Diversity is an opportunity, not a threat, for America

Date: 
Tuesday, March 29, 2016 - 08:15

Read Bill Frey's latest piece on CNN: Diversity is an opportunity, not a threat, for America.

(CNN)America's ongoing diversity explosion should be greeted with optimism because of the opportunities it presents for revitalizing our country, energizing our labor force and providing greater connectivity to the global economy. But there is a hidden danger lurking in the form of an emerging generation gap with strong racial overtones that, left unchecked, could become a significant obstacle to progress.

This gap has been greatly inflamed by the rhetoric of the presidential primaries. Its potential harm was illustrated in the canceled Donald Trump event earlier this month in Chicago, which saw young people of mixed races protesting against the views of what one of them called "white suburbanites" who embrace, often angrily, a vision of America that would shut them out.

With more than a subtle focus on race, each party's candidates have also been talking to different generations. Hillary Clinton emphasizes concern for children in Flint, Michigan, ending child poverty and deportation and reforming the criminal justice system. Bernie Sanders reaches out to young people concerned about student debt and jobs. In contrast, Trump continues to talk tough on immigration and keeping out Muslims, on maintaining traditional American values, backing strong policing and protecting the middle class from tax increases.

These stances mirror generationally different attitudes revealed in a 2012 Pew Survey that showed that more than half of white baby boomers and seniors view the rise of newcomers from other countries as a threat to traditional American values and customs, a view that was held by a minority of the millennial generation born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Generations are also divided on the role of government, with older people eschewing more services and higher taxes, and younger ones embracing the programs those services support.

The demographic reality is that America's youth -- and more specifically its racial minority youth -- is its future. The white population in this country is rapidly graying with a median age of 43 (compared with 37 for the whole population and 28 for Hispanics) -- and it is growing very slowly. According to census estimates, there is an absolute decline in the number of white youth younger than 20 that is projected to continue over the foreseeable future.

Because of the growth of Hispanics, Asians, blacks and other races, the United States will be able to replenish its younger population, unlike Germany, some other European countries and Japan. Two years ago, minorities began to account for more than half of public school children, and between now and 2030, all of the growth in the population in prime labor force ages (18-64) will be comprised of racial minorities.

However, the nation's young minority population, now more important than ever to its future, has a long way to go. Underresourced and effectively segregated schools are still the norm in many urban areas, leading to Hispanic and black high school dropout rates still well above those of whites. And the range of campus protests last fall in both large public and elite private schools signals future difficulties in assimilating generations to come.
Add in the sustained high rates of black and Hispanic child poverty, and it is clear that a range of public solutions are needed to improve youth education and to support young families.

Much of the older white population -- especially less-educated white males whose anger is being courted -- appears threatened by the nation's demographic change, which is occurring at a time after the Great Recession played havoc with their jobs, wages and savings.
The fact that the first African American president was in office during this period seems to foster a faulty cause and effect relationship between his party, race and policy, underlined by the widespread Republican repudiation of "Obamacare." And despite the fact that most Hispanic population growth in the United States accrues from births to U.S. residents, the idea of strengthening borders and building walls continues to convince many that the nation's changing racial make-up can be turned back.

To ignore or wish away the nation's youth-driven minority growth is short-sighted as a national economic development plan.
It is even short-sighted politically. A new study that I co-authored with Ruy Teixeira and Robert Griffin shows that the nation's changing demography will lead to Democratic presidential wins in every election beyond 2020 even if the white and minority voting patterns of the 2004 election (when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry) were to persist into the future, as well as under most other scenarios.

In other words, an election strategy of appealing to whites only will have limited returns for Republicans in presidential politics, as younger minorities become a larger part of the electorate. By the same token, elections where one party courts mostly younger minorities and the other courts mostly older whites can have a divisive impact on the nation as a whole.

Today, the nation's growing racially diverse younger population depends upon the country's mostly white baby boomers and seniors for financial and political support of educational investments, a social safety net and health care. But not too far down the road, the latter group will need the support of the former, as those young people enter a labor force that will finance Social Security and Medicare. This generational co-dependency is not being discussed because of the separate audiences and issues associated with each party's candidates. There are, in fact, legitimate policies that can be advanced by both parties to foster success among America's next highly diverse generation. Yet instead of addressing those, we appear headed toward a general election with candidates talking past each other and fueling potentially dangerous divisions.