One of the coolest things about the Olympics has been that the U.S. athletes do not all have the same last name and do not all look like one another. They boast an amazing array of ethnic and racial heritages.
The 2008 Games are the personification of a new Census Bureau report that the face of America is changing more rapidly than predicted. And there are some stunning ramifications that most of us have not thought much about.
In three decades, non-Hispanic white Americans (defined by the government as those mainly descended from European, North African or Middle Eastern ancestors) will no longer be the majority. One out of three Americans will be of Hispanic origin. One out of 10 will be of Asian descent, almost double what it is today. Fifteen percent will define themselves as black, only slightly higher than the one out of seven who do that now.
In just five presidential elections, for the first time whites will not make up the majority of adults under 30.
Some opponents of Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations are disturbed that he has a mixed-race heritage. Such an issue won’t even be on the radar in 2028.
Political scientists concerned about the number of seniors in America (who tend to vote in much higher proportions than the rest of eligible voters) will be apoplectic by 2050. There are about 40 million seniors who are 65 or older now. In 40 years, there will be almost 90 million. The implications for Social Security and Medicare and the working Americans expected to pay for such entitlements are staggering.
People tend to vote their interests, and that will mean more struggles over dwindling resources as seniors demand a larger share of the wealth for health care and retirement living while minorities demand better facilities for education for their children.
In just 15 years, 2023, minorities will comprise more than half of all children 17 and younger. Very few schools have the facilities for the influx of children or the demands they will make on the language and teaching skills of their staffs. With a total population of 439 million (up from 304 million now) expected by 2050, the U.S. culture will be increasingly Hispanic.
There could be far more retirement communities and segregated living among the generations. That means inner cities could be even more strapped for revenue. It could mean more divisiveness as generations battle over political decision-making on immigration, roads, schools, playgrounds, adult day care and other social issues.
There are hundreds of questions we must address. Will we demand English-only classrooms? Will we all have to learn to speak Spanish or will we be a country where half the people don’t understand the other half? Will we welcome the cultural changes or fight them? Are we going to try to halt the flow of immigrants? If so, what will happen if the brilliant foreigners we have relied upon to help make this country great are gone?
Will being a country where minorities rule change the way we look at the world? Will we become more insular or more tolerant? Will we learn to just get along?
Will the relationship among the states change as some become dominantly Hispanic and others may not? Will class pressures increase or disappear? Will the nation’s wealth be spread more evenly or will the top 2 percent continue to have the largest share of the money?
We have gone through some horrific stages in our struggle to become a functioning democracy, the Civil War being one of the worst. But, usually, we have gotten it right in the end. If we are prepared for the changes and think them through, there is no reason to think we won’t be better, stronger, wiser and more tolerant in 2050 than we are now.
We glimpsed part of this nation’s future in Beijing, and much of it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)