Friday, December 18, 2009

The change

As the nation gears up to mark another New Year’s Eve, more than a few million Americans are also putting big emotional energy into the “end” of the first decade of the 21st century. Which it’s not, of course, not for another year. But don’t tell them that. Custom and practice and The Way It’s Always Been have disabused them of the idea that maybe, just maybe, their longstanding certainties are wrong.

The National Journal gave us a proper launch into the new year with an exhaustive study of voter demographics in the United States — a report that overturns the lingering mostly conservative orthodoxies and assumptions about who and where the power blocs of voters in this country really are.

The Journal’s package — written by the reliable Ron Brownstein and graphically designed by Charlie Szymanski, in a display of maps, districts and stats that has to be seen to be believed — clearly documents the vast change that’s underway in the United States, change illustrated, but in way defined, by the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

“With Hispanics providing the principal engine, the nation's minority population is not only increasing but also dispersing beyond the big cities where it traditionally congregated. And as minorities enlarge their numbers in the suburbs and even the exurbs, the number of House members representing districts with heavily diverse populations is soaring -- probably to unprecedented heights.”

A quote from Simon Rosenberg, president of a Democratic group that monitors electoral trends, puts it in even clearer perspective. “We're entering a new era which is being defined to a great degree by the incredible explosion of the nonwhite electorate and its distribution around the country … The growth of this nonwhite population is creating a fundamentally new politics in the United States.”

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With incisive, muscular quotations from demographers and political analysts, and a visual breakdown of where the big changes are taking place, the Brownstein-Szymanski project calls on readers to embrace a new idea of what immigration 2009 is: not the familiar Ellis Island exercise of patriation, specific to a handful of states. Immigration is wider than the contours we’ve grown comfortable with.

The Journal’s analysis of Census Bureau data “found that 205 members in the House--almost half of the chamber--represent districts in which minorities constitute at least 30 percent of the population. That's nearly double the one-fourth of members who hailed from districts that diverse during the 1990s.”
“Two dynamics are driving the spread of heavily diverse districts. One is the sheer growth in the nonwhite share of the population, defined as everyone except non-Hispanic whites. In 1980, those nonwhites, including Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians, constituted 20 percent of the population; that figure rose to 24 percent in 1990, 31 percent in 2000, and 34 percent in 2008, according to Census Bureau figures.

“Accompanying this growth has been a dispersal of the minority population from its historical concentration in the largest cities across a much broader landscape of communities of every size, in almost every region of the country. That trend has been powered primarily by immigrants, especially Hispanics, notes Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University and the author of New Faces in New Places, a 2008 book on the phenomenon. ‘That's the big story starting in the 1990s: Immigration shifted from being a regional phenomenon affecting a handful of states to truly being a national phenomenon,’ Massey says. ‘That's for the first time in 100 years--or maybe for the first time in all of American history.’"
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There was another assault on certainties of population the day before the Journal report. Updating a 2008 prediction, the Census Bureau released figures on Wednesday that tweaked the time when white people will no longer make up the majority of U.S. citizens.

Now, the bureau says, whites will become the minority in America in 2050 — a pullback of eight years from the previous forecast of 2042 as the tipping-point year. The impact of the recession and stricter immigration policies in the wake of 9/11 are the reasons why.

The bureau predicts that white children will become a minority in 2031 and the overall white population would follow in ‘50.

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Since such changes don’t happen in a vacuum or overnight, it’s proof again, as if such were really needed, that President Obama’s election was merely the most emphatic announcement of a process that’s been underway here for generations.

And we’ll see that process play out soon: Once the champagne and aspirin of New Year’s Eve are behind us, we can start getting ready for the two events likely to define 2010 as a bellwether political year: the decennial census, the results of which determine the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives; and the 20120 midterm elections, likely to be not so much a referendum on President Obama or either political party as a survey of the political process, and the impact on that process, courtesy of the America taking shape before our eyes.

“It used to be the exception [when members] said, ‘My district has really changed,’” said California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra, to The Journal. “Now that's the rule. If you are in a district that is not accustomed to seeing a lot of diversity, the rule now is that you are going to see it. And you can't ignore it: That is the face of America tomorrow.”

Image credits: Map and graph: Charlie Szymanski, The National Journal.

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