Falling white birthrate: The new American ‘us’

America's white majority is slipping away faster than ever, affecting issues from the immigration debate to the future of the economy.

David Gray/Reuters/File
Members of the United States men's 4x100m freestyle relay team celebrate after winning the race at the World Aquatics Championships in Melbourne, Australia, in 2007.

News from the Census Bureau this week shows the United States moving faster than ever toward a “minority majority” population. For the first time in at least a century more white Americans are dying than being born.  

That wasn’t supposed to happen for several more years, but the trend has been accelerating, the bureau says. By no later than next year white children under the age of 5 will be a minority. By 2043 whites are expected to make up less than half of the total US population.

The news is another waymark on the path to a new America – and a new way of thinking about America. A half century ago, as the civil rights movement began to take hold, the American story was one of a predominantly white country still struggling to fully accept the idea of an African-American minority with equal rights as citizens. Consciously or unconsciously some white Americans thought of their country in binary black-white racial terms, a dominant “us” and a subservient “them.”

No more. The new American “us” isn’t white, black, Asian, or Hispanic. It’s all of these and much more. In fact, the fastest-growing group in the country is “multiracial.” As William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, puts it, the US is “browning from the bottom up.”

Much has been made of how this dynamic is changing the political landscape, forcing the Republican Party in particular to do some soul-searching about how to become more welcoming to nonwhites. The current debate in Washington on immigration reform reflects the new political realities as well. Recently  Sen. Timothy Kaine (D) of Virginia gave a speech on immigration on the Senate floor entirely in Spanish – the first sitting senator ever to do so.

Much of the nationwide immigration debate centers on how immigrants – overwhelmingly from nonwhite-majority countries – are characterized: Are they coming to burden America with their needs? Or do they bring with them the determination, vision, energy, and skills to power the American economy and perpetuate the American dream?

One demographic fact is clear: As white America ages, it will be relying more and more heavily on hardworking, tax-paying nonwhites to build a prosperous economy and fund programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, that seniors rely on.  The “we’re all in this boat together” American experiment will have a different shade of hands rowing the oars.

These demographic trend lines also suggest the importance of investing in America’s nonwhite youths. Today some 40 percent of whites ages 25 to 29 have graduated from college, compared with only 23 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Latinos. Those numbers will have to move upward and quickly. They reflect on the entire US education system, since success in college traces back all the way to getting a good start on education as early as preschool.

As the US marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, eloquently arguing for racial justice and equality, the country can celebrate substantial progress, no better epitomized than by the twice-elected President Obama. A half century ago the issue was whether a dominant white majority could be persuaded to extend full citizenship rights to an African-American minority that had little in the way of resources to make its case except knowing that its cause was just.

Today 313 million US citizens of all racial backgrounds can paraphrase comic-strip character Pogo and proclaim, “We have met [an American]. And he is us.”

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