This diary is part of a series on demographic issues. The general introduction to the series can be found here.
Race and immigration have been potent political themes through out the entire history of the US. When Europeans began to set foot in North America in the 16th C it was for the most part thinly populated by aboriginal peoples whose ancestors who had arrived from Asia in different waves starting roughly 15K years ago. The Europeans were able to suppress this indigenous population as a result of several factors, not the least of which was the immunity that they had acquired to the diseases that they brought with them. The subsequent waves of European immigration created a sweeping demographic shift.
As soon as the US constitution had been ratified the first congress adopted an immigration act in 1790. It defined eligibility for naturalized citizenship as being limited to white men. They did not take the trouble to define what white meant since it seemed obvious to them. What they had in mind was a WASP nation. Later immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe put some pressure on the limits of white. However, there was no question about the indigenous Americans, the African Americans who came as slaves, or immigrants from Asia. They had no place in the US polity and they were systematically excluded from the rights of citizenship. It wasn't until the 1960s that the US attempted to put its immigration law on a race neutral basis.
In 2008 Pew Research published a demographic projection of the US population in 2050. This document has been the subject of considerable discussion and no little alarm in the conservative bastions of white privilege. It paints a picture of a society in which the non-Hispanic white population will have tipped over into minority status. The founding fathers are surely turning over in their graves.
At this point we need to take a step back and look at the techniques of statistical projection. It is based on taking data from a sample and generalizing it to describe an entire population. You call up 1000 US households and ask them questions about a topic and then generalize that to all 300M people in the country. The validity of this is strongly dependent on the extent to which the sample is representative of the population.
In this case Pew took data about population trends in the US as of 2005 and made a projection about the population in 2050 based on the ASSUMPTION that those trends would remain constant for the next 45 years. This can be an interesting academic exercise and alert us to factors that are changing in the world around us. However, it is not a firm guide to exactly what the future holds. Trends such as birth and immigration rates never remain totally constant. It would be possible to statistically set the clock back to 1980 and do a population projection for the US in 2013 on the assumption that the trends as measured then would continue unchanged for the next 33 years. Even without running all those numbers, its pretty apparent that such was not the case and the realities of 2013 which can now be measured are different from the projection.
We can see that there has been a consistent decline in all groups. As of 2010 whites and Asians were below replacement rate, blacks right at it and Latinas somewhat above it. It is clear that the rate of decrease in fertility has been significantly greater for Latinas than for any of the other groups with whites showing almost no change.
At this point there are four US states in which whites have become a minority of the total population: Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Texas. With the exception of Hawaii, it is the immigration and birth rates of Latinos that have driven the shift. It seems likely that Florida will be added to this group in the very near future for the same reason.
Fertility rates are influenced by various factors. There are general trends for them to be highest in poor agricultural populations and to decrease with urbanization and a rise in living standards. I am going to defer a more in depth discussion of these dynamics until the next diary when I will explore the interesting changes that are happening in Latin America.
The US has never been a static society in terms of its population. During the late 19th C with the large influx of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe that was considerable anxiety about the threat to the proper cultural balance of the notion. It wasn't until WW II that the descendants of those immigrants fully achieved the status of being "real" Americans. Immigration will continue to play a role in population change. It really isn't possible to stop it, and there are some very strong arguments as to why countries with aging populations need the stimulus of young people with energy and ambition.