Last week’s updated Census projections showing whites becoming a minority by 2042 – far more rapidly than previous estimates – is sure to turn up the heat in some quarters of American society. While it no doubt re-ignites predictable dooms-day scenarios among anti-immigration activists who warn about the “death of the West” and the gradual erosion of American values, it may also give some average Americans pause as well.
Why? Because when one envisages the average American, it is highly likely they are picturing someone with Anglo features rather than one with the skin tones and hues of Hispanics, Asians, or some exotic admixture of different ethnicities. Even as the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama and the rising global prominence of star athletes like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James at this year’s Olympics are changing these perceptions, all-American looks, for the most part, is still equated with ‘white’ for most people around the world.
And who is to argue? After all, approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population is currently white. But according to new Census Bureau figures, this image is set to undergo a fundamental makeover in just a single generation. To summarize:
• By 2050, whites will decline to just 46 percent of the U.S. population. At that time, they will also constitute the vast majority of persons over the age of 85 years — a population that is set to triple to 19 million. Demographers refer to this as the “graying of America.”
• At the same time, the “browning of America” is marching forward in full force. Both Hispanics and Asians are scheduled to double their share of the population by mid-century — up to 30 percent and 9.2 percent, respectively. A majority of that share in growth will originate from births, and not immigration.
• These two countervailing forces — “graying” and “browning” of the country — are impelled by widely disparate fertility levels between whites on the one hand, and Hispanics on the other. While the average American white woman is now producing 1.8 children — a steadily declining figure over the past two decades — the average fertility rate for Hispanic women is 2.3.
It would be unwise to jump to too many firm conclusions based on these figures — especially if one underestimates the power and role of assimilation. Historically, numerous forecasters, pundits, and commentators have made the error of adhering to a fixed, static notion of culture. Benjamin Franklin once famously warned that German immigrants threatened to turn Pennsylvania into “a colony of aliens" and cautioned they would “never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can adopt our complexion." Likewise, an annual report written in 1892 from the U.S. Superintendent’s Office of Immigration cautioned that rising immigration levels would bring about “an enormous influx of foreigners unacquainted with our languages and customs,” thereby forming a “new undesirable class.”
Of course the Jews, Italians, Irish and Germans who comprised the “third great wave of immigration” at the turn of the 20th century did not develop into America’s underbelly as predicted. On the contrary, most of them eventually weaved into the fabric of mainstream society—epitomizing the famous metaphor used to describe their integration: the American “melting pot”.
Moreover, immigration projections themselves are often based on precarious assumptions, many of which do not account for the malleability of culture, particularly when it faces the compelling force of assimilation. To illustrate, back in 1990, California’s demographers forecasted a major population surge due to assumptions made about Hispanic immigration and birthrates. At the time, the fertility rate for Latina women in the Golden State was 3.4 babies.
By 2005, actual population figures demonstrated the state had grossly miscalculated its population estimates. The state’s bean counters had wrongly assumed that high birthrates among Latina mothers would continue to persist across generations. But they didn’t. Fertility rates dropped to 2.6 babies overall among Latina moms. Declines in fertility rates were a direct result of acculturation: as Hispanic women acculturated, they began to adopt upwardly mobile lifestyles that reflected their increasingly mainstream attitudes. For many second-generation Hispanic women, rearing many children simply did not fit into the lifestyles they aspired to have.
In study after study, the data tracking of immigrants show that the longer they remain in the U.S., the better they do economically. Unemployment levels drop dramatically while income earnings increase considerably the longer immigrants have been in the country.
Nevertheless, the true gauge of immigration’s genuine impact is generational — it rests among the children and offspring of immigrants themselves. Historian Oscar Handlin once wrote: “the history of America is the history of immigrants’ children.” A study by the Rand Corporation in 2005 showed that educational progress among three generations of Mexican Americans — from the first generation immigrant all the way to their grandchildren — gradually increases with each succeeding generation group. This progress is the same or greater than those achievements made by those previous European immigrants who came to the U.S. during the early 20th century.
These results are supported by the research conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center. According to Jeffrey Passel, a researcher at the institute, "We have a tendency to romanticize the experience of past immigrants. Yes, there was progress. But the real progress came with their children and grandchildren."
In light of last week’s new revised Census forecast, what are we to gain from all this? Just that despite the fact the “average” American may have a much different “look” or physical appearance in 2042, they will still be firmly, recognizably — and very proudly — American.
Thomas Tseng is Principal and Co-Founder of New American Dimensions, a market research and consulting agency based in Los Angeles.