Skip to main content
Op-Ed

Ferguson, ‘Amnesty,’ and America’s New Racial Make-Up

William H. Frey

Recent news headlines seem like a throwback to an older, almost pre-Civil Rights era America, when racial animosities were raw both on the streets and in Washington politics. The specter of phalanxes of mostly white police facing mostly black protesters in Ferguson, Mo., while not at the scale of Detroit or Watts, is an image seemingly from 50 years ago.

And the immigration-related schism in Washington now yielding threats of impeachment and government shutdown is rooted in a debate over America’s self-identity that many assumed was resolved decades ago.

Yet, the nation is not reverting to the 1950s with its sharp racial divide.  While it may not be readily apparent, the nation has made huge progress in race relations since that unfortunate period. More important, the nation’s populace is changing in ways that will insure that those who are now thought of as racial minorities will be very much part of the mainstream

Both Ferguson and today’s Washington immigration imbroglio will not be the norm in much of the 21st century. Rather, they are flashpoints of a sustained demographic transformation that is now at work and cannot be stopped. There are two key elements of this transformation.

First, racial minorities, especially new minorities—Hispanics, Asians and multiracial Americans—will be leading the growth of the nation’s population. Since 2000 these groups accounted for three-quarters of the nation’s population growth. When blacks, American Indians and other races were added, minorities contributed to more than 90 percent of U.S. population growth. Immigration is no longer the major contributor as most of that minority growth is attributable to births to U.S. residents

The second part of this transformation is the tepid growth and aging of our white population. In about 10 years there will be a white population decline because of natural decrease (more white deaths than births) and very modest white immigration. Existing whites will continue to age, but younger age groups will soon be dominated by racial minorities, probably for the rest of this century.

This demographic transformation will occur in fits and starts, with backlash along the way. The suburbs—long the bastion of white Americans—are now home to more blacks than cities. Nine of the 10 cities with largest black populations—including Detroit, Chicago, New York and Cleveland, as well as St. Louis—experienced a “black flight” motivated by the same suburban dream that lured generations of whites out of the city. Ferguson’s black population is on the front lines of this change, providing the backdrop for a small scale version of the kinds of white overreactions to minorities that occurred in big cities decades ago.

The furor surrounding the president’s immigration action is largely generational—pitting older whites versus younger minorities. While this action benefits specific immigrant groups, the pushback Obama is receiving from politicians decrying its “amnesty provision” reflects their largely older white constituency, whose negative views toward immigrant leniency are well known and tied to a fear of change.

A 2011 Pew Research Center showed that more than one half of white baby boomers and seniors viewed the growing number of newcomers from other countries as “a threat to traditional U.S. values and customs.” They were also more likely to view immigrants as a change for the worse rather than the better—quite opposite the view of all young adults. Not surprisingly the combined voting age population associated with the newly elected Republican Congress is comprised of 76 percent whites, with 59 percent above age 45 (The comparable numbers for the total U.S. population are 65 percent and 47 percent respectively). And they are heavily confined to suburban and rural parts of the country where new minorities are just gaining a foothold.

These recent flare ups remind us that racial antagonism between whites and minorities or between older whites and new immigrants are not far beneath the surface. But unlike decades past, when the nation’s black population was highly segregated in inner city neighborhoods and rural areas—or when new minorities were largely immigrants and confined to a handful of big city gateways—the nation is now on the cusp of a diversity boom which will, sooner or later, impact cities suburbs and rural areas in all regions of the country, and will make older generations keenly aware that the nation’s productivity as well as their own federal Social Security and medical benefits will be reliant on an increasingly diverse younger population. By 2027, more than half of America’s twenty-somethings will be racial minorities, and in the 2028 presidential election, this will be the case for 40 percent of all eligible voters. This is hardly the demographic landscape that characterized the nation during the racially volatile 1950s and 1960s. And while we will need enlightened leadership to remind everyone that it isn’t, flashpoints such as the current ones will represent only occasional reminders of what we should avoid about our past.

Get daily updates from Brookings