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In 1970, when I was 3, there were 170 million non-Hispanic white Americans, and they represented 83 percent of America’s population. Today, there are 197 million non-Hispanic whites in this country, and they represent less than 64 percent of America’s population.
If current trends continue at the same pace — and if my life isn’t cut short by overconsumption of oysters or cigars — I will live to see the 2050 Census measure an even more wonderfully diverse America, where my own demographic subgroup has become a minority.
Without this increasing diversity, America’s population would have been largely stagnant. Over the last 40 years, our country’s population has increased by 106 million people. Seventy-four percent of that increase, 78 million people, came from the growth of the minority population.
Over the last decade, the non-Hispanic white population increased by a paltry 2.26 million, less than a tenth of the overall population increase of 27 million.
The different patterns of growth across the United States are also driven largely by growth in Hispanic and nonwhite populations. The chart below shows the relationship between the growth of a state’s population and the share of that growth accounted for by growth in the state’s minority population. (I excluded Michigan, which lost people, and Rhode Island, where growth in the minority population was 14 times greater than its tiny overall population growth.)
Typically, minority growth explains 50 to 100 percent of the growth in a state’s population. In a number of states, including Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, the growth in the minority population is about double the total population growth, meaning there were significant decreases in the non-Hispanic white population.
Even in Nevada, which experienced a robust 12 percent increase in its non-Hispanic white population, more than three-quarters of population growth came from minority groups.
To understand why some areas are growing more than others, it is essential to understand why some areas are particularly attractive for nonwhite populations.
The minority population increases are particularly important for the dense urban areas that disproportionately house immigrants and other lower-income individuals. Cities have been gateways into the country for centuries, and they continue to play that role.
Immigrants are a major part of our most successful urban cores, like Boston (27 percent foreign-born) and New York (36 percent foreign-born), but they also swell the population of small cities like Lawrence, Mass. (34 percent foreign-born), and Yonkers (29 percent foreign-born).
The ability to get around without buying cars is worth a lot to people who have just come to this country.
The largest share of the total increase in the minority population comes from Hispanics and Latinos – the compound term that the Census uses — who represent 16.3 percent of our population, up from 12.5 percent just a decade ago and 4.5 percent in 1970.
Other groups have also increased sharply. The African-American population increased by more 12 percent since the last Census. Almost 5 percent of the country is now Asian; the numerical growth in the Asian population alone was about double the growth of the non-Hispanic white population.
The attraction that the United States continues to have for immigrants explains some of the increase. In 1970, there were 9.6 million foreign-born Americans, and almost 74 percent of that group were non-Hispanic whites.
The 2010 Census hasn’t yet delivered a count of immigrants, but the 2009 American Community Survey suggests that the country contains about 38 million foreign-born people. By 2000, about one-fifth of the foreign born (6.8 million or so) were non-Hispanic whites. These facts suggest that the minority immigrant population has increased by almost 30 million.
Every increase in American diversity has seen a political reaction. The American, or Know-Nothing, Party began in the 1840s in response to large numbers of Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland who seemed so jarring to our then-overwhelmingly Protestant population. In 1882, Congress passed a Chinese Exclusion Act. And the millions of immigrants from Eastern Europe evoked a fearsome tide of anti-immigrant politicking that gave us the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which restricted immigration based on nation of origin.
Our own age has also seen plenty of politicians pushing an anti-immigrant, or at least anti-illegal-immigrant, agenda.
But the sheer numbers of Hispanics and Asians now make it political poison for either party to embrace nativism. The G.O.P. is not likely to win another presidential election if it limits its appeal to non-Hispanic whites, which is why the future face of the party is far more likely to be Marco Rubio than Tom Tancredo.
The world is a big, diverse place and America will be better able to help lead that world if our country is also big and diverse. When we let in skilled immigrants with H1B visas, we get the expertise that will power our productivity for decades to come. William R. Kerr’s research shows the deep increase in patents awarded to Chinese and Indians living in the United States.
When we let in less-skilled immigrants, we are fulfilling America’s promise as a place of opportunity for everyone – a promise that was offered to all of our ancestors.