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Commentary: Reacting to the Changing Face of U.S. Demographics

“Do you feel concerned or hopeful about the fact that racial minorities will soon make up a majority of the U.S. population?”

If your dinner table talk resembles some I’ve encountered recently, then you’ve experienced the passionate range of emotions—from head-hanging pessimism to button-popping optimism to shoulder-shrugging ambivalence—that this question usually sparks in private, just-among-friends debates. But rarely does such talk enter polite, public conversation. I suspect that’s because few people are daring enough to ask, fearing the backlash that almost always follows honest discussions involving race.

That’s a pity. Our nation’s failure to publicly and candidly grapple with the changing demographics only postpones a necessary conversation about what kind of country we will choose to become. For sure, change is coming. By 2050—possibly sooner—the nation’s combined populations of racial and ethnic Americans (Blacks, Latinos, Asian-Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans) will outnumber White Americans.

So now, in 2011, how do most Americans feel about what’s to come in the future? Not much, according to a recent study conducted by the Applied Research Center, a think tank that researches issues related to racial justice. After surveying about 2,400 adults last spring in a nationwide study, ARC found that “the majority of people have no feelings one way or the other about the changing face of the U.S.”

When asked if they’re “concerned, hopeful or indifferent” about the changing demographics of the nation, a whopping 54.8 percent of the respondents said they’re neither concerned nor hopeful or have no opinion. “The vast majority of the people in the middle simply shrugged their shoulders,” Dominique Apollon, research director at ARC and author of a report on the findings, told me in an interview.

In his blog post, Apollon quoted a man from Connecticut as saying he didn’t care a whit. “I will be dead in 10 years or so—I think the next generation has to deal with this garbage!”

Such a reaction is, at best, a bittersweet notion. After all, given the harsh and negative tenor of public policy debates over issues that have become highly associated (typically negatively) with race such as immigration, affirmative action, and crime, I consider it a victory that larger numbers of Americans aren’t more alarmed by the changing demographics of the nation.

Still, the ARC report uncovered a disturbing fact. The people who are most inclined to speak out on the subject of racial diversity are those who hold the most negative opinions. And, just as troubling, those who are most pessimistic tend to be conservative Americans.

Specifically, the ARC researchers said, 36.6 percent of the conservative respondents said they were concerned about the demographic changes, compared to 18.5 percent of moderate respondents and 11.9 percent of liberal respondents. Similarly, the converse is true as 36.6 percent of the liberal respondents were hopeful, compared to 20.5 percent of moderates and 11.1 percent of conservatives.

“Maybe this is just a part of human nature that people who are most concerned would be people who don’t want change and are the ones who are more likely to be vocal about it,” Apollon told me. “But demographic changes are transforming America and nothing is going to stop it from happening.”

In recognizing the inevitability of population shifts, my colleagues and I have spent the past year working on issues related to race and demography as part of Progress 2050, a project of the Center for American Progress that develops new ideas for an increasingly diverse America. Among our core goals is to increase awareness of the changing demographics of our nation and to spark optimistic conversations among progressive Americans about the benefits of the increased participation in our society by racial and ethnic groups. We are convinced that the nation’s future is bright because of the role and contributions that all citizens contribute to our democracy.

Indeed, the people who believe as we do—that America’s diversity is the strength of our republic—have an obligation to speak up and out in its defense. Failure to do so will concede too much of the public debate to the reactionary right and its futile fight to stop the forward march of progress.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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