Book Review: Figures of the Future

By Mari Sanchez

PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology

Harvard University

Amidst Census predictions of an impending minority-majority future, scholars and pundits across the political spectrum have taken demographic trends at face value to debate the implications for American society. Figures for the Future: Latino Civil Rights and the Politics of Demographic Change (Princeton University Press 2021), a co-winner of the Mary Douglas Award for Best Book this year, takes an entirely different tack. Author and Berkeley sociologist Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz examines the deeply political struggles over the meaning assigned to ethnographic demographic changes, arguing that “projected demographic futures operate as objects of aspiration, sources of frustration, and weapons of struggle” (3). The book works to unsettle the idea of “demographic naturalism,” closely linked to racial essentialism, which assumes that demographic knowledge reflects an objective reality unmediated by perception. At the core of the book is the critical insight that population trends have little meaning outside of their politico-cultural contexts; rather, various actors negotiate and contest how to study, interpret, present, and respond to future predictions – the Bourdieusian-style struggles over demographic meaning that Rodríguez-Muñiz calls “population politics.”

While various actors provide data or interpretations about demographic change as agents of population politics, Rodríguez-Muñiz focuses his attention on national Latine Civil Rights advocacy groups. He employs interview, content analysis of primary materials, and ethnographic data on organizations such as UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza), league of United Latin American Citizens, and Voto Latino from 2012-2019. Underlying these contemporary population politics are deep historical sediments – past political projects that entrenched particular raced ideologies and scripts that may later be invoked or contested. For example, Rodríguez-Muñiz cites a long history of white supremacist projects that viewed ethnoracial demographic futures as a racial threat. Latines – alternatively described as the largest minority, fastest growing population, and a sleeping giant – have often been at the center of fears about white replacement.

In response to what Rodríguez-Muñiz cleverly refers to as white “demographobia,” Latine advocacy groups have been compelled to mobilize demographic knowledge to depict a positive American future linked to Latine progress. They strived to strike a balance between Latines as a rising demographic force to be reckoned with while minimizing white backlash. For Latine civil rights advocates, producing and wielding demographic data – from growth predictions to voter turnout – offered a means to positively shape public perceptions of Latine growth, create narratives about future power, and effect political change. Rodríguez-Muñiz points to three temporal tactics used “to accelerate the “when” of Latine political power, against a backdrop of public discourses that have framed Latines as a population of the future and perpetually on the rise” (3). These included 1) forecasting that stokes emotive visions of a particular demographic future; 2) foreshadowing that convinces audiences of the imminence of the demographic future they have conjured; and 3) forewarning that reminds other actors of the consequences of ignoring this future. 

Cultural sociologists will relish Rodríguez-Muñiz’s deeply creative theorization of futurity, knowledge production, and meaning-making. His work engages with a burgeoning literature on imagined futures and temporality, while also offering additional insights to constructivist accounts of ethnoracial categories and identities. The book also prompts new pathways of research on the temporality of ethnoracial projects. Coordinating futures is often a basis of collective action – which becomes apparent in Rodríguez-Muñiz’s accounts of how Latine civil rights activists attempt to manage (at least temporarily) the overwhelming heterogeneity of Latindad by focusing on a unified story of future potential. How can temporal tactics, in addition to vying for external power, also concretize intra-group solidarity? Would other projects, actors or “groups” besides Latine civil rights advocacy groups find themselves prioritizing future-oriented strategies of recognition and influence? In contrast to waging political battles over imminent projected futures, might they adopt other temporal orientations or landscapes? Indeed, there is more to be explored in the connection between past, present, and future, as Rodríguez-Muñiz notes in his chapter connecting historical sediments to contemporary struggles. How do collective memory or forgetting shape the temporal foundations of imagined demographic futures, particularly in an age rife with battles over school curriculums about history and race?

At the same time, a clear outcome of the book is that increasing numbers do not always translate to increasing power. When do these temporal strategies fail to produce the hoped-for political outcomes? There is a rich classic and modern literature that connects temporality to agency, on which Figures of the Future is also poised to stimulate additional thinking. In the conclusion of the book, for example, Rodríguez-Muñiz details how Latine advocacy groups realized that their belief in demographic destiny had not come to bear in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, as they found themselves scrambling to respond to a barrage of assaults. This presentism as a form of crisis response contrasts starkly with the previous strategic, methodical emphasis on futurity. How do particular temporal orientations reflect structural opportunities for action and capacity to effect change? When are futures constraining or malleable? Finally, in situations of constrained agency, future aspirations are often less about plausible or viable outcomes, and more often about the moral worthiness of the actors envisioning this future. How can concepts like morality and worth help us better understand why futurity becomes important to certain actors’ political strategies?  As the United States is poised to undergo significant demographic change in the upcoming decades, a book like Figures of the Future is a timely tool for sociologists to interrogate our intellectual toolkits. The book reminds us to make sense of these changes in ways that do not reify demographic populations but to instead take stock of the population politics at hand – in which we are often complicit.