How Will America Cope With Diversity Changes?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We want to continue our conversation about this country's changing population. We hope you just heard my conversation with demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution and the University of Michigan and he told us that in just five years the majority of Americans under 18 will be members of groups that are minorities now, which is to say not white. That's a lot sooner than demographers had expected that to happen.
We wanted to go behind the numbers, though, and talk about what this means for the economy, for pop culture, how you live every day. So we've called three people who think about this. Howard Dodson is director of Howard University's library system and research center. Before that, he was the longtime director of Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Fernando Vila is director of production and development at Fusion. That's a new media collaboration between Univision and ABC. And Danielle Belton is back with us. She's editor-at-large of Clutch magazine online.
Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us, once again for all of you. All of you have been with us before.
FERNANDO VILA: Thank you.
DANIELLE BELTON: Thanks for having us.
HOWARD DODSON: It's good to be here.
MARTIN: Danielle, I'm going to start with you because you said that you've actually been thinking a lot about this.
BELTON: Oh, yeah. And I've written quite a bit about it on my personal blog, BlackSnob.com.
MARTIN: And what are your thoughts?
BELTON: Well, my biggest thoughts are there's often this - oh, it's going to be - the whites will be the minority and brown people will be the majority. I feel like if you look at history and if you look at the understanding of who Hispanic - like Hispanic is a made-up term. If you go to South America, you go to the islands, there are white Hispanics, there are black Hispanics, there are brown Hispanics, and I don't see that white Hispanics would just, like, not be white.
Like after, you know, you've been in this country several years, you assimilate and you become part of the white population. It happened with the Irish. It happened with the Polish. It happened with the Italians, and that's why it's like I do believe that we will have a much higher minority population, but I don't think it's going to be exactly the way people are envisioning it.
MARTIN: You don't think it's really going to change that much, is what you are telling us, because you feel that the world will still be, in a way, binary. It'll still be kind of black and white and some people will identify black, as it were, and some people will identify white, as you said, that the way that the Irish and the Italians have really become white. That's an...
MARTIN: ...interesting idea. I don't know. Let's ask Fernando what you think about that. What do you think about that?
VILA: Well, it's interesting. I mean the sort of process of assimilation, which is the sort of traditional route that immigrant communities have taken in this country, has not really played out the same way with the influx of Hispanic immigrants.
I mean there's a lot of reasons for that. One is technological advances have allowed immigrants to stay in touch with their home countries much more effectively. The geographic proximity of Mexico and, you know, Latin America in general has allowed them to stay in touch with their home cultures much more effectively, whereas in the - you know, an immigrant from Italy in the 1900s - in the early 1900s that came over would very quickly lose contact with his home country.
So there is - they do - Hispanics in this country do maintain a certain level of identity that is unique to them, whether it's linguistic or cultural. You know, within the sort of broad differences that exist within the Hispanic community, there does exist a sort of unique identity that defines them.
MARTIN: And does it transcend national boundaries like, for example, do people themselves consider themselves to be Latino or Hispanic as opposed to, say, Cuban or Dominican or Puerto Rican or Argentinean?
VILA: Not really.
VILA: No. Most people will self-identify from their sort of country of origin broadly. I mean they'll say, like, I'm Puerto Rican or I'm Cuban or I'm Mexican. However, there is a sort of vague but loose connection between, you know, people of Hispanic origin. I mean it's hard to define and it's hard to pinpoint, but it exists. It's real, you know, and you know, it's totally right that Hispanic is made up term in many ways and it's not an organic way that people self-identify, but there is something, you know, that we share.
DODSON: It's principally - that's principally language, which is...
MARTIN: Howard Dodson?
DODSON: ...the connector across geography and across, quite frankly, the cultural diversity that is in the Hispanic community itself. So the language thing is there and it is a connector or binder. But within that, there are these - the cultures of - the people of Cuba are culturally different from the people of Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico are culturally different in some respects from the people of Panama.
And so you have this - it's a much, much more diverse a population, if you will. The Hispanic population then is usually presented in kind of - almost color and racial terms.
MARTIN: Well, so Howard Dodson, you've spent a lot of time thinking about the past as well as the present, and I know that in part you've researched black culture in Harlem in New York for nearly 30 years. It went from almost 100 percent black, it was like 98 percent black. Now it's around 40 percent in the past 60 years. I'm sort of curious about your thoughts of how you feel that changes people's sense of themselves and of their neighborhood, of their community, how they relate to each other?
DODSON: Well, the first thing is to correct those statistics...
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
DODSON: ...which, quite frankly, the numbers that I saw that reflected those numbers had moved Harlem all the way down to 86th Street.
DODSON: And nobody believes that Harlem is all the way down to 86th Street.
DODSON: So those numbers aren't real.
MARTIN: Let's set the story straight.
DODSON: And it's more a reflection of some people's aspirations than a reality. The majority of the people in Harlem are still black - and traditional Harlem. Now I don't know this made up Harlem.
DODSON: Like I don't know about the Harlem Shake either but that's another story.
MARTIN: OK. Well, to that point though, I mean is this question of - that actually raises a point here. We're trying to get at what does it mean to have the United States of America be majority so-called minority. OK? And that reality will be true for young people sooner than it is for older people. And I'm wondering what do you think that means, Howard Dodson.
DODSON: Well, I'm going to say this...
DODSON: ...as a contextual thing. The original settlers of the Americas, of all the Americas, were majority black. Between 1492 and 1776, roughly, the first 300 years of what we call the European colonization of the Americas, six and a half million people crossed the Atlantic and settled North, South, Central America and the Caribbean, of those six and a half million people, only one million were European, the other five and a half million were African. And when we talk about the American populations at that time, the Native Americans usually get pushed off the charts. So this notion of whites being a minority is nothing new. Is nothing new. And we need to, you know, just kind of first of all step back from this whole phenomenon and put it in a kind of evolutionary context.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about America's changing population with Howard Dodson, historian at Howard University, Danielle Belton of Clutch Magazine and Fernando Vila of Univision News Fusion actually, which is a joint project between Univision and NBC.
So Danielle, I want to go back to some of the things that you've been talking about. We've been talking about it in sort of racial and at the terms, but you also have an interesting intergenerational aspect of this. And one of your ideas is that you feel that young people will start to resent the baby boomer generation. And there's also the suggestion that it will be mutual. Talk about your feelings about that.
BELTON: Well, it's not even just like starting, in some respects it already has because I've now read quite a few articles. I think the first one I ever read was about Paul Begala going on and on about how horrible the boomers were, where they took advantage of all the social programs that they then turned around and voted against in the '80s and '90s and the 2000s. So you kind of have this shift here, where it's like once you get power, once you get privilege is, once you get comfortable you want to stay comfortable, and so you don't tend to always think about the people coming up behind you. And a lot of younger people are facing a future so demonstrably different from their parents. Like my dad has a pension, my dad has stocks. Like my dad has a savings. Like I have, like I had a 401(k) that I cashed in like five years ago because I was unemployed and I needed the money that was in it. So I feel like that is going to breed some resentment because the reality is with our politics, you know, you don't give up privilege.
Privilege is like a potent drug that you're going to hold on to for as long as you can. So that's why you have things like the most recent election where people tried to change the voting laws, trying to adjust who and who can and cannot vote in order to ensure that our power structure stays the way that it is. You're going to have people who are going to push to preserve the Electoral College, perhaps even adjust it, to change it. And you've heard some of that talk coming out of the RNC in order to preserve the current status quo of power. And then you have so much wealth already in the boomer community and in the white community. I just don't see these people - anyone just giving that up easily. I don't see that shift happening as quickly as some people would like to think that it's going to happen and I think there's going to be a lot of resentment with younger people.
And those older people vote and so you're still going to have a lot of politicians that are going to pander directly to boomers and older Americans because they show up. Younger Americans are still preoccupied with work, starting families. A lot of times those - people who need to vote the most are often the one who do it the least.
MARTIN: Fernando, I'm interested when you are - as we mentioned - that you are the managing editor of Univision News in English. And now you're leading a project called fusion, which is a collaboration between ABC and Univision. I'm wondering when you're putting this together who are you talking to.
VILA: Well, we are talking to this sort of broad, young generation, you know, multicultural generation that Danielle was speaking about. That's sort of our target, the sort of generation that grew up in an environment where they are comfortable with people that are of certain difference to themselves. That's kind of our broad target, with the Hispanic sort of soul, but that's sort of our broad target. And I think Danielle's absolutely right, that there is going to be, you know, a lot of resentment, you know, in the coming years.
MARTIN: Of whom and to whom? Between whom? Resentment of whom by whom?
VILA: Well between...
MARTIN: Who's resenting who here?
VILA: The - well, between sort of the generational difference between sort of the younger, browner, more diverse population, and the older increasingly, whiter generation. I think, you know, Arizona is kind of - the local politics of Arizona are kind of a microcosm of that in a way, where it's just, you know, incredibly resentful politics there. You know, Sheriff Joe is almost like the symptom of that. And, you know, that's sort of the big question that our politics has to ask itself is, is sort of, how does it create an inclusive society? How does it create a society that - where its political institutions reflect the - the power within the political institutions reflect sort of the country on the whole? And that's kind of the big question going forward.
MARTIN: Howard Dodson, what do you think about that?
DODSON: Well, I was sitting here thinking because one of the things that happened and has been happening in Harlem, by way of example, Harlem, the perception, is that Harlem is and always has been a black community. And that is true and has been true culturally. But as recently as 10, 12 years ago, only six percent of the residents of Harlem actually owned property in Harlem. Virtually all the black population there were renters. And a significant percentage of the real estate in Harlem, the housing real estate especially, 20 years ago was vacant. The black population left Harlem. The black middle class and upper class left Harlem when they removed those, what they called restrictive covenants that prevented people from living anywhere in New York except Harlem and Brooklyn. And now the majority of the black population is not in Harlem. Brooklyn has the largest black population. It's followed by the Bronx and Queens. And Harlem is only has a larger black population than Staten Island, which has virtually no population.
MARTIN: So what are the implications of this for being its continued presence as kind of a center of black politics and culture? I mean the cultural piece remains but the political power is diffused, isn't it?
DODSON: The political power has been defused already by gerrymandering of districts. So Charlie Rangel's district, though he represents Harlem, is not a majority black district anymore. And that's a function of recent changes in the redistricting. And so you have a situation where it is likely that the political power base of the black community in Harlem will be changing. But, the question you have to ask is: where are black people now in the city? The black population of New York is if organized as a single city, would have a population that would be ranked as the fourth largest city population in the nation, behind New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. No other city has a larger population than New York's black population.
MARTIN: But is this population have a sense of itself as a coherent entity anymore? And I think you're saying it doesn't.
DODSON: It doesn't yet. It hasn't formed yet. But Brooklyn has over close to a million people - a million black people. And the other communities are in the neighborhood of about 500,000. So the population is there but it has not yet formed itself as a political force.
MARTIN: So Fernando, I'm going to give you the final thought here - maybe Danielle too. But, so the question is there's a sense of this story being very much in progress. And the question I sort of have is when will it be a story where people will sort of see the new reality as the status quo? And I'm just wondering as a person who is a cultural worker, as a person who is, you know, putting out kind of content for people to think about and discuss, when will it just be the new normal and when will people accept it?
VILA: Yeah. I mean that's a, you know, that's a tough question to answer. I mean these things kind of happen more rapidly than I think people realize. You know, they kind of sneak up on people when all of a sudden you realize like, you know, I think that the success of sort of the gay-rights movement is an example of that, where you can sense that it's becoming a, you know, a new normal very, very quickly. And I think a similar thing may happen with sort of this notion of the United States as a multicultural place, as a sort of place where, you know, you can have your own identity as well as a sort of national identity. You can maintain your own sort of cultural identity while still sort of participating in the national identity. And, you know, I think that when - a big factor of that will be if the Republican Party continues to struggle to build a national coalition, like a coalition that's capable of winning national elections. I mean they've lost, I think they've lost five out of the six or four out of the last five popular votes in national elections. So if they struggle to maintain - to create and build a national coalition with this, you know, with this increasingly diverse country, then you may start to see a change and see a new normal in the sort of fabric of American society.
MARTIN: Danielle, we have less than a minute left, so I wanted to ask you one final question is we've talked a lot about tension, but when we often talk about the kind of the multicultural experience, it's one of celebration. Which is the more dominant, which is the more important story to be following? Is it the tension or is it the celebration?
BELTON: I think you've got to follow both. Like the celebration is wonderful. That's great. I'm glad that more people are being open-minded and getting together and that we have this diversity. But the reality is you have to face the tension, you have to deal with it because it's going to be the political problem of the future in this country.
MARTIN: Danielle Belton is editor-at-large of Clutch Magazine online. She was with us from St. Louis. Fernando Vila is director of production and development at Fusion. That's a new media collaboration between Univision and ABC. He was with us from Miami. Here in Washington, D.C., Howard Dodson. He's the director Howard University's library system and research center - longtime director of the Schomburg Institute in New York. Thank you all so much for joining us.
BELTON: Thank you.
VILA: Thank you, Michel.
DODSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.