How minorities are becoming majorities in U.S. cities

Aug 31, 2011

Demographer Bill Frey discussed how minority populations in eight major U.S. cities became the majorities, and what to expect from this trend. Ask questions now!

Read: Minorities become a majority in Washington region

Hello this is Bill Frey.  Thank you for joining us today

What does "non-hispanic whites" even mean?  Is that a legit category on the census?

Well, it's a little complicated.  The Census bureau has two classifications of people.  One is by race and another is by Hispanic status.  So it's possible for someone of any race to be Hispanic or non-Hispanic.  In other words, there are both Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic whites.  Typically, when people think of the "white majority" they are referring to non-Hispanic whites - generally whites of Euopean ancestry, since Hispanics are often thought of as a minority group.  So, as a shorthand, many people in the media and in the general public think of non-Hispanic whites as "whites."

Were these census findings expected?  Did you see this coming?

Well, the general thrust of the findings were expected.  But, the large and quick dominance of minority contributions to large metropolitan growth surprised me.  We found that 98% of the growth for large metro areas was due to non-whites.  In fact, there were absolute white losses in 42 of the 100 largest metro areas.  I think the reason this is so startling for many people is they don't realize the fact that the aging of the white population and the fact that a smaller percentage of whites are in their childbearing years  gives whites a much smaller presence in large metro areas than had been the case in earlier Census results.

Back in the 70s, I attended many schools where  non-hispanic white folks like me were in the minority. Since college, I have tended to live in cities and, more importantly, neighborhoods where folks like me are in the minority. To me, this story isn't news. What I have noticed is that fewer and fewer people in and around the areas where I live put much value on ethnic background alone--though we're always happy to see new and unusual restaurants!

Well, I think your experience is typical of people who live in large urban areas that have become increasingly diverse in the last several decades.  However, it's not the experience for people who live in large swaths of the country where the growth of new minorities is just beginning.  So I would say that many will have your experience in the coming years.

What started this trend?

The growth of minorities in big cities is really a large part of our nation's history, especially at the turn of the previous century when "minorities" were thought of as Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans.  Then we had somewhat of a lull between the 1940s and the 1960s when immigration was at a low point.  Since then, and especially in the last two decades, the "new" minorities (Hispanics and Asians) have immigrated to the U.S. in larger numbers and tended to settle in our large metro areas.  Now, at least for Hispanics, the major source of growth is natural increase, not immigration, increasing the size of these settlements.

What impact does this rapid change in demography have on current political battles?

I think the demographic shifts in this country will have enormous impacts on politics, perhaps as soon as the 2012 presidential election.  The fact that "new minorities," especially Hispanics, are becoming a larger part of the electorate of metro areas in swing states, like Nevada, Colorado, and Florida, means that their interests will need to be taken into account by state-wide and national candidates to an extent this hasn't been the case before.  Issues like the DREAM Act or the budget decisions we need to make regarding social services and education will be closely followed by this growing part of the electorate.  If this doesn't sway the next presidential election, it certainly will in 2016.  Savvy politicians typically are also savvy demographers.

Thank you for joining us today, these were great questions.  For more information on my latest report, The New Metro Minority Map, please click here.

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William Frey
An internationally known demographer, Bill Frey specializes in issues involving urban populations, migration, immigration, race, aging, political demographics, and the U.S. Census. He is also a research professor in population studies at the University of Michigan.
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