are part of a person’s identity. I may have green eyes, but I don’t really identify with that. It’s just a physical fact, that’s all. It doesn’t mean anything to me.

I only really identify with about half of those immutable traits, usually as an element of a larger group (e.g. “20-somethings” or “tall people”). We can add in maybe half a dozen social ones that apply but can shift around. They all have different weights, based on what I feel is important and what I know society pays most attention to. None of that stops me from being in an overall minority, though it means I can align with more than 2/100,000,000th of the population. Even with my niche interests.

When we identify as a majority, we identify with a simplified version of ourselves. I can claim to be in the American majority by being white, but like every other person on Earth, there’s far more to me than my race. Looking only at one trait is ridiculous. Go any further and you’re all but guaranteed to be in the minority. Even an intersection of majority with majority — say, 72% and 51% — can wind up being an overall minority (37%, in that case: the approximate percentage of Americans who are white women). It’s just how the math works out. Unless wildly oversimplified, true majorities don’t exist.

Everyone is Weird

There are few things I hold as beliefs — things that cannot be directly demonstrated by any empirical or analytical measure, but which I maintain as true nonetheless — and that’s one of them. I believe that everyone has something which, even among their narrowest or most personally important identification groups, puts them on the outside. Makes them unlike the rest. An inescapable weirdness. (Mona Chalabi of New York Magazine has a regular series exploring some of these weirdnesses, centered on social behavior.)

They can be subtle differences of interest or substantial differences of perspective. It can be something that hardly matters or a constant source of strain. Maybe you’re the only gay person in your office. The only black person on your volleyball team. The only anarchist in your homeowner’s association. How you feel about the differences will vary (I’ve been proud of my differences, and ashamed of them, sometimes in the same context), but they rarely go away.

A fractured group fights these differences. A tenuous group ignores them. A strong group embraces them.

I only just recently learned of the Rainbow Coalition, particularly as it relates to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. (It was before I was born, cut me some slack.) The idea, if I may oversimplify, was to create a majority out of minorities: acknowledging that no one group had a complete majority, but that concerns were shared across subgroups and those could be woven together into a viable coalition. The work was in finding the points where those groups intersect, highlighting those similarities, and finding ways for the bigger group to work together on goals they may have otherwise ignored due to other differences.

It’s odd to think that this was at all a radical idea, or one that America seems to have readily forgotten or ignored (outside of intersectionality communities, where a variety of perspectives is emphasized). It sounds an awful lot like European parliamentary politics. There, coalition governments are relatively common. The current Bundestag in Germany, for example, has no majority. Nor does the Eduskunta in Finland. Here, the largest party — one with a plurality, but not a majority — forms a coalition with smaller, ideologically similar ones until it gains the majority. But as far as I know there’s nothing keeping the smaller parties from banding together to overtake the larger. Minority can become majority.

This isn’t the case in every parliament, for the record; Canada and the UK, for example, frequently have single-party majority parliaments. However, those are more artifacts of the countries’ political climates than the systems’ structures. Even then, the parliaments consist of several smaller parties alongside the two prominent ones. (Bloc Québécois, Greens, and NDP all have seats in the Canadian parliament, for example.)

Coalition governments are, if nothing else, more honest in how they reflect their nations. They establish their legitimacy by acknowledging that they may disagree on some points, but they agree on enough broader ones to get the job done. This allows for more nuance in discussion. Lower the number of parties — to, say, two — and the idea of coalition dissipates into the impression (or reality) of monolithic thought.

It’s fine to find your people. Admirable, even. It can be an important support system. But to spend your life shutting down differences — finding, forming, and fostering only those groups where you exist in the majority — is to discard a great and inevitable aspect of human social existence. When leaders claim to pursue or represent a single, homogeneous (and usually “silent”) majority, they erase wide swaths of their supporters’ humanity. Disavowing differences, demanding symmetry and lockstep, is a failure of life.

Be weird. Be a coalition.

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