Note: this is a modified version of a short paper I wrote for SOCI 313 (Demography) at Rice University.
The demographic change which I think is most important for the immediate future is the shifting racial composition of the United States. America’s impending transformation from a majority-white to majority-minority country is unprecedented and will have wide-ranging impacts on everything ranging from the nation’s age structure to its politics.
The causes of America’s change in racial composition are multifaceted. On one hand, a large component of our demographic change is attributable to an increase in minority populations, most famously (and, in recent political discussions, infamously) Hispanics emigrating from Latin America. Latinos were responsible for 54% of total U.S. population growth between 2000 and 2014 (Krogstad 2016). Despite the popular conception of America’s mushrooming Hispanic population, their population growth rate is gradually slowing: the age-adjusted fertility rates for Hispanic women in the United States has fallen 2.85 births per woman in 2008 to just 2.1 births per woman in 2016 (Stone 2018). Due to this stagnation in growth, Hispanics have recently lost their status for the fastest growing minority population in the United States, ceding that position to Asians. Between 2018 and 2060, the Asian population is expected to nearly double with a growth rate of 93%. The sources of this increase are also worth noting: 3/4 of the growth in the Asian population will be attributable to immigration (Frey 2018).
By 2050, the confluence of an already-large Hispanic population growing and a quickly-multiplying Asian population will result in a country that looks nothing like it does today, in terms of racial demography. Assisting in this shift is a decline in America’s non-hispanic white population. In 2016, white deaths in the United States exceeded white births, an event with no parallel in American history (Sáenz and Johnson 2018). This is partially attributable to a post-Great Recession decline in fertility (annually, 500,000 less babies are born compared to pre-recession levels). A more targeted demographic understanding of whites’ population decline reveals the “deaths of despair” that are currently plaguing white America. Deaths of despair could include deaths linked to the Opioid epidemic, deaths attributable to alcohol and drug abuse, and intentional suicide (Case and Deaton 2017). Such deaths are a driving factor in America’s disappearing white majority: in eight states in 2016, deaths of despair were the difference between the natural increase and natural decrease of white populations (Sáenz and Johnson 2018).
The trends of skyrocketing minority and declining white populations are independently unprecedented, and their forthcoming outcome is similarly exceptional. By 2045, America will transition from a majority-white to a majority-minority country. Whites will make up 49.7 percent of the population, trailed by Hispanics at 24.6 percent, 13.1 percent for blacks, 7.9 percent for Asians, and 3.8 percent for multiracial populations (Frey 2018). The trend continues past 2045:
The consequences of this change will be as important as its causes. The first notable consequence is a shifting age structure in the United States. As of 2016, Hispanics—who by 2045 will make up 1/4 of the U.S. population—had a median age of 28, and their most common age was 8 years old (Gao 2016). Frey (2018) concludes the younger composition of racial minorities is important because “minorities are projected to account for all of the nation’s youthful population growth over the next 42 years, they will sharply decelerate national aging.” Additionally, this means minorities will be the largest source of growth in America’s working age population, its newly-minted voting population, and its tax base.
Another consequence of America’s changing racial composition is related to partisan politics—namely, white backlash to a diverse country. Much literature has explored the phenomenon of “white threat in a browning America” (Klein 2018). One notable study explored white responses to the fact that America was becoming a majority-minority country. Among their study’s bleak findings, the authors concluded that making the majority-minority shift more salient “led White Americans (regardless of political affiliation) to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly” and that “the increasing diversity of the nation may engender a widening partisan divide” (Craig and Richeson 2014). Other studies have shown that even micro-level interactions which exemplify the “browning” of America have pronounced impacts on political affiliation: in 2014, Ryan Enos found through an experiment that the simple presence of Spanish speakers on a train made white train-riders significantly more likely to support decreases in legal Mexican migration, less likely to support amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and the establishment of English as America’s official language (Enos 2014).
On the other end of the spectrum, the same trend which encourages white Americans to view racial diversity as a threat allows minority populations to embrace such diversity as a key part of their identity—political or otherwise. In their paper “Social Exclusion and Political Identity: The Case of Asian American Partisanship,” a team of researchers found that “[p]eople who feel that a political party excludes them from the American social fabric based on their race/ethnicity [are] less likely to perceive that party as serving their group’s interests and therefore less likely to support that party” (Kuo et al. 2016). In other words, minority populations develop negative affect towards the parties which isolate or allegedly mistreat them, and thus harden partisan affiliation in the other direction.
America’s changing racial demographics will have a wide range of consequences. Some of these are unsurprising, such as the corresponding youthfulness that will follow America’s racial diversification. Other impacts are less obvious, such as America’s likely increased propensity toward partisanship in the face of diversity. No matter how obvious they are, both consequences will affect the country in important and irrevocable ways. America’s racial composition is important both because there are salient differences among racial groups and because race is a key component of nearly everyone’s identity.
What I'm Reading
Sáenz and Johnson 2018
Case and Deaton 2017
Craig and Richeson 2014
Kuo et al. 2016