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The Political Future of a Browning America

People of color now account for most of the country's population growth. That has profound implications for the way elections are won and the nation is governed.

America's most basic law, the Constitution, is exclusively the product of white men. Since this country's founding, white men have been deciding public policy with little effort to understand how people of color see the world. Yet for nearly our entire history the racial landscape of America has encompassed a white majority and a black minority. That era is over.

Calling the phenomenon "the browning of America," demographer James Johnson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill notes that only 17 percent of the net growth in the country's population from 2000 to 2010 was non-Hispanic white. More than half the country's net growth was Hispanic. Since then, however, Asians have overtaken Hispanics as the largest group of immigrants to the United States. About 430,000 Asians, 36 percent of all new immigrants, arrived in the U.S. in 2010, compared to about 370,000, or 31 percent, who were Hispanic. Asians are the fastest growing racial group in America, increasing by 46 percent from 2000 to 2010 and quadrupling their numbers since 1980.

These are unprecedented and enduring changes, driven not only by the large numbers of immigrants from Asia and Latin America but also by the higher birthrates of people of color--for the first time ever, non-Hispanic whites now account for less than half of the births in this country--and the increasing rates of intermarriage between ethnic and racial groups. The Pew Research Center projects that by 2050 a majority of all Americans could be people of color.

funkhouser-1-7-12-pewchart.jpgThis browning of America is happening in parallel with the graying of America. The result will be a country with both an aging white population and a younger brown population with radically different political interests. This will profoundly impact every institution in American life.

Most political commentators see Republicans and Democrats becoming ever more polarized, but Johnson thinks that these demographic changes will result in some blurring of the lines between the two parties and a more complex political landscape. "I teach in a business school," he says, "and I see kids of color who are incredibly conservative and who will make political choices based on economics first - unless you've insulted their dignity."

In last year's presidential election, Mitt Romney lost despite having the overwhelming support of white America--59 percent of white voters overall and 62 percent of white male voters. White privilege in America has not yet gone away, but it is no longer the case that politicians or business and civic leaders of any one group, white or otherwise, can afford not to try to understand how others see the world.

Today the only way to win at the polls and to govern effectively is to get out of the bubble. Living in an echo chamber--talking only with people who look like you and have had the same life experiences--is a recipe for failure. The most successful politicians will be those who embrace coalitions and who understand both the differences between and the common interests of diverse groups of people.

In a recent Huffington Post piece titled "Whiteness in the Age of Obama," Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy wrote, "It isn't that America is beginning to be everyone's country. It's that it has always been everyone's country, and that fact is harder and harder for anyone to deny." The assertion that an illustrious band of white men put at the front of the venerable document they created, "We the people," is being fulfilled.

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