While race relations in the U.S. may currently seem to be at their lowest point in a generation, demographer William Frey said that there is hope on the horizon.
The Atlantic‘s Ronald Brownstein wrote on Thursday about Frey’s theory of the “racial generation gap” and how it actually gives reason for cautious optimism about the U.S.’s diverse future.
According to Frey, these are the nation’s peak years for racial conflict and while peaceable relations will come slowly, they are purportedly on their way.
“That sliver of good news is embedded in an otherwise sobering new study from PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California, which study demographic and economic trends and advocate for low-income communities,” wrote Brownstein.
The study tracked the two major demographic trends in the country: By 2020, young people of color will make up the majority of the under-18 population while four-fifths of the U.S. population over 60 is white.
“The contrast and conflict between these kaleidoscopically diverse younger generations and preponderantly white older ones—groups I’ve called the brown and the gray—has emerged as one of the central fault lines in American life,” Brownstein said.
States and counties with the biggest gaps between white seniors and nonwhite youth spend less money per capita on K-12 public education, which Brownstein called a “short-sighted” failure “to invest in future generations.”
“One of the central dynamics of 21st century America is that an increasingly non-white workforce will be paying the taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare for a growing and mostly white retiree population. Older white America needs more of the diverse younger generations to obtain the skills to reach the middle class—not (primarily) on the grounds of fairness or equity, but out of self-interest,” he said.
In short, “(T)here is no financial security for the gray without economic opportunity for the brown.”
President Donald Trump has mobilized that gray coalition by convincing them that youth of color can only rise at the older, white generation’s expense.
“If that isn’t playing to the racial generation gap, I don’t know what is,” said PERE’s director Manuel Pastor.
However, Pastor says there is reason to be optimistic.
“Since the 1990s, the racial generation gap has rapidly widened as the minority share of the youth population has exploded, up from 34 percent in 1995 to 48 percent in 2013. That share has grown much more slowly among seniors, rising only from 16 percent to 21 percent in that same period. But looking forward, the Census Bureau projects that minorities will increase their share of the youth population somewhat more slowly and steadily age into a growing portion of the elderly. The result, as the study observes, is that the racial generation gap already likely peaked around 2013, and will decline, albeit slowly, in years ahead,” said Brownstein.
A model for the national trend would be California, where the racial generation gap peaked in the mid-1990s. That period in the state was marked by a spate of reactionary legislation like initiatives to ban affirmative action, to stop bilingual education and to cut off services for undocumented immigrants.
As diversity works its way up the generational ladder, Pastor said, the rest of the U.S. could see the same sort of progressive shift in attitudes that California has seen. However, the gap is closing more slowly in most areas of the U.S., meaning that change could be “a long and grinding process.”
“I have reason to hope based on the [demographic] data, but actually I think it’s more of a call to action,” Pastor said. “The task is to speed up the process of intergenerational understanding and interdependence.”