A Nation of Minorities: America in 2050

A Nation of Minorities: America in 2050

Farai Chideya

America is facing the largest cultural shift in its history. Around the year 2050, whites will become a “minority.” This is uncharted territory for this country, and this demographic change will affect everything. Alliances between the races are bound to shift. Political and social power will be re-apportioned. Our neighborhoods, our schools and workplaces, even racial categories themselves will be altered. Any massive social change is bound to bring uncertainty, even fear. But the worst crisis we face today is not in our cities or neighborhoods, but in our minds. We have grown up with a fixed idea of what and who America is, and how race relations in this nation work. We live by two assumptions: that “race” is a black and white issue, and, that America is a “white” society. Neither has ever been strictly true, and today these ideas are rapidly becoming obsolete.

Just examine the demographic trends. In 1950, America was nearly 85 percent non-Hispanic white. Today, this nation is 73 percent non-Hispanic white, 12 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian and 1 percent Native American. (To put it another way, we’re about three-quarters “white” and one-quarter “minority.”) But America’s racial composition is changing more rapidly than ever. The number of immigrants in America is the largest in any post-World War II period. Nearly one-tenth of the U.S. population is foreign born. Asian Americans, the fastest-growing group in America, have begun to come of age politically in California and the Pacific Northwest (where a Chinese American is governor of Washington State). And the Census projects that the Latino Americans will surpass blacks as the largest “minority” group by 2005.

Yet our idea of “Americanness” has always been linked with “whiteness,” from tales of the Pilgrims forward. We still see the equation of white=American every day in movies and on television (where shows like “Mad About You,” set in majority-“minority” New York, have no nonwhite main characters). We witness it in the making of social policy. (The U.S. Senate is only 4 percent nonwhite–though over 20 percent of the country is.) We make casual assumptions about who belongs in this society and who is an outsider. (Just ask the countless American-born Asians and Latinos who’ve been complimented on how well they speak English.)

“Whiteness” would not exist, of course, without something against which to define itself. That thing is “blackness.” Slavery was the forging crucible of American racial identity, setting up the black/white dichotomy we have never broken free from. The landmarks of American history are intimately intertwined with these racial conflicts–the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement. But today, even as America becomes more diverse, the media still depicts the world largely in black and white. The dramas and sitcoms we watch are so segregated that the top-10 shows in black households and the top-10 shows in white households barely overlap. Or examine the news media. The three-year long coverage of the O.J. Simpson trials portrayed a nation riven by the black/white color line. And when “Nightline” did a first-rate series on race, it still didn’t cover the true range of diversity but “America in Black and White.” Race is almost always framed as bipolar–the children of slaves vs. the children of slaveowners–even when the issues impact Asians, Latinos and Native Americans as well. School segregation, job integration–they’re covered in black and white. Political rivalries, dating trends, income inequalities–they’re covered as two-sided dilemmas as well.

Everyone gets exposed to media images of race. Kids who have never met an African American will learn about slavery in school, listen to rap or R & B, and read an article on welfare reform or the NBA. It’s only human nature to put together those pieces and try to synthesize an idea of what it means to be “black.” The media and pop culture have such a tremendous power in our society because we use them to tell us what the rest of the society is like, and how we should react to it. The problem is that, too often, the picture we’re getting is out of kilter.

If you’re not black and not white, you’re not very likely to be seen. According to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the proportion of Latino characters on prime-time television actually dropped from 3 percent in the 1950s to 1 percent in the 1980s, even as the Latino population rapidly grew. Asian Americans are even harder to find in entertainment, news, or on the national agenda, and Native Americans rarer still. How we perceive race, and how it’s depicted in print and on television, has less to do with demographic reality than our mindset. National opinion polls reveal that, in the basest and most stereotypic terms, white Americans are considered “true” Americans; black Americans are considered inferior Americans; Asians and Latinos are too often considered foreigners; and Native Americans are rarely thought of at all.

The media’s stereotypic images of race affect all of us, but especially the young Americans who are just beginning to form their racial attitudes. I call the young Americans coming of age today the Millennium Generation. These 15-25 year olds are the most racially mixed generation this nation has ever seen–the face of the new America. As a group, they are 60 percent more likely to be non-white than their parent and grandparent generations, those American Baby Boomers aged 35 and older. No less than one-third of young Americans aged 15 to 25 are black, Latino, Asian or Native American. While the older generations largely rely on the media to provide them with images of a multi-ethnic America, this generation is already living in it.

The Millennium Generation

The teens and twenty-somethings of the Millennium Generation are the true experts on the future of race, because they’re re-creating America’s racial identity every single day. They’re more likely to interact with people of other races and backgrounds than other generations, and they’ve grown up seeing multi-ethnic images. Critically important, a third of this generation is non-white, not just black but Asian, Latino, Native American and multi-racial. Yet the rhetoric which they hear about race dashes abruptly with the realities of their lives. 1990s-style conservatism (led by the “Republican Revolution” which swept Congress in 1994) has included a healthy dollop of anti-immigration and anti-multicultural rhetoric. Politicians (and parents) of every political persuasion tend to cast the race debate in black and white, but the truth of this generation’s lives is far more complex and colorful.

The members of the Millennium Generation defy the easy racial stereotypes. Take an issue as heated as illegal immigration–and the life of an Oakland teen named Diana. Serious and thoughtful, with hopes of going on to college, the Mexican immigrant has lived most of her life in California. She’s more familiar with American culture (not to mention more articulate in English) than most teens. But she doesn’t have a green card, and her chances of pursuing her college dreams seem slim. Her dad has a green card and two of her four siblings are U.S. citizens because they were born in the United States. Diana was born in Mexico. So, even though she came to the U.S. at the age of two, Diana will have a nearly impossible time getting citizenship unless she finds the money to hire an immigration lawyer to fight her case. It would be easy to think of Diana as some kind of anomaly, but she’s not. Countless undocumented immigrants have spent the majority of their lives in this country. And in California alone, there are over a million residents who belong to families of mixed immigration status. Another flashpoint is the battle over affirmative action. Berkeley student LaShunda Prescott could be portrayed as a case of affirmative action gone awry, a black student admitted to a school she wasn’t ready for. An engineering student, LaShunda dropped out of Berkeley twice before graduating. But during that time she looked out for a drug-addicted sister, took care of one of the sister’s children, and dealt with the death of one family member and the shooting of another. In context, her circuitous route through college is not a failure but a triumph.

LaShunda’s schoolmate Steve Mohebi shows another side of the new racial dilemmas. The vice president of the Berkeley College Republicans, he defends, even promotes, recruiting in fraternities where “minorities are not welcome.” What’s new is not the sentiment, but the fact that Steve himself isn’t even white. Nor is he black. He’s Middle Eastern, a Persian immigrant. The lives of people like Diana, LaShunda and Steve are compass points on a map of America’s complex social terrain. If we want to understand where America is headed, we’ve got to take a look at where this generation is today–and how they differ from the generations of the past.

A Splintering Divide

Young Americans like these illustrate a fault line in the race debates that most of us don’t even think about: a massive generation gap. On the one hand, America is led by Baby Boomers and people from the generations that came before them. These movers and shakers in government and industry came of age before and during the Civil Rights era, while America was dealing with (and reeling from) the struggles of blacks to gain legal equality with whites. When they grew up, America was much whiter, both demographically and culturally. The most powerful images of the era show the divide. The top movies and television shows excluded blacks, and our archives are filled with photographs of black and white youth during the Civil Rights Era, such as the stormy desegregation of Little Rock High.

On the other hand, Americans in their teens and twenties are coming of age at a time which seems less momentous than the Civil Rights Era, but is even more complex. This generation sees firsthand evidence in their own schools and neighborhoods that America is becoming less white and more racially mixed. Yet the court battles of today aren’t over providing legal equality for African Americans; they’re about whether to keep or end programs like affirmative action, which were set up to achieve civil rights goals. The cultural battles loom even larger than the legal ones, from the debate over multiculturalism on campus to issues like inter-racial dating. America’s pop culture today is infinitely more likely to show blacks as well as whites (though other races often remain unseen). The billion-dollar hip hop industry, produced by blacks but driven by sales to young fans of all races, is one indicator of the cultural shift. Even more significant, eighty percent of teens have a close friend of another race.

Young Americans today aren’t just on one side of a generation gap. They ARE a generation gap, the core of a massive transition. America has been a majority-white nation obsessed with black and white issues. And America is becoming a “majority-minority” nation with a multi-racial and multi-cultural population. The problem is that, in some ways, we’re neither here nor there. We haven’t left the first model behind, nor fully embraced the second. A moment emblematic of the tensions between the black/white and multi-ethnic views of America occurred in 1997, when President Bill Clinton convened a seven-member advisory board on race relations. One of the members, Korean American attorney Angela Oh, announced that she thought the board shouldn’t waste too much time analyzing slavery and race relations via “the black-white paradigm.” “We need to go beyond that, because the world is about much more than that,” she said. “We can’t undo this part of our heritage. But what we can affect is where we are headed.” Oh is in her early forties and grew up in Los Angeles, a multi-racial city with strong ties to Asia, Mexico and Latin America. She became a spokesperson for Korean shopkeepers looted after the Rodney King verdict, and serves on the Los Angeles Human Rights Commission. Even though she’s a Baby Boomer, she grew up in one of the nation’s most multi-ethnic enclaves, and thinks along those lines.

But esteemed African American historian John Hope Franklin, professor emeritus at Duke University, responded sharply to Oh’s request. “This country cut its eye teeth on black-white relations. Without knowledge of the past, we cannot wisely chart our course for the future,” he said. Franklin was born in Oklahoma in 1915. Unlike Oh, he’s seen Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement firsthand.

Of course, Franklin and Oh are both right. No one can deny that slavery created both racial income inequalities and the American concept of “blackness” (including the stereotypes of intellectual inferiority) which exist to this day. But we can’t think that studying black and white relations alone will give us the keys to a better future. That future will come in many colors, not in monochrome. But We can’t forget the economic disparities between blacks and whites during this time of transition. Many blacks and whites fear (with some justification) that in a “multi-racial” America, blacks will simply be pushed to the bottom of a bigger barrel. It doesn’t help matters that America’s non-white groups have so much trouble learning to cooperate. In cities as far flung as New York, Washington, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland, there have been tensions between Latinos and blacks, or blacks and Asians, or all three groups at once. In Houston and Oakland, blacks and Latinos battled for control of the school systems; in Los Angeles and New York, blacks and Asians warred over who should profit from shops in the ‘hood. But Mexican Americans have joined blacks as scapegoats of the affirmative action wars, and Asians have joined the ranks of those most targeted for hate crimes. While all of these groups are battling each other, they’re ignoring one important fact: they’re all the common enemy of people who think that one day soon, America will become “too” non-white.

The very idea that America will become “majority-minority” scares the hell out of some people. That’s why we find ourselves not only at a point of incredible change, but of incredible fear. The 1990s have seen a full-scale backlash against immigrants and non-whites, both in word and in deed. As the visibility of non-whites has been rising, hate crimes have too–with attacks on increasingly visible Latinos and Asian Americans rising the fastest. Over the 1999 Fourth of July weekend, a white supremacist named Benjamin Nathaniel Smith went on a shooting spree in Illinois, killing an African American and an Asian American, and wounding another Asian American and six Orthodox Jews. But extremists like Smith are not the only Americans clinging to prejudices. A study by the National Opinion Research Center found that the majority of whites still believe blacks to be inferior (with smaller numbers holding the same views of Southern whites and Hispanics).

The biggest backlash has been in America’s policy arena. In 1997, the U.S. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed restrictions not just on illegal but legal immigrants. (For example, many legal immigrants are no longer eligible for government medical care.) The debate over affirmative action has turned ugly, with opponents like University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia stating that “blacks and Mexican Americans are not academically competitive with whites” because of “a culture that seems not to encourage achievement.” (He later added: “I don’t know that it’s good for whites to be with the lower classes. I’m afraid it may actually have deleterious effects on their views because they will see people from situations of economic deprivation usually behave less attractively.”) Sadly, even the basic tenets of the Civil Rights movement are still controversial. Take Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s response when asked by a law professor how he would have ruled on the Brown v. Board of Education case which ended legal segregation. Scalia pondered for a moment–then said he might well have decided in favor of the segregated school system.

The halls of power in America are still segregated. Many corporations and even government agencies look much like they did half a century ago, before Martin Luther King, Jr. marched to Selma. Ninety-five percent of corporate management–the presidents, vice presidents, and CEOs who run America–are white males. Or as Newsweek’s article put it: “White males make up just 39.2 percent of the population, yet they account for 82.5 percent of the Forbes 400 (folks worth at least $265 million), 77 percent of Congress, 92 percent of state governors, 70 percent of tenured college faculty, almost 90 percent of daily-newspaper editors, 77 percent of TV news directors.” The image of a hostile takeover of America by non-white guerrilla forces is patently a lie.

What remains a sad truth is the racial divide in resources and opportunity. The unemployment rate is one good indicator. For decades, the black unemployment rate has been approximately twice that of whites. In 1995, the unemployment rate was 3.3 percent for whites, 6.6 percent for blacks, 5.1 percent for Hispanics, and 3.2 percent for Asian Americans.

Recent polls indicate that most Americans know little about the profound differences separating the income, health and educational opportunities of Americans of different races. This makes a profound difference in how we think of racial issues. In a series of polls, Americans who believed that the opportunities and incomes of blacks and whites were equal were much less likely to support programs to end racial discrepancies. Too many of us try to wish the problem of race away instead of confronting it. Instead of attacking the problems of race, we seem intent on attacking non-white races, including those members of the next generation who belong to “minority” ethnic groups.

Paths for the Future

We have better options than tearing each other apart. Instead of fearing the change in American society, we can prepare for it. Here are some simple suggestions:

— Know the Facts About America’s Diversity. Evaluate how much you know about race in America. According to an array of surveys, white Americans–who at this moment in time make up over three-quarters of the adult population–have an inaccurate view of the racial opportunity gap. Those misperceptions then contribute to their views on issues like the need for the government to address racial inequality.

— Demand Better Media Coverage of Race. One study which tracked a year’s worth of network news coverage found that sixty percent of images of blacks were negative, portraying victims, welfare dependents and criminals. That is a far cry from the reality about the black community. The news and even the entertainment we read, listen to and watch has a tremendous influence on our perception of societal problems.

— Foster Coalitions Between Non-White Groups. Particularly in urban areas, it’s becoming increasingly likely that various non-white groups will share the same community. For example, South Asians and Latinos live next to each other in parts of Queens, New York, and Blacks, Latinos, and Asians share the same neighborhood in Oakland, California. But even though blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans often share common issues, they don’t have a good track record of joining together. Every city has groups trying to make a difference. One example is Los Angeles’s MultiCultural Collaborative, a group of Korean, Latino and black grassroots organizers formed in response to the destruction following the Rodney King verdict.

— Foster Coalitions Between Whites and Non-Whites. Just as important as forming coalitions between different nonwhite groups is changing the often antagonistic politics between the racial majority (whites) and racial “minorities.” One way of doing this is to bring together like-minded groups from different communities. For example, the Parent-Teacher Association from a majority-black school could meet with the PTA from a mostly-Asian school, to discuss their common goals, specific challenges, and how they might press government officials to improve education in their district.

— Demand “Color Equality” Before “Color Blindness.” Segregation is still a pervasive problem in American society, most of all for blacks but for virtually every other race as well. But does that mean we should attempt to overcome segregation and bias by demanding a “color blind” society–one where we talk less, think less, and certainly act without regard to race. The term “color blind” has become increasingly popular, but it avoids a couple of fundamental truths. If racial inequality is a problem, it’s terribly difficult to deal with the problem by simply declaring we’re all the same. Moreover, do we want to be the same, or equal? Who, for example, could envision New York without a Chinatown and a Little Italy?

— Re-Desegregate the School System. Four decades after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, over sixty percent of black students still attend segregated schools. In many municipalities, the statistics are getting worse, not better. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled in the past decade that even strategies like creating magnet programs in mostly-minority schools could not be used as a desegregation strategy. It would be nothing less than a tragedy if at the precise moment we are becoming a more diverse country, we are steering children and teens into increasingly segregated schools.

The changes the next millennium brings will at the very least surpass and quite possibly will shatter our current understanding of race, ethnicity, culture and community. The real test of our strength will be how willing we are to go beyond the narrowness of our expectations, seek knowledge about the lives of those around us–and move forward with eagerness, not fear.

US Population Racial and Ethnic Group Trends

The U.S. is becoming increasingly diverse. Under the “middle” projection envisioned by the Census Bureau, which incorporates the most likely future scenarios in fertility, mortality, and immigration rates, a majority of the U.S. population will belong to minority groups sometime shortly after 2050 (see Figure 1.)

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The largest absolute growth will be in the Hispanic population. They will outstrip blacks as the Nation’s largest minority group by 2010. After 2020, they will add more each year to the population than all other ethnic/racial groups combined. Their numbers are anticipated to rise 32 million by 2050, when they will constitute 24 percent of the US populace.

In proportional terms, however, Asian and Pacific Americans are the fastest growing group. They will have doubled their proportion of the populace (and nearly quadrupled their absolute number) by the middle of next century. That translates to an annual growth rate over 2.5 percent. (By contrast, the US population did not grow by 2 percent even during the baby boom.)

Blacks will see their numbers nearly double to 61 million people. After 2016, more blacks than non-Hispanic whites will be added to the population each year.

Whites will see the smallest net gain over this period. In fact, front 2030-2050, the non-Hispanic white population will decline in absolute as well as relative size.

These trends are even more remarkable if they are disaggregated by age and State of residency. A majority of children (under 18) will belong to minority groups sometime after 2030. By 2050, 58 percent of children will be minorities. By contrast, 66 percent of the elderly (over 65) will be whites (see Figure 2.) Race and ethnicity may exacerbate the inter-generational conflicts that are anticipated as social security, Medicare, and other social contracts are renegotiated.

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Today, only New Mexico, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia have majority minority populations. California, which will remain the Nation’s largest state, is expected to become majority minority this year. By 2025, only one third of California’s population will be white. Less dramatic changes are expected for most other states, including Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois (see Figure 3.)

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Fueling these demographic transformations has been a vast rise in immigration, which accounts for over a third of the current population growth directly and a high percentage of its growth indirectly, as first and second generation Americans are generally more fertile than average. Today about one million immigrants arrive each year and one out of ten Americans was born abroad. (No one knows for sure how many unauthorized immigrants there are, but estimates suggest around 225,000 arrive each year and that they now number over 5 million.)

The current migration flows stern from a 1965 immigration law passed during the height of the civil rights movement, which abolished national quotas explicitly favoring northern and western European immigrants. Instead, it instituted a complex system that prioritized three groups of foreigners: family members of U.S. citizens; those with needed job skills; and (a small number of) refugees. As scholars Philip Martin and Elizabeth Midgley have observed, the law had an unintended impact: “The main countries of origin for U.S. immigrants shifted from Europe to Latin America and Asia” (see Figure 4.)

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There have been three great waves of immigration to the United States after the arrival of north and western European settlers. Each brought populations regarded under the prevailing ethos as unassimilably alien; and each was accompanied by a sometimes perfervid debate over the newcomers’ traits and abilities (see Figure 5.) The current migration flow is as large as the previous one in absolute terms, but in comparison to the size of the contemporary US population, it is considerably smaller.

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If immigration were dramatically reduced or even eliminated, the projected ethnic/racial balance in 2050 would be significantly different from what it would be otherwise. Under low and no immigration scenarios, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites would rise from 53 percent to 56 and 61 percent, respectively (see Figure 6.) However, the general trend would still be toward a substantial increase in the percentage of minorities, with the Nation achieving majority-minority stares within an additional generation or so.

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One variable may attenuate the growth of racial and ethnic divisions: the rate of out-marriage. Already, some Asian/Pacific Islander American groups are out-marrying at rates similar to Jewish Americans, at nearly 50 percent. America’s racial lines will become ever more blurred if that trend continues. The question then would be how to count all the Iraqi-Nigerians, Chinese-Brazilians and other exotic blends this country of exogamous immigrants will increasingly produce-or whether such identities will even matter as much as they do today.

–Editor

Farai Chideya is the author of “The Color of Our Future” (William Morrow, 1999) from which this is adapted.

COPYRIGHT 1999 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group