Non-White Birth Rate May Inspire Policy Changes

Guests

Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor, New York University

The Census Bureau announced that for the first time non-whites now make up the majority of births in the U.S. The demographic shift raises questions about how this trend will affect policy in the country, particularly with regard to education and social programs.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

We've known for years this day would come, but here it is. The Census Bureau announced today that nonwhite births now make up a majority in the United States. Data gathered in 2011 show that nonwhite, Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Native American, mixed race and others combined for 50.4 percent. That's the first time that white births were not a majority in U.S. history, and that raises some questions about policy - from education to social services programs - and about how we see ourselves as a nation.

We'd like to hear your thoughts. What, if anything, does this change? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Marcelo Suarez-Orozco is professor of globalization and education at New York University. He specializes in cultural psychology and anthropology. And he's on the phone with us from New York. Nice to have you with us today.

DR. MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO: Thank you.

CONAN: So, obviously, we've been anticipating this change for a long time - demographic progress being what it is - eventually, the day comes.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: The day came, and it came maybe a bit earlier than those of us who have been looking into the changing face of America had been anticipating. But in some ways, it tells a story of what's happening in cities and towns, large and small all over the homeland. We're changing as a nation. Our face is changing. And most importantly, our future will look different. Our country may be the only country in the world where immigration is history. It's at the root of how we became the country we are today, and more importantly, it's our destiny. The children of immigrants are now the fastest growing sector of the child and young adult population.

CONAN: Again, we're going to be seeing this echo through the years, as that cohort born in 2011 grows up, gets a little bit bigger and finally goes to school, but it's going to have some impact on policy, don't you think?

SUAREZ-OROZCO: In some ways, yes, especially in regards to the nexus between education and, really, the debate over how do we give - how do we transfer the skills and the sensibilities, the competencies to the new generation, to the newest, the littlest Americans so that they can fully engage the new economy, the new society of the 21st century. It changes the topic in that the story - the data that were released today, are really in a way changed the story from a story of immigration, really, to a story of the integration and the transition of these new Americans to the fabric of our society.

CONAN: You used the word integration, yet in a lot of ways, yes, we are an integrated society, but in a lot of ways, people self-segregate.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: Yes. Although let me say that, while residential segregation and school segregation is an enduring concern, especially for our African-American and Latino youngsters, other data tell a very powerful and maybe a very uniquely American story. About a third of all Asians in our country will marry outside their group. About 20 percent of Hispanics in the United States - in the first generation - will marry outside their group. So, yes, we have a continuing unfinished business with segregation, but at the same time, other indicators tell a very, very different story.

CONAN: And so, as you look at this, what - we've seen, for example, that even in communities that have high proportions of people who are retired, that those older Americans are generally willing to pay for school for their grandchildren. Do you think that is going to change in any respect?

SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, I think that this is the fundamental question: How do we re-imagine, how do we remake the social contract when the generations no longer really look like one another? How do we then create a narrative of our nation where our shared fate - regardless of generation - now involves folk of very, very different ethnicities, languages, immigration histories, while we continue to emphasize the sheer qualities of what makes us all Americans?

CONAN: Do you think, as we move - we have seen ourselves, I think it's fair to say, as a white-dominated country that's not necessarily going to change any time soon.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, this is a complex story. The - half of all Hispanics - if you think in terms of, you know, the big news here, right, the Hispanic-origin population continues to grow at a very, very fast rate. Half of all Hispanics now consider themselves white. So then we need to talk about an off-white phenomenon. How do we think about the fact that 100 years ago, near where I am now, here in the Lower East Side of New York, huge numbers of Italians and Irish and eastern Europeans came to our country, and they weren't - certainly were not viewed as white. So this is a story that has been with us for 100, 150 years. How do we remake the social fabric of the nation as we absorb new cohorts of Americans by choice?

CONAN: Yet, as you speak from New York City, that's a place that's been, historically, one of the great membranes of America, where people come in, are absorbed and changed, then move out. But for so long, because of the immigration laws, much of the rest of the country was inoculated from change, from demographic change, and that has changed remarkably over the past, what, 20 years or so.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: Yeah. The story of the South is a story that really tells how much we've changed. As you look at the fastest growth of the Hispanic-origin population of the United States, it's really taking place in the South. It was really just the spectacular growth of the real estate sector, construction, that really worked as a huge magnet recruiting workers from all over the world, especially from Latin America, Mexico, Central America during the 1980s, '90s.

And that's - what we see today is a kind of - the demographic echo of that story. I guess in the 2000 census, the story really was a story of immigration. Today, 12 years later, the story is a story of the children. That inevitably becomes part of the story when a society has experienced large-scale migration, really, over two generations now.

CONAN: We're talking with Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at New York University, about the news released earlier today by the Census Bureau that last year, for the first time, there were more non-white babies born in this country than white. And what change does that mean? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Jennifer's on the line with us from Naples, in Florida.

JENNIFER: Hello, there.

CONAN: Hi.

JENNIFER: Hi. How's it going?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

JENNIFER: Good. Good. Well, I just was calling in to say the news doesn't surprise me, and I know it's been predicted for quite some time. And I've definitely seen the change in my community. And many of my friends have biracial children or come from other countries or, you know, have many different skin colors and national backgrounds. So I'm not surprised. I do think, as an educator - I'm a teacher, a middle school teacher - that we have to start meeting the young people with diverse cultural images. And sometimes, I notice with my own kids who come from diverse backgrounds, that some of our cultural icons don't necessarily appeal to them.

CONAN: Can you give us a for-instance?

JENNIFER: For instance, if we're talking about Paul Revere's ride. As wonderful as that is to our history, it - kids are coming from other places in the world, and they have different perspectives. And they - I think that we are going to end up having a more global history that comes into our classrooms in order to get them interested.

CONAN: Naples is a prosperous community and...

JENNIFER: Yeah.

CONAN: ...I wonder if you feel that makes a difference in terms of the - its welcome-ness.

JENNIFER: I definitely do. There's definitely a divide here in Naples. You know, most of the people who come from the immigrant backgrounds work for the wealthier people. And I think that the kids are going to want to start seeing more leadership heroes of their own - maybe of - that have similar stories to them, or similar cultural backgrounds.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Interesting point, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: OK.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

JENNIFER: OK. Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: And, Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, that could be one way that - well, I think many communities are facing that change already.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: Yes, I think that's true. I think Florida, obviously, throughout, more broadly, the South. But really, today, every state in the Union is facing the issue that the younger cohorts are more diverse. They come from much broader set of backgrounds than was the case 20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago. So we need to upgrade the tool kit for a 21st century education so that these kids, these new Americans, have all the tools, all the competencies, all the sensibilities that will be required of them to thrive in the 21st century.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation, and let's go to - this is Marcos(ph), Marcos with us from Rockford, Illinois.

MARCOS: Yes. I really hope that this will change the educational system. And Dr. Condoleezza Rice often talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations that are placed on students of color, especial black and Latino students. And as a Latino and as an educator, I've definitely seen this and, you know, I really hope that they can treat us with the same expectations that they treat other students. And also, I found it very amusing that your guest said that half of Latinos perceive themselves as white because - I mean, and I don't doubt that they do, but it's just very amusing, because so many people wouldn't even perceive us as American, even when we're born here...

CONAN: Well, there's a difference...

MARCOS: ...let alone white.

CONAN: There's a difference, I guess, in that. Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, there could be - both those things can be true.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, I'm just reporting what the census data says (unintelligible).

MARCOS: Oh, absolutely, and I don't doubt that at all. I just find it amusing. I think that there's a very tragic irony there.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: If you're alive in the 21st century, amusement is a good place to be in.

CONAN: And irony is not an unfamiliar companion. But, Marcos, don't you think that as it becomes pervasive that large numbers of brown and yellow and African-American faces are in the classroom, that this kind of adaptation and those expectations, they're going to be demanded.

MARCOS: I really hope so, because, I mean, as it is in Rockford, Illinois, if I'm not mistaken, I believe that if not - if it's not a case where students of color already make up the majority of the population, it's pretty darn close to it. And still I see where they're maybe not so much in Rockford and surrounding areas where I worked, that I've seen the - that there are lower expectations. When I've, you know, where I've flat-out been told by administrators, who are like, hey, you know, you're teaching over these kids' heads.

CONAN: Well, let's hope we can change that. Thanks very much for the call, Marcos.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, it will become an urgent necessity to change that, is what I would add, given simply the numbers. And if you think in terms of the nexus to the labor market, the citizenship, to really belonging to the family of the nation, you can't have expectations other than at the highest levels, if we're going to meet the challenge that the global economy and the global societies will represent in the 21st century.

CONAN: Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, thanks very much for your time today.

SUAREZ-OROZCO: My pleasure.

CONAN: Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at New York University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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