The Browning Of A Nation

America's minorities are quickly becoming the majority, and the population shift is happening sooner than expected. That's coming as a surprise to older Americans according to demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution. Host Michel Martin talks with Frey about what challenges might come from this 'cultural generation gap.'


You've probably been hearing a lot about how America's racial and ethnic makeup is changing. Now it seems as though some of these population tipping points are happening sooner than expected. In a few minutes we will talk about the implications of this in areas like the economy and pop culture.

But first, to get the facts we want to turn, as we often do, to demographer William Frey. He's with the Brookings Institution and the University of Michigan and he has just prepared a new report on this for the University of Michigan. He's with us from his home office in Washington, D.C.

William Frey, thanks so much for joining us once again.

WILLIAM FREY: Oh, I'm pleased to be with you again, Michel.

MARTIN: So we've heard a lot about how the country is moving away from being majority white, but you're saying that it's happening a lot sooner than expected, particularly with younger people. Could you talk about that?

FREY: Yes. The new projections, which came out just a little bit ago, I think surprised a lot of people because we all know that we're becoming more racially diverse. The 2010 census told us that. The 2012 election told us that.

But what we found out from these new projections is that the child population, those people aged under 18, are going to become majority minority in the year 2018, just five years from now. And I think that startles a lot of people. It actually startled me, and you know, that's come down a little bit from what it was in the last set of projections. And my guess is, when we get closer to that time, we'll probably even hit that tipping point before 2018, and I think that's just really crucial for people to understand because, you know, this is the future of the country, our children.

MARTIN: A lot of people think - I think may have the impression that immigration is the driving force behind this growing diversity. You're saying that that's not true. It has to do with the fact that the white population is aging and the other populations are growing. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

FREY: Yes, that's true. The other misconception a lot of people have is that's totally due to immigration. A lot of this growth has to do with the natural increase in the Hispanic population, which is actually contributing more to Hispanic gains in the United States than immigration today.

MARTIN: Is there any area of the country where you can see this now?

FREY: Well, you know, there are parts of the country where we've had this tipping point for quite a while. I did some calculations for the state of Arizona where there's not only this phenomena going on, but also it's relatively recent compared to other states so that in the year 2000 there was a majority minority population in Arizona from people age nine and below. As a result of the 2010 census, it's people age 24 and below are a majority minority in Arizona, so that's that fast shift and growth in the younger part of the population.

MARTIN: I want to talk about what you see as a growing - I'm not sure. What's the right word? Is it conflict? Is it competition? Is it a generation gap that's - you see what I'm struggling with here? How do you characterize this? Because there's been a lot of focus on kind of the tension between new immigrants and the settled immigrants and immigrants, you know, from earlier centuries, the kind of white European immigrants. And you're saying that there's kind of a logical sort of...

FREY: Well, what we see here, as I see it, is a cultural generation gap. It certainly is generational. What I think that will mean is that there's going to be a real challenge for political leaders, for religious leaders, for community leaders to help to educate those older folks that these people are really important. They're our future and that when it comes to government programs, when it comes to charitable work, when it comes to just sort of being able to connect with people in the community, that this is our future, even if it's not their children or their grandchildren. It's important that they see this as this is our society and it's an important part of the growth of our society.

MARTIN: More than 70 percent of today's baby boomers and seniors are white and they will have grown up during a time when the nation's minority population was, number one, relatively small, and of the minorities that they may have known, most of those were African-Americans. In fact, the majority of, I think, minorities over the age of 50 are African-Americans.

Now you're saying among younger people, like 40 percent of those under the age of 35, belong to minority groups. So what are we worried about here?

FREY: I'm not sure it's a matter of worrying. I don't think it's a matter of people being at each others' throats or, you know, sort of hostility between these groups, but it's a little bit more subtle, so when you get into government programs, you want the older people to recognize they need to support these younger people. It shouldn't all be for them. And by the same token for the younger generations to understand that these older folks also, you know, are part of the community and their voice needs to be heard as well.

So I think that when there is a little bit of push-back, when there is a little bit of hostility, it tends to be part of political gamesmanship. I think we have seen a lot of this in the last few years in the immigration debate, where some politicians try to make political hay out of saying, you know, we don't really need to have as many immigrants. We don't need to make a path to citizenship for undocumenteds, rather than try to look at the broader picture in terms of - it's not just the undocumented. It's not just the new immigrants, but it's their children and the next generation which is really important. You don't hear that a lot in some places and I think those kinds of points need to be made.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, we talk a lot about governance. We talk a lot about, you know, budget resources. I mean you cite the example of maybe an older, settled population in some communities not necessarily being as interested in supporting the schools because they don't necessarily see kids in those schools who are related to them or who they know. On the other hand, you see younger people who are much more used to a racially diverse environment who just don't see it as the big deal that it might have been 20, 30, you know, 40 years ago.

When you imagine, you know, the future that is here now - OK - where do you think the biggest impact will be? And I understand I'm asking you to speculate. That's not kind of your thing as a demographer, but I am asking you to sort of - based on what you see now, what do you see as the biggest impact? Is it going to be cultural? Is it going to be political, a new class of political leaders rising? Certainly that's going to happen. What do you see?

FREY: Well, I think it's going to be both cultural and political because they go together. You know, I think the best kinds of experiences to have in a community where there are new people who come from a different background, who speak a different language, is to just have personal interaction with the community members that are already there and when that's not the case, then you have this kind of cultural divide which persists.

So, you know, I think it's really the places where this growth is most rapid, not where the minority populations are biggest on a snapshot picture, but where the moving picture is one where they're growing rapidly. And I think that is the way it's going to have to happen.

You know, we've had these kinds of issues, maybe not 50 years ago but 100 years ago where we had people coming in - most of them white, but they were coming in from Italy, they were coming in from Eastern Europe. And the people who lived here didn't see them as part of their own populations either, and it took a long time for that to occur, that integration for those folks to become real Americans. Today we don't think of Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans as anything different than the rest of the folks in the United States, but it took a while to do that. Sometimes it was a lot more difficult.

I think today, with the kind of technology that we have, it should be easier and faster, but it's not going to happen overnight and we need enlightened leaders, both in the corporate sector, in the government sector and the community sectors to really understand this and to make sure that especially the older generation understands this.

MARTIN: That was William Frey. He is a demographer with the Brookings Institution - that's a think tank in Washington, D.C. - and the University of Michigan. He was kind enough to join us from his home office in Washington, D.C.

William Frey, thanks so much for joining us once again.

FREY: Sure. I enjoyed it.

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