A Change is Gonna Come

January 4, 2015

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.
— Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke released that song more than 50 years ago, as the Civil Rights movement was gaining tremendous force and being met with tremendous violence. At that time, “change” was measured by efforts to finally bring equality to a nation founded on the idea that it was one of several “self-evident” truths.

The movement did bring change, although, as recent events have painfully demonstrated, deep racial divisions and inequality—in education, opportunity, and justice—remain alive in our nation. Everyday America is riddledwith racial biases, large and small. There are significant differences in the way whites and minorities perceive the state of the nation.

However, the playing field is being re-shaped, and rapidly. For more than two centuries, whites have been the largest racial group in the country, so everything was defined from our perspective. Wealth and power were overwhelmingly in our hands. But in 2011, for the first time, more minority children were born than white children. The Census Bureau estimates that, in about 10 years, America’s white population will begin to decline. About 20 years after that—circle 2044 on your calendars—America will become a white-minority country. The face of the nation will change, literally, and with it, our politics and our culture.

Given the depth and breadth of white control over our various social institutions, such as government, industry, academe, and the media, my fellow descendants of Northern European immigrants will likely call the shots for several decades after they become just another minority. But change, huge change, is coming, and we can only guess at the impact.

Some of the best guesses come from my friend and former Brookings Institution compatriot, Dr. William Frey, who recently published a book in this subject, “Diversity Explosion.” I recommend it, and you can get the gist from his presentation.

Dr. Frey, one of the world’s foremost demographers, has spent years going over Census data and thinking about the change going on and the likely direction it will steer our country. He makes a solid case for how greater diversity and immigration will make America a stronger nation, and he comes down on the side of optimism, writing in his preface:

“Some conflicts may arise along the way, such as clashes over public resources between growing younger minority populations and now-aging baby boomers—or local pushback in some places against the arrival of new minorities. On the whole, however, I see this new demographic force as good news for the nation.”

While I agree with that conclusion, I don’t think conflicts “may arise”; they have been going on for decades, and events of the last several of years, from efforts to restrict immigration and voting rights to deadly violence, don’t give me a sense that a certain segment of the white population is going to embrace change gladly. Heck, an entire political strategy emerged from the late 1960s based on an appeal to white bigotry, and that shows few signs of going away. The only question, from my point of view, is how violent and protracted future conflicts will be. Some research already points to a section of the white population digging in.

Some whites will claim the coming change is a direct result of immigrants pouring over our unguarded borders or brown and black people lazing around and having lots of kids to collect more welfare, or both. They will say America is being “lost.” To the first part, the truth is, as Dr. Frey explains, America’s growing diversity is the largely the product of more native births among younger minority populations and the fact that the white population is aging and therefore having fewer children.

But in a subject as highly charged as race in America, facts may prove to have a limited ability to persuade. Consider the response to the election of our first president of African-American ancestry. Some of us believed, when Barack Obama took the oath of office, America had reached a point where racism had lost much of its power. That bit of idealism was short-lived as the backlash hit.

As for being “lost,” America has never been a static nation. We are not the small rural group of former colonies of the 18th century or the brawling developing nation of the 19th. Some may wish we were, though I doubt that, forced to live in the reality of those centuries, they would find life as attractive as they imagine. America is what we make it, as I like to think the Founders believed.

White America’s reaction will weigh heavily on how the transition to a new and more diverse nation will occur and how all of us treat one another when it’s complete. If we can give up the deeply-embedded notion that the American character is ours alone, shake off the media-bred myths of what this country is and means and instead embrace the concept of E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One—then the United States of America will have great days ahead. If, not, well, expect more of the same.