The changing face of America poses real risks
August 18, 2008
By Mark Cromer
If Sen. Barack Obama’s candidacy has indeed placed race in the spotlight again this election season, then the Census Bureau’s new projections that white America is fading into minority status much faster than previously thought offers a glaring view of the fissures that continue to spider-web our republic.
The meteoric rise of Obama’s fortunes and the potential success—or failure—of his run for the White House has provoked much soul-searching about whether America “is ready” for a black president; the subtext of which is really whether a black president might be somehow intrinsically different than a white commander in chief beyond that extra helping of melanin.
But the increasingly rapid erosion of the white population in America raises the stakes considerably no matter who wins the White House. The question transcends what the occupant of the Oval Office looks like and becomes whether whites are ready for the accelerating changes that will result in an America that no longer looks like them, sounds like them or necessarily embraces their cultural tastes.
The answer, as it stands now, is almost certainly “no.”
But not because the nation’s white majority, which presently retains an overwhelming demographic dominance of two-thirds of the country’s 305 million people, harbor some inner-bigot that recoils at the prospect of becoming a minority in a land they’ve always subconsciously considered their own.
No, it’s not the end result that most white Americans likely find troubling today, but rather the factors that are fueling those projections, namely unrestrained immigration and the increasingly bitter sense that they’ve had little to no say about this matter.
The Census Bureau’s estimate that American whites will no longer make up the majority of the country’s population by 2042—nearly a decade sooner than previously anticipated—is indisputably driven by the epic migratory waves of people from Latin America into the United States during the past three decades. And the fact is, many of those people crossed the border illegally and many more are expected to continue to do so, absent a much larger and firmer commitment to enforcing the laws already in place.
The demographic impact of this lack of commitment continues to be wide and deep.
White populations have dropped significantly in more than half the nation’s more than 3,100 counties since 2000. In just over 300 of them, ethnic minorities are now the majority population.
The facts on the ground created by mass immigration have been clearly visible throughout the southwest for years, perhaps nowhere more so than in California, where entire communities have seen their racial demographics up-ended in less than a generation’s time. The effect has often been the real-world elimination of hard won racial balances, with traditional working and middle class black and white communities effectively disappearing.
In many places throughout Southern California, the white flight that marked the efforts at integration in the 1960s and early 1970s struck again in the 1990s, turning into a middleclass Anglo exodus from the state in the face of massive immigration from Mexico, helping create the first minority-majority state in the union. It’s a dynamic that continues to this day, as virtually all of California’s net population gain is directly attributable to immigration and births to immigrants, while the state’s native middle and working class continues its outbound migration.
This demographic upheaval has spawned another phenomenon among the white middleclass that has become iconic: the gated community. Advertising private patrols that will deliver an “armed response” to intruders and bristling with security cameras and pass codes; new home developments today often resemble something more akin to a stylish Israeli settlement on the West Bank than the open neighborhoods we grew up with in the 1970s.
Last year, Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam created a brief firestorm when he released the results of an exhaustive study that correlated increased ethnic and cultural diversity with declining civic engagement across the nation. In Southern California, that epochal transformation has been on display for years; from the Los Angeles Unified School District that has seen its white enrollment drop to single digits in a city that’s still well over 30-percent white; to public parks in white neighborhoods that have instituted “user fees” for “non-residents.” Realtors highlight homes in “stable” neighborhoods to prospective white buyers.
Feeling besieged, whites are withdrawing and the real story that underlies the equation that’s presented in the Census data will be how the nation’s leadership addresses the significant challenges and serious risks these demographic shifts pose. This is no time for empty rhetoric or platitudes about the enrichment that diversity brings the nation.
This is a dangerous hour and the stakes are high.
The leadership in both major political parties will proceed with immigration reform at their peril if a majority of whites feel the political class is continuing to address them in either a condescending or patronizing fashion. A smart first step among Republicans and Democrats would be to begin any new round of negotiation on immigration reform with an understanding that any effort to legalize the status of millions of illegal immigrants will be matched with a commensurate reduction in legal immigration into the United States, spread out over years.
This would go far in ameliorating the pervasive sense among whites that America is being overrun. Obama’s address on race in America, delivered in Philadelphia this March, was rightly hailed as a candid, intelligent multidimensional assessment of the complexities surrounding the issue. But for the vast majority of working and middleclass whites, Obama’s words resonated for the simple reason that he openly took into account their perspective and their fears; and he wasn’t dismissive in doing so.
That address was a great opening for a sustained national dialog on a changing America; and the vital nature of that conversation is now again underscored by the Census projections.
Failure to seize the opportunity to build a real national consensus—one that can only be obtained through what surely will be a hard fought compromise—is to risk further alienating a white majority that will ultimately insist on having its voice heard on these issues, one way or the other.
Mark Cromer is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), www.capsweb.org. He can be reached at [email protected].