How Minorities Can Help America

With the nation's share of Asians and Hispanics expected to double in 40 years, the changes these rising minority groups are making to politics and society are only beginning.
by | December 31, 2014

The rising population of minorities could have a greater impact on American society than the baby boom generation. That’s the conclusion demographer William H. Frey makes in his new book about the growth and dispersal of minorities, Diversity Explosion.

Frey, who is associated with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and the University of Michigan, recognizes that the wide-scale changes just starting to take effect are causing some discomfort, both politically and culturally, but he is largely sanguine about them.

“I’m not trying to scare anybody, because I don’t think we need to be scared,” Frey said at a recent event at Brookings. “I think it’s actually something that’s going to help us as a country.”

In contrast to other rich nations such as Germany, Japan and Italy that are aging rapidly -- and as a result are seeing declines in their working-age populations (people ages 15 to 64) -- the U.S. will continue to gain potential workers. That’s thanks to minorities.

The number of working-age whites is set to decline by 15 million from 2010 to 2030, but the number of minorities in that age cohort will increase by 26 million. “Moreover, because the new minority workers are replacing and not competing with existing white workers, they will be more readily accepted by their coworkers and society at large,” Frey wrote.

He also noted that residential segregation -- while still high -- is in decline. The traditional divide between black-dominated cities and white suburbs has largely evaporated (with the exception of older cities in the north such as Milwaukee and Cleveland). For the first time, a majority of minority groups have joined whites in living primarily in the suburbs.

“Today, it is racial minorities, in their quest for the suburban dream, who are generating new growth and vitality in the suburbs, just as immigrant groups did in the cities in an earlier area,” he wrote.

The share of the adult U.S. population that is foreign-born more than doubled between 1990 and 2010. The Pew Center on the States recently published a study looking at counties where immigrants are going. Already, cities such as Omaha, Neb., and Scranton, Pa., are depending on minorities for growth. Between 2000 and 2010, 15 states declined in overall white population. White population as a whole will start to decline in about a decade.

Minorities, meanwhile, surpassed whites in the number of U.S. births only in 2011, but already made up a majority of K-12 enrollment as a whole by the start of the current school year.

Paying attention to these patterns -- and focusing on the needs of minorities who are moving far outside traditional gateways such as Los Angeles, New York and Miami -- can help not just minorities but the country as a whole prosper, Frey argued.

“We can avoid a Ferguson five years from now, 10 years from now, when new minorities are moving to places like suburbs or small towns where there weren’t minorities before [by being] proactive about this, knowing that this is happening demographically,” Frey said at the Brookings event. “Unless we do this, we’re asking for trouble.”

Frey noted that when the civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s, only 15 percent of the population were racial minorities -- mostly African Americans living in segregated cities. By 2010, more than 40 percent of the population was made up of racial minorities and they were living in all kinds of locales.

Hispanic buying power will be $1.7 trillion by 2017 -- up 350 percent from 2000. The rise will be even larger among Asians. Yet Hispanics in particular tend to have less educated parents and 80 percent of Hispanic children are in heavily segregated schools.

Frey noted that there’s a “cultural generation gap” between aging whites and younger minority populations. White voters are more skeptical about expanding government programs, while minorities favor investment in schools, workforce training and health care.

He argued that whites should be attentive to the needs of the younger, browner population, if only to maintain a workforce that can generate the taxes needed to support programs they rely on such as Social Security and Medicare.

Other demographers, such as Dowell Myers at the University of Southern California, have made similar arguments. But Ronald Brownstein, a journalist who plays close attention to demographic shifts for the Atlantic and National Journal, points out that the competition for resources between generations and races is contributing to the polarization of American politics.

He notes that a majority of white voters have not supported a Democratic candidate for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. This fall, Democratic Senate candidates ran even with their GOP competitors among whites in only four of the 22 U.S. Senate races for which there were exit polls.

“In our politics today, we are living through an overlapping generational, racial and geographic realignment that is leaving us with two coalitions that are utterly divergent in who they represent, where they live and what they want,” Brownstein said at Brookings.

Whites represent a shrinking slice of the electorate and the population as a whole, but they are still overrepresented among voters. As recently as 1980, Frey writes, whites made up 90 percent of all voters. By 2012, their share of the vote was down to 74 percent -- but that was substantially more than their 63 percent share of the population.

Still-slipping support for Democrats among working-class whites goes a long way to explaining the party’s struggles at the state and congressional levels this past November. The combination of minority support and backing of college-educated whites has been enough for Democrats to win the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

The inroads the party is making thanks to minority growth in states such as Florida and Virginia may be offset by declining white support in light blue states in the upper Midwest, including Michigan and Wisconsin. That’s already apparent in Republican successes there at the state level.

In Frey’s calculus, however, the future clearly belongs to minorities. Over the next 40 years, the share of Americans who are Hispanic or Asian -- which has already grown substantially -- is expected to more than double.

Frey also highlights the rapid growth of multiracial Americans, which he sees as a positive sign that people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds are interacting more.

Interracial couples made up less than half a percent of marriages back in 1960, but their share was up to 8.4 percent by 2010. Now, 15 percent of all newlyweds are multiracial.

“When you have that mix of racial and ethnic groups, it’s not so much of the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ that we had many decades ago,” Frey said.