The President's Initiative on Race

Presentation to the Race Advisory Board
Dr. Reynolds Farely

Summary Statement

The United States has been undergoing racial change throughout its history but never at the pace and manner occurring now. Within the next 50 years, whites as a share of the total population will decline from 75 percent to just over 50 percent. The African-American population will increase in size but remain at about 14 percent of the total. Depending upon immigration trends, intermarriage and racial self-identity; the Hispanic population may increase to more than one-quarter of the total while Asians may increase from their present 4 percent to 8 percent.


When the first census was taken in President Washington's Administration, African-Americans made up 20 percent of the total, a much high proportion than at present. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, a long "black belt" made up of predominantly black counties stretched from the suburbs of Washington to east Texas and three states - South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana - were majority black in their compositions for more than a century.

Between the Revolutionary War and World War II, the African-American population grew slowly compared to the white, largely because one great wave of white immigrants arrived from northern Europe after the potato famine of the 1840s and then a second great wave of white immigrants arrived from southern and eastern Europe after 1880. As a result, African-Americans as a share of the total reached a low point of just 10 percent in 1940.

Figure 1 illustrates the racial composition of the nation at the outset of World War II when blacks and whites together made up 99.5 percent of the total. This figure also shows the population at the start of the Civil Rights decade - 1960. At that time, this was still a country of whites and blacks. Because of restrictive immigration laws dating from the Nineteenth Century, there were fewer than one million Asians and the small American Indian population - just one-half a million - lived in rural areas of sparsely populated western states. There was not even a census question in 1960 identifying Latinos.

We often think of the three crucial civil rights laws of the 1960s: the encompassing Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of the next year and the Open Housing Act passed after the killing of Dr. King in Memphis. But there was another civil rights law of that decade, one that is now greatly changing the racial composition of the country.

Representative Cellar and Senator Hart, motivated by the civil rights spirit of that era, wrote the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, a law that overturned the discriminatory provisions of earlier laws - provisions that kept out Asians and dampened the flow from eastern and southern Europe. The sponsors of that 1965 legislation presumed there would be an increased immigration from behind the Iron Curtain but never imagined the new waves now entering primarily from Asian and Latin America.

Figure 1 also shows the composition of the population this year. It reflects both the recent immigration to the United States, substantial differences in birth rates and changes in our demographic procedures. Racial composition changed in the past and undoubtedly will change in the future because of shifts in the way we gather data and classify individuals.

Through 1960, an enumerator visited every household to report the race of the people being counted but, since 1970, race has been self-reported so each person now marks his or her own identity and, in the case of children, picks a race for them. These data are not edited so you are what you mark. The rapid growth of the American Indian population is attributable to our freedom of choice procedure for identifying race.

The Spanish-origin population is often treated as if it were a racial group thereby challenging old classification schemes. Responding to pressures from Hispanics, President Nixon added a special question to the enumeration in 1970, allowing Spanish-origin persons to identify themselves regardless of their race. In 1977, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) mandated that all federal agencies gather data about Spanish-origin as well as race. A precedent has been firmly established and, according to current plans, the Spanish-origin query will come before the race question in the Census of 2000. For many Latinos the race question may be superfluous since, in the Census of 1990, 43 percent of those who said their origin was Spanish failed to identify with any of the 14 racial groups listed on the census. They left the race question unanswered.

Current Growth Rates of the Population

Figure 2 shows average annual growth rates of the population by racial group from 1990 to 1996 with a distinction for Asians and Hispanics by whether they were born inside or outside the country. In this figure, and in subsequent figures, Hispanics are treated as if they were a racial group. That is, I am presenting information for non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic Asians.

The Asian and Hispanic populations are growing much more rapidly than the white, Indian or black populations. The native-born Asian population grew by almost 7 percent each year implying a doubling in just over a decade while the foreign-born Latino population is growing by almost 5 percent each year. In contrast, the non-Hispanic white population increased slowly - by only one-half a percent each year.

Projections of the Population to 2050

What will this nation look like in terms of race in 25 or 50 years? Whites as a share of the population will decline, blacks will remain at their present share while Asians and Latinos will increase but the changes depend upon immigration trends, rates of intermarriage and how people choose to identify themselves.

Assumptions about Fertility and Family Size

For a population to remain constant in size, there needs to be an average of about 2.1 births per woman. At present, birth rates for non-Hispanic whites imply only 1.8 births per woman so the white population will reach a peak size in about 40 years and then gradually decline unless there is an unforseen influx of white immigrants or a jump in the birth rate.

Current birth rates of non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic Asians imply about 2.3 births per woman - a rate that produces moderate growth. The fertility rates of Hispanic women are higher suggesting an average of 2.7 children per woman.

In a demographic sense, the Hispanics and Asians are poised for rapid growth because of their youthful age structures. That is, compared to whites and blacks, a high proportion of Latinos and Asians are at childbearing age. Many are young immigrants who came to pursue opportunities in the United States. They will frequently obtain an education or find a job and then marry and start their families here; thus, the age structure of Latinos and Asians is conducive to rapid growth. Blacks bear their children at a younger age than whites and have higher birth rates so the black population will grow more rapidly than the white but much more slowly than the Latino or Asian population.

Hispanics are now the high fertility group but birth rates of first generation immigrants reflect fertility patterns in countries of origin while, in subsequent generations, birth rates generally move down toward those of the native population; thus, most projections assume a reduction in the relatively high birth rates of foreign born Latinos.

Mortality Assumptions

A child born in the United States today, can expect to live 76 years if current death rates persist. Projections of the population assume that the modest decline in death rates observed in the 1980s will continue giving us a life span of 82 years at the mid-point of the next century. There are alternative projections that assume either a more rapid fall in mortality or that death rates rise among men because of AIDS.

Projections reported here assume that by 2050, Asians, whites and Latinos will have equal death rates but that men will continue to live seven fewer years than women and blacks seven fewer years than other groups.

Immigration Assumptions

Finally, and most important for today's question, is immigration. Racial change is primarily driven by the composition of our immigration flow. Currently there are about 800,000 legal immigrants each year while another 225,000 arrive to stay without documents. In addition, there may be 70,000 citizens returning from residing abroad each year or entering from Puerto Rico and other dependencies. This immigration is offset, however, by the emigration of some 100,000 to 200,000 citizens - many of them immigrants who return to their countries of origin.

The most common projections of population assume a net immigration of about 850,000 persons each year. Both the Census Bureau's projections and those done for the National Academy of Science's Committee on Immigration include a range of assumptions going from an unrealistic low of no immigrants to a high of about 1.7 million immigrants each year. Needless to say, if you assume a much greater volume of immigration, you project a much larger total population and much more rapid racial change.

In the early 1990s, Mexico, Russia, China, the Phillippines and the Dominican Republic were the leading countries of origin for immigrants. In this decade about 45 percent of immigrants are Hispanics, about 30 percent Asians and the remainder split between whites and blacks, with whites more numerous than blacks.

The immigration stream is much more diverse than ever before. In the 1980s, 31 different nations sent 50,000 or more immigrants. 27 of the 31 were Latin American, Caribbean or Asian countries. In that decade, for the first time, large numbers came from Central American nations - El Salvador and Guatemala - and from South America - Peru, Guyana, Ecuador and Brazil. African immigration more than doubled in the 1980s and because of new diversity provisions in the law, will continue to grow with Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa being the leading senders.

The Projected Population

Figure 3 reports the Census Bureau's Middle Series of population projections by race. These imply that the population will grow from 268 million to 323 million in 2020 and to just under 400 million in 2050. The numbers and composition are very close to the middle series reported by the National Academy's Committee on Immigration. The white population may peak at 210 million about 2030 and then very slowly decline but whites, as a share of the total, will decrease rather rapidly from 73 percent at present to about 53 percent in 2050.

The African-American population will grow from its present 32 million to 54 million- a large change - but, as a share of the total, there will be almost no shift. Roughly one American in eight choose black as his or her race in 1990 and that proportion is not likely to change much unless there is a dramatic shift in immigration.

The Hispanic population may triple in size by the middle of the next century, assuming there is a continued flow of immigrants from Latin America and that Hispanic fertility remains higher than average. If so, one-quarter of the population in 2050 may be Hispanic.

The Asian population will grow even more rapidly than the Latino but will remain smaller, even smaller than the black population unless immigration changes greatly. According to these projections, Asians - who now make up 4 percent of the population will increase to 6 percent in 2020 and 8 percent in 2050.

Social Trends and their Implications for Population Projections

Pervasive social and demographic processes are now underway that call for a cautious interpretation of these projections. You are an Advisory Panel on Race and you are serving at the precise time the meaning and measurement of race are changing quickly.

Three processes - in addition to immigration, fertility and mortality- strongly influence the future racial composition.

First, there is interracial marriage. Among those who married in their twenties in the 1980s, only 3 percent of non-Hispanic white men married women from another group. About 8 percent of black men who married did so. But 37 percent of native-born Hispanic men and 47 percent of native-born Asian men who married, married women outside their group.

Among women, only 3 percent of white women and only 4 percent of black women married men from another group. But for native-born Hispanic women, 35 percent married outside their group and for Asians, 54 percent. That is, the majority of native born Asian women now marry non-Asians. Intermarriage is apparently increasing among all groups but is especially common among Asians and Hispanics.

Second, because of interracial marriage, there is a bi/multi-racial population with clear patterns of identity. Using 1990 census data, we can look at the reported race of children and compare it to the race of their parents. Most children in 1990 - 96 percent were of the same race as both parents but an increasing number and proportion of children have parents whose races differ. The Census Bureau's projections assume that children in bi/multi-racial marriages will identify with the race of their mother. But that is not what is happening and, quite soon, we will have many births occurring to mothers who themselves were born in bi/multi-racial marriages.

A capsule summary would be that:

Current patterns - and there is no strong reason to think they will continue - lead to black and Hispanic being reported more than you might expect for children in bi/multi-racial marriages while Asian and white are reported less frequently than you would expect. The assumptions that you make about interracial marriages and the identity of the children of such marriages have a great deal to do with the projected sizes of the Asian and Latino populations.

Third, there is the issue of the classification of people by race. How will this done? What categories will be used by the statistical system? Can a person claim membership in two or three races?

In 1990, the Census asked the race question first, then a question about Spanish-origin and then a large sample reported their ancestry or national origin. Working with those data, we can infer that 7 percent of the population gave reports suggesting multi-racial heritage, multiracial that is if you treat Hispanic as if it were a racial group. Specifically:

Plans for the enumeration of 2000 call for asking the Spanish-origin question first and then presenting individuals with a list of 13 races. They may be told that they can check all races that apply. Pre-tests suggests that a small percent - perhaps one to two percent - will identify with two or more races but we do not know what will happen in the Census. Nor do we know how many of those who claim a Spanish-origin will fail to answer the race question.


It is a reasonably straightforward task to use current information about birth rates, mortality rates and immigration and make projections assuming that people are born into one and only one race and retain that identify for their lifetime. Using that procedure, we can predict that the white population will reach its maximum size about 30 years after the turn of the century and, as a fraction of the total, will decrease but the country will likely still be majority white 55 years from now. The black population will grow rapidly but its share of the total will not change very much. The Hispanic and Asian populations will grow rapidly and, by 2050, one-quarter of the population may be Hispanic and 8 percent Asian.

Our views of race, of who belongs in which group and whether you can belong to more than one group have changed greatly throughout our history. Around the turn of the last century, the census devoted effort to counting mulattos, quadroon and octoroons - meaningful concepts at that time. The process of changing racial definitions continues with possibly new developments on the horizon attributable to increasing rates of interracial marriage and the new census question that may identify a considerable number of Americans who think of themselves as members of two or more of the racial groups.

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