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The New Face of America

By 2042, minorities will make up the majority of the U.S. population. What will this demographic sea-change mean?

By Sam Roberts


Click for graphic.
Jessica Martinez is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother who never graduated from high school. But Martinez, now 18 and a freshman at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, didn't feel like an outsider growing up in northern New Mexico.

"There's a huge Latino presence here, so I never felt like a minority," she says.

New Mexico and other states like California and Texas where "minorities" already outnumber whites, are on the vanguard of an enormous demographic shift that's taking place in the United States: The Census Bureau projects that by 2042, Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander will together outnumber non-Hispanic whites.

In other words, in a little more than a generation, the U.S. will be a "majority minority" country, with ethnic and racial minorities constituting a majority of the nation's population.

"No other country has experienced such rapid racial and ethnic change," says Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C.

The main reason for the accelerating change, according to the Census Bureau, is higher birthrates among immigrants, along with an increase in the number of foreigners coming to the United States.

This shift is happening even faster among younger Americans: In just 15 years, minorities will constitute a majority of those under 18, and they will be a majority of working-age Americans by 2039.

The question is what this shift will mean for the country.

"Historically, it's been hard for multiracial and multiethnic societies to create a common civic culture," says Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies. "So the question for us is, can we be one of the first successful ones? We're headed into uncharted territory. I'm not pessimistic, but I don't think we should be Pollyanna-ish about this."

21st-Century Benefit

For the first time, both the number and the proportion of whites, who now account for 66 percent of the population, will decline, starting around 2030. By 2050, their share will dip to 46 percent.

Some experts say the nation's increasing diversity may better prepare Americans for the globalized world of the 21st century.

"As much as the baby boomers embraced new ideas, they didn't grow up in a very international setting with many immigrants," explains William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "What's going to change, in a very good way, is that bubbling up into the labor force and into positions of power are people who do understand diversity. It will position us well for getting along in the world in the 21st century."

These demographic shifts are already affecting politics. As minority groups become larger, they also tend to become more powerful politically. Frey notes that by the 2028 presidential election, racial and ethnic minorities will constitute a majority of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 for the first time.

In fact, the impact on politics is already being felt. Both presidential candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, are focusing more attention on Hispanic voters, who could play a crucial role on Election Day in states like Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico.

In everything from TV news anchors to Hollywood celebrities, Americans are already used to seeing more diversity and multiculturalism than previous generations. The business world has also recognized the value of diversity, often including a rainbow of skin tones in their ads.

With the Census Bureau predicting even more immigrants, demographers estimate that the proportion of foreign-born Americans, now about 12 percent, could surpass the 1910 historic high of 15 percent by about 2025.

According to the new forecast, by 2050:
• The number of Hispanics will nearly triple, to 133 million from 47 million, and account for 30 percent of Americans, compared with 15 percent today.
• Asians will increase to 41 million from 16 million, becoming 9 percent of the population, up from 5 percent.
• The number of blacks will rise to 66 million from 41 million, with their overall share increasing by two percentage points, to 15 percent.
"What's happening now in terms of increasing diversity probably is unprecedented," says Campbell Gibson, a retired census demographer.

The question is whether Americans will still define themselves according to the same racial and ethnic terms as these changes take place. "The way people report race 20 or 30 years from now may be very different," says David G. Waddington, chief of the Census Bureau's population projections branch.

Who's 'White'?

In fact, concepts of race and ethnicity have evolved throughout American history. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin feared that his fellow white Pennsylvanians would be overwhelmed by swarthy Germans, who "will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."

A century or so ago, the Irish Catholics, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and even some Germans who arrived in droves in the United States were not universally considered white.

"In the minds of many Americans of influence and position at the time, the post-1890 immigrants—Jews, Italians, various Slavic groups, Greeks—were probably as foreign as 'Hispanics' are today, and considered, as Hispanics are today, as in some degree 'nonwhite,' " says Nathan Glazer, a sociology professor at Harvard University.

Since 2000, the number of babies born to Hispanic mothers in the United States has surpassed the number of new Hispanic immigrants, which means a growing proportion of Hispanics are being raised as Americans from birth.

"The process of assimilation is such that our views of the degree of difference of newer non-white groups changes rapidly," Glazer says.

Glazer predicts that in the decades to come, racial and ethnic distinctions will be further blurred by intermarriage. About a third of the grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants marry non-Hispanics. And by 2050, 16 million Americans, or nearly 4 percent of the population, are expected to identify themselves as multiracial.

Mather, the demographer, sees these changes as positive developments. "I think it's going to change our concept of race and ethnicity," he says. "I think once we reach that tipping point, becoming a majority-minority country, those categories that the census uses start to lose their meaning. Maybe we will become more color-blind in the future."