Charlottesville, demographic change, and misplaced white anxiety

By William H. Frey

On August 12, 2017, a group of white nationalists, spurred on in part by the combative racial rhetoric of President Trump, descended on Charlottesville, Va. Less than one year later, for the first time in its history, the country’s white population declined in size. These two settings are not unrelated; it is no surprise to the country’s current political or sociological realities that one followed the other.

Many white supporters of President Trump will view this population development as yet another sign of the end of the America they know, as the country inches toward majority-nonwhite status. To them, this means relinquishing dominance and privileged status to browner and newer Americans, who they perceive as competing with them for jobs and government resources, while distorting their way of life.

This “white anxiety” fueled the appalling actions in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer and underlies many proposals from Trump, such as the Mexican border wall and Muslim ban, along with his derogatory statements against immigrants and political correctness—all to display a pushback against demographic change.

Yet the long term national damage from the decades-long white population loss that is almost certain to occur is the negative impact on our economy that will emanate from the politics of white anxiety—politics that will lead to a disinvestment in our growing young minority populations who are essential to our prosperity.

As I make clear in my book, “Diversity Explosion”, it is the younger part of the population where minority investment is most crucial. This is because white population loss is occurring most heavily among the youth—a consequence of white aging and fewer white women in their childbearing years. Since 2000, there has been an absolute decline of white children under 18 nationally, a trend that will continue in the foreseeable future—in addition to projected losses in white twenty-somethings and eventually thirty-somethings.

In fact, it is the combined racial minority population, especially Hispanics, that accounts for all of the growth in the nation’s population under the age of 25, nearly half of public school students, and the majority of all children under the age of 10. As more older whites retire, racial minorities will comprise all of the growth in our working-age population. From a demographic standpoint, the infusion of youthful minorities, from both immigration and births, is a windfall which will save us from the kinds of labor force losses that Japan and several European countries are now experiencing.

However, this demographic windfall will not bear fruit unless we make educational and other investments in today’s multicultural youth. Too many minority children attend under-resourced, segregated schools and do not receive the guidance or finances to attend two or four year colleges that provide pathways to well-paying jobs. Four year college enrollment numbers for Hispanics and blacks, while rising, stand well below those of whites, which could lead to declines in future generations’ education attainment. And many come from families that are struggling with high poverty levels, making it difficult to arrange family leave, childcare, and other support. Major public interventions are necessary to improve the educational outcomes and well-being of future generations.

Yet expanding such interventions is not likely in the current political environment where the older whiter population holds considerable voting heft and is most strongly on board with a Trump agenda that hardly places a priority on the well-being of immigrant and minority children.

Ironically, it is the older white population that would benefit handsomely from investments in the labor force skills of younger minorities—by way of the latter’s contribution to Social Security and Medicare. Due to the aging of baby boomers, those of retirement age are the only part of the white population that will show substantial gains (32 percent) over the next 15 years. In so doing, they will contribute mightily to record levels of age dependency in the U.S., relying on younger, racially diverse generations to contribute adequately to the safety net programs that they will depend on.

For the near term, however, there seems to be a cultural generation gap where fearful older whites seem unwilling to embrace a multihued younger generation whom they do not view as their children or grandchildren. This gap began well before Trump, as the older white generation has been less likely than minorities or younger whites to see the nation’s growing diversity in a positive light. A 2012 Pew survey showed that more than half of white baby boomers and seniors believed that increasing numbers of newcomers from other countries represented a threat to traditional American values. Also, a 2016 survey showed whites over age 50 to be decidedly unsupportive of the Black Lives Matter movement compared with younger generations. Not surprisingly whites over the age of 45 were the strongest supporters of Trump in the 2016 election.

This gap in attitudes is unfortunate because it is counterproductive for older whites to view today’s growing racially diverse America as a threat to them or the nation. The demographics make plain that they have a co-dependent relationship with today’s younger, majority-minority generations. As a consequence, they and everyone else will need to count on growing young minorities—Latinos, blacks, Asian Americans and other groups—to be primary contributors to the labor force, tax base, and consumer base in decades to come. White anxiety should be redirected toward ensuring that the next generation of Americans—of all skin colors—have everything they need to be successful and, in the process, are well-equipped to keep America great. When that happens, the scenes we witnessed last year in Charlottesville will be a momentary moral disgrace rather than a common unfortunate occurrence.

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