Opinion and Editorial

Census shows America is turning brown and grey

Dr Sandeep Gopalan
Filed on August 17, 2021

There were substantial increases in the Asian and Hispanic or Latino alone populations.

The newly published 2020 US national census data confirms what many have feared for long: America is turning brown. Is this a realisation of White nationalist fears and the end of America as we know it or a harbinger of a big shift in international relations and a better world? Only time will tell, but the signs are encouraging. First the facts.

The 2020 US census shows the White population declined 8.6 per cent during 2010-2020 whereas people who self-described as multi-racial increased 276 per cent over the same period. This category now includes 33.8 million people compared to just 9 million in 2010. Americans who describe themselves as White alone account for 204.3 million currently out of the total US population of 331,449,281 — a decline of 8.6 per cent since 2010.

There were substantial increases in the Asian and Hispanic or Latino alone populations. Asians alone or in combination now account for 24 million people whereas the Hispanic or Latino population comprises of 62.1 million people. These two groups experienced the most rapid growth — 36 per cent for Asians and 23 per cent for Hispanics.

What does this demographic shift mean for America and the world? At home, it may trigger a rebirth of tribalism and racialised politics fanned by the fear of a loss of White-culture and a decline in power. This is nothing new — similar fears and reactionary trends are as old as America itself and despite temporary set-backs, the country’s best instincts have always prevailed as reflected in the current census data. Racially exclusionary immigration laws, biased electoral redistricting practices, etc., have not achieved their intended objects and the country has moved inexorably to a racially mixed population.

Although the population mix itself has changed, the more difficult task is to translate the actual diversity in society into real political and economic power and cultural influence. America lags on all three counts: political power is still heavily concentrated in one racial group and institutions that influence culture such as the media and the film industry are highly unrepresentative. Similarly, despite the presence of a large middle class, minorities are rarely seen at the upper echelons of powerful US corporations. For instance, less than 5 per cent of CEOs of Fortune 100 CEOs are Black, and wealth remains concentrated on racialised lines.

Is a more diverse America likely to act differently abroad? There is no doubt that a country with such a large component of Asians and Hispanics will behave very differently in international relations. For starters, the formulation of US foreign policy will benefit from the incorporation of diversity and a wider array of interests will find appreciation. The diaspora will bring a renewed focus on Asia and South America and shift the traditional emphasis away from Europe. This is already in evidence. For instance, Obama proclaimed a pivot to Asia — no doubt influenced by his own upbringing and a better appreciation of the rise of China. Coevally, the dilution of US interest in Nato, although animated by nativist concerns, is underpinned by popular opinion shifting away from euro-centric thinking as the Anglo and Nordic population groups have declined. Similarly, issues that influence foreign policy such as climate change have gained prominence due to a better appreciation by the US population of the effects of a warming planet. If floods and fires affect one’s friends and relatives directly albeit in a distant land, that might affect how people behave here. Absent that knowledge, America’s domestic politics remained confined to a small bubble of shared experience from the developed West.

The old adage about all foreign policy ultimately being about domestic politics holds true.

If the demographic shift had been confined to some urban centres or a few states, US foreign policy would not have changed as much. Notably, diversity is no longer concentrated in states such as Hawaii and California as previously. We now have a number of states where diversity is increasing in ways that were unexpected — Georgia, Nevada, Maryland, DC, Texas, to name a few. Many states now have non-White majorities — Hawaii (Asian), California (Hispanic), New Mexico (Hispanic), and DC (Black). California might be the bellwether — the White alone population, which was the largest group in 2010 was replaced by the Hispanic population which now makes up almost 40 per cent of the state. The White population shrank from 40.1 per cent to 34.7 per cent in that time. This means that congressmen and senators have to incorporate the interests of a more diverse set of voters in how they vote on foreign policy matters. Even accounting for the fact that politicians do not act in perfect alignment with their electorate, the ballot box does exert some non-trivial pressure. At the margins and in a highly polarised environment such pressures can make a difference.

The census also showed that America’s population is continuing to migrate to urban areas with 86 per cent of the population living in such areas. The largest county remains Los Angeles county with 10 million people whereas the largest city is still New York with 8.8 million inhabitants. This shift also influences foreign policy as rural voters tend to be less invested in international matters.

Another dimension to the demographic change is that as the country turned less White, it also turned more grey. Americans who are 18 or older now account for 258.3 million people — an increase of 10.8 per cent compared with a decline in the under-18 population of 1.4 per cent. In other words, over 77.8 per cent of the population are adults and that segment grew faster than the nation as a whole. The aging population is likely to bring a greater focus on domestic matters and provide less support for costly overseas engagements — Afghanistan being a case in point. Aging is also likely to generate greater support for immigration to satiate the demand for elder-care and other workers.

In summary, the US of the future is likely to be a different actor in the international arena. As US domestic politics becomes more diverse and inclusive, its foreign policy posture is likely to evolve to reflect a wider array of interests. At the same time, as America looks more like the world, its foreign policy actions are also likely to be perceived as less foreign and therefore gain more support. This may mark the transition of the US from the world’s policeman to the world’s influencer.

Dr Sandeep Gopalan is the Vice Chancellor of Carolina University

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