By MARSHA MERCER
The current clash between congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama, while crucial for millions of undocumented immigrants, is also political theater aimed at shoring up Democratic and Republican constituencies.
But the political debate misses the point. Powerful demographic forces that will transform the country are already in place.
Regardless of how the latest episode of “Washington on the Brink” ends, sometime between 2040 and 2050 whites will no longer be in the majority in the United States. That’s a monumental change from 1790 to 1980, when whites made up 80 to 90 percent of the population.
Minorities will have as profound an impact on American society in the 21st Century as baby boomers did in the 20th Century, says demographer William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He looks at the inevitable demographic changes and challenges in his new book, “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America.”
It’s not future waves of immigrants who will change the country’s racial makeup, Frey says. Most of the immigration that will shape our future occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.
The shift to a “majority-minority” population will result from births to people who are already here – mostly Hispanics and Asians – and to multiracial births, says Frey, who expects the ranks of Hispanics, Asians and the multiracial population to more than double in the next 40 years.
The country reached a milestone in 2011 when more minority babies than white babies were born. In Texas, New Mexico and California minorities are now in the majority. Hawaii has never had a white majority, and whites are a minority in the District of Columbia.
This year for the first time, there are more minority students in U.S. elementary and high schools than whites. Multiracial marriages are also proliferating. About one in seven new marriages is multiracial, including nearly half of those involving Hispanics or Asians.
Racial change has never been easy and older whites may fear losing their majority status, Frey says. But he believes that the shift to a majority-minority population will come “just in time,” as the country copes with a dwindling white population.
Because of low levels of white immigration, reduced fertility and aging, the white population grew a tepid 1.2 percent from 2000 to 2010, Frey says. In 2010, the median age of whites was 42, Asians 35, blacks 32 and Hispanics 27.
“Rather than being feared, America’s new diversity – poised to reinvigorate the country at a time when other developed nations are facing advanced aging and population loss – can be celebrated,” he writes.
The solvency of Social Security and other retirement programs depends on younger workers’ energizing the economy. Our culture and politics will also change with the influx of new minority voters.
Minorities – defined as everyone but single-race, non-Hispanic whites -- now make up about 37 percent of the population. The Census Bureau projects minorities will be 57 percent in 2060.
Latinos are the nation’s largest minority group and growing fast. Their political clout has yet to be felt nationally.
More than 25 million Hispanics are eligible voters – that is, citizens over 18 – up from 17.3 million in 2006, the Pew Research Center reports. A larger share are native-born than are naturalized citizens.
Hispanics are moving into areas of the country that previously had few Spanish speakers. Since 2006, the number of Hispanic eligible voters has grown fastest in South Carolina, up 126.2 percent, Tennessee, up 113.7 percent and Alabama, up 110.5 percent, according to Pew.
So far, minorities have overwhelmingly voted Democratic for president. In 2012, Hispanics voted for Obama over Republican Mitt Romney 71 percent to 27 percent. But Hispanics haven’t turned out to vote in rates as high as blacks or whites.
In 2012, Latinos were 17 percent of the population but 11 percent of eligible voters due to lower median age and lower rates of citizenship and voter registration, Frey’s analysis found.
By 2024, one in three eligible voters will be nonwhite. That’s also the first year Latinos are projected to surpass the share of eligible black voters.
We can see the future – and it looks nothing like the 1950s or even 1980. How we adjust to the new reality will determine our success or failure.
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.