Like a soothsayer peering into a crystal ball to forecast things yet to occur, demographer William “Bill” Frey scrutinizes national census trends to divine that soon — well within the reach of most Americans alive today — the U.S. population will have no racial majority group.
“This milestone signals the beginning of a transformation from the mostly white baby boom culture that dominated the nation during the last half of the twentieth century to the more globalized, multiracial country the the United States is becoming,” he writes in his new book “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America.”
The book is an updated version of his 2015 work that drew heavily from the 2010 U.S. census to describe what’s happening within the nation’s population. Inspired by the 2016 presidential election, Frey told ThinkProgress the new book seeks to draw public attention to the irreversible impact of demography on national affairs.
Contrary to the fears so often stoked by President Donald Trump — that white Americans will lose their privileged place in the nation’s social and economic hierarchy — Frey argues the nation has little to lose and much to gain from the demographic and racial change that will inevitably arrive. “Rather than being feared, America’s new diversity — poised to reinvigorate the country at a time when other developed nations are facing advanced aging and population loss — can be celebrated,” Frey writes.
In an effort to expand upon Frey’s demographic observations, I visited him in his book-filled office at The Brookings Institution, where he expressed strong optimism that the nation’s future will overcome the current and divisive racial politics of the Trump administration, and an ardent belief that young Americans who embrace multicultural diversity will lead the nation to a more inclusive society.
ThinkProgress: Why revise and update this book? What’s changed to warrant a new edition?
Bill Frey: In the first edition, my idea was to present the results in a very comprehensive way of the 2010 census, which just blew me away in terms of how the country had changed. I’m 71 years old so I’ve been looking at a lot of censuses. I’ve been looking at this stuff a long time. I saw the way the country was changing in terms of the racial diversity, the aging of the white population. You don’t have to be a schooled demographer to know where that is going in the future in terms of the country.
But what really got me going [to write an updated version of the book] was the 2016 election, where I felt that the story I told in the book — about the disparity between this growing minority population that is younger and the older white population — is being played out in politics much more than I imagined. I did foreshadow a little bit of [divided politics], saying some of these old, Midwest states, maybe would vote a Republican candidate for president. But I didn’t think race would be the center point of the  election which it seemed to be. I mean, you know, race was a code – immigration, deportation, political correctness, “let’s get tough on policing,” and all of this sort of thing – you know that’s something Nixon did. (Laughs).
But we’re now in the 21st century, and we’re in a very different America. It just blew me away to see a political candidate come out and sort of come off on this kind of idea of “vote for me and I’ll take you back to the ‘50s” racism.
Why did that work?
You know I’m still wondering. I guess there was always some underlying message among some Republicans. But it was never so explicit. I guess I’m a little shocked by it and I guess I’m very disappointed by it in terms of what I thought the American public would accept. I still don’t understand the result of that election today.
You can work out the demography: it’s 10,000 votes in Michigan or whatever. But that the message could even get that far, to be able to do that, well, that made me even more interested in writing this book and getting the message out so that people just generally know what the nation’s demography really is and what it’s really becoming.
We’re not in the ’60s. We’re not in the ‘50s. It’s a very different America today. And it’s a good thing, by and large, if we prepare for it. I think the kind of politics we see today, this negative message about the changing America and the changing demography in America that appeals to some parts of the population is going to hold us back, if it gains further political salience.
Will America's shift to a majority-minority country be a good thing?
Most Democrats (85%), a majority of Independents (59%), and a substantial minority of Republicans (43%) say YES, it will.
— Noah Smith (@Noahpinion) July 24, 2018
Many people say race relations are worse now because of President Trump and that he’s harmed race relations. Yet your book is optimistic about the future of race relations. Can you explain that dichotomy?
Sure. I think that over the long term, the demography is slow moving but in a certain direction. We can easily see that. Since 2000, we have an absolute decline in the number of young white people under the age of 20 in the United States. That’s not because white women aren’t having any babies, but the number of births is not as big as the number of white young people moving past the age of 20. As a result, the only growth in our youthful population is right now people of color, especially Latinos but other groups as well.
Now as that moves over time, the Census Bureau figures show that by the year 2027 people age 18-29, young adults, young adult voters and young adult workers, are going to be minority white. By the year 2033, I think, it will be [white] people in their 30s [who are racial minorities].
As those people [who are today racial minorities] move into positions of leadership, positions of responsibility as they age into their 20s and into their 30s, the country will understand why this is so important. It won’t be a “Us versus Them” situation anymore. It’s all of us and it’s where we’re going as a nation.
Why do you say that it won’t be “Us versus Them”? What’s going to be all that different?
If you’re in business, you’re not only worried about your labor force, you’re worried about your consumer base. If you’re in public policy, you’re going to make decisions in that regard because you’re going to see where the population is going in the future. If you’re in entertainment, well, we already see it in entertainment; there are people who sort of reach out to these young people and it works for them in the entertainment world.
Is racial demographics racial destiny in this country.
Well, it doesn’t actually determine destiny but it certainly shapes it. There’s no question about it. If you’re in the marketplace, you’re in the workplace, you’re into politics, you have to pay attention to those people out there. It’s consumers as voters and as workers. That’s where we’re headed in the future.
We could make it easier on ourselves as a country if we pay attention, especially to these young people in this diverse generations, and make sure they have the education, the training, that their parents have the abilty to raise them well, give them the right kind of medical care, that they have the opportunity to have good housing and live in the right kinds of neighborhoods. That’s the part of it the population we need to pay attention to.
We pay a lot of attention to older people, in terms of Social Security and Medicare. Ironically, it’s these older people who are going to wind up benefitting from investment in younger generations because they’re the ones who will be paying into Social Security and Medicare as these Baby Boomers move not only into their 60s and 70s but into their 80s and 90s. It will be more important that we have a support for them and it will be these young people who provide that.
You cite a lot of reasons to be optimistic, yet President Trump and his racial divisive politics seems to be popular with a huge slice of the public. Is there a contradiction there?
Yeah, there are a lot of contradictions. I think there’s a media impression that he’s appealing to a wider part of the population than he actually is. After all, a lot of people who voted for him voted for Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States, four years earlier. If they thought like that, they weren’t thinking like that then.
So, yes, I think when you have a president that comes out and sort of just blatantly says we have to stop the demography because our country is going to heck, that will have some impact. You can take a poll the next week and somebody will buy into it and maybe even get people to vote for you for an election or two. But over the next five or 10 years, that’s going to dissipate. I hate to say it, but a lot of people my age aren’t going to be here. (Laughs)
The greatest challenge in racial politics is that people live and vote in segregation communites. Is that going to change in coming generations?
You can’t snap your fingers and everybody pick up and move somewhere. We kind of move in a gradual way. It’s not constant moving around that will change all that. But the numbers from the 2010 census, which are the most authorative, show 145 metropolitian areas were growing twice as fast as the Hispanic populaton did nationally. They’re all over the South and some of them are in the Midwest, in the Western part of the country. And they’re just getting a foothold in these areas, especially in the Midwest.
Some communities, especially in parts of the Midwest, in places like Omaha, need to have these minority folks there in their communities to have a labor force, to have an economy or to have population growth. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen.It’s not going to happen quickly. I say there are two ways we have to be able to accommodate this new racial or diversity explosion, as I call it:
One is to focus on the younger generation in terms of schooling and various public services for their families. The other is to deal with new destinations that they’re moving to, where sometimes it’s difficult for them to be accepted as the first community there – whatever it is, whether it’s a Mexican neighborhood, an Asian neighborhood or whatever it is. But that’s where we really have to make efforts. Those communities in particular are going to need those folks to make their communities prosper. If people in those communities don’t see the social equity value in doing this, then they will see it in their own economic interests to open their arms to these new minorities who come here and make them part of their neighborhood.
How do you persuade people to do what’s necessary?
It requires enlighted leadership at all levels. You would need somebody to make that point. Anybody who looks at the numbers in my book… can go out there and tell people “Look, this is where things are going in your town and unless we do something to attract migrants, do something to attract people of color, we’re going to be in bad shape. It’s a carrot, instead of a stick. That’s what these leaders need to do. And there are people who have that attitude
And that’s why it so unfortunate at this point in time we have a leader who has come along and turned this on its head at the absolute wrong time given the of changing demography.
Trump administration wants to make changes in the 2020 census. What do you think of that?
The adding of the citizenship question will lead to a drastically flawed census in the United States because it will lead to marked non-participation by several groups, in particular Latinos and people with Muslim backgrounds and some Asian groups, not just people who are undocumented but citizens of the U.S. who feel like they have friends in that situation and don’t want to be combined with them.
As a demographer and a scientist, this is just a really bad idea. It’s a dumbheaded idea and I think it’s motivated, not because of an effort to have people do a better job of counting citizens to be able to adhere to some civil rights or voting rights laws, which is what the administration say. But they’re doing it because they want to reduce the participation of certain groups that they feel will help them political and also be able to tell their base that they’re doing this. It’s raw politics.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.