Demographer/Author William H. Frey

The renowned demographer and author discusses his new book, Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America.

With 40 years experience, William H. Frey is widely recognized as the nation’s leading demographer. He is the author of more the 200 publications and several books, including Regional and Metropolitan Growth and Decline in the U.S. (1988), America By the Numbers: A Fieldguide to the U.S. Population (2001), and Social Atlas of the United States (2008). He is currently a Senior Fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and Research Professor with the Population Studies Center and Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. In his new book, Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America, Frey argues that we are in the midst of a demographic shift so profound that it will impact the American cultural and political landscape as much as, if not more than, the post-war baby boom.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

William Frey is the author of a powerful new text called “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America”. He’s a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and contends that forthcoming changes in America’s racial demographics will have profound impacts on America as we know it.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with William Frey coming up right now.

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Tavis: William Frey is the author of a new text called “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America”. He’s a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and contends that forthcoming changes in America’s racial demographics will have a profound impact on America as we know it. Bill Frey, good to have you on this program.

William H. Frey: Pleased to be here.

Tavis: So how serious is this going to get?

Frey: This is huge for the U.S. You know, I’m a census geek. I’ve been looking at these numbers now for five censuses in a row. When I looked at the 2010 census, I said, wow, we’re in for a big racial change and transformation in the United States in the next couple of decades.

Tavis: What did you see?

Frey: I saw a juxtaposition of a fast-growing minority population, Hispanics, Asians, Blacks and so forth, and a very slow-growing and aging, soon to be declining white population. Those two are going in a different direction altogether. Most kids that are going to be born in the next few years in the United States are going to live in America for most of their lifetimes.

There’s going to be a declining white population and a growing minority population, very different than what we’ve seen in the last, second half, of the 20th century. The first half of the 21st century is going to be hugely different in terms of race.

Tavis: I want to talk about the political and social and economic and even cultural impact of what you’ve just said. But I think, Jonathan, there’s a map I want to put up here in just a second that gives you–here it is.

You see this map here? This is your map. It gives you a sense of different cities in America. Leave it up, Jonathan. It gives you a sense in America of cities where whites are already outnumbered. Talk about this map right quick.

Frey: You know, this is part of the country that’s already assimilated to what’s going on, what we’re going to hit as a country not too far out. California is ahead of the game. Look at all those cities there that are majority-minority in California.

Tavis: So the green–if you can see that. The green is for Hispanics. Greens for Hispanics. That’s cities where Hispanics outnumber whites already. Red is for Blacks, cities where African Americans outnumber the white majority. And the blue’s for Asians. So there’s cities already where this is happening.

Frey: Yeah, absolutely. And the news of this book is that’s going to continue to move off to other parts of the country. We have a huge dispersion of minorities from the coast areas, from those melting pot areas, into places like Atlanta, North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado, and eventually into the Midwest and even into the upper northeast areas outside of the major New York metropolitan area.

It’s a diversity that’s moving from the melting pot areas inward and from the younger generations older. All of that’s going to continue to converge all over the United States. We’re going to be a very different country.

Tavis: I suspect that the political conversation might be the most interesting, so I’ll hold that for last. Let me start then with these four areas that I asked about earlier, what this explosion means for the country economically.

Frey: Well, economically, it means that we have to focus on this younger generation. You know, in about four or five years, we’re going to have majority-minority population under 18. In about 2023, we’re going to have a majority-minority population under age 30.

That means all the growth we have in our labor force as these older baby boomers retire during this period, we’re going to have a growth of Hispanics especially, but also African Americans and Asians moving into those labor force years.

They’ve got to be well trained. They’ve got to be ready to move into those high-tech jobs, the middle class jobs, or at least be able to support themselves and to support their communities.

Economically, this should be our first domestic priority not for, you know, next quarter or next year, but looking ahead a couple of decades. This is where we ought to put our emphasis, on the education of these young people.

Tavis: But we’re not really good at looking ahead a couple of decades at a time.

Frey: Well, that’s true. But as more people understand these demographics and diversity explosion, I think it’s going to hit them right in the face like it did me when I looked at the census results.

Tavis: I said four categories. Let me try to combine these next two because one can do that, I think, in this conversation. So the first is economic. We just talked about what the impact of this explosion will be. So socially and culturally, what’s the impact that it’s going to be?

Frey: I write about something called a cultural generation gap. And by that, I mean the older, largely white population in the U.S. just isn’t getting it yet. You know, all kinds of surveys say they’re uncomfortable with the new immigration.

They’re uncomfortable with the new minorities. And when it comes to like asking them, do you want to pay more tax money so that there’s more government services for these young people, they’re not too happy about that.

The flip side, of course, is the younger population who wants to have that kind of support. They’re interracially married, interracially dating. You know, diversity is their thing. So I think that’s a clash that we’re going to have to deal with politically and at the local level socially, especially in these new communities that are getting the minority.

It’s okay in coastal California or the greater New York metro area, places like that. They’ve gotten it, they’re dealing with it maybe not as well as some people would like, but they kind of understand it. But when you move into the interior part of the country, this is a message that has to get out to them.

Because from a social standpoint, this is where the country is going to be more cohesive in this next couple of decades. It’s not going to be, oh, those are those minorities. They live somewhere else, they live in a city somewhere or out on the coast somewhere.

This is everywhere in the United States and, if your community is going to survive economically, but also socially in the sense of social cohesion, kids are going to do well in school and all of that, this message has to get out there. So it’s this cultural generation gap, I think, is something we’ll have to deal with.

Tavis: I’m holding myself back on this political conversation because you just said something now that I want to give you a chance to unpack a bit more for me, and then we’ll move on. When I asked about the social and cultural impact of this, part of what’s in the back of my mind is this divide.

There are some who come to this country who are bent on assimilating. They want to assimilate in every way they possibly can and then there are others who do everything they can here to hold onto their culture. And, as you know, there’s great divide about that.

I don’t think America’s greatest strength has ever been her homogeneity, whatever that means. This isn’t China, so we’ve never been that kind of homogenous society. But there are people who won’t use the word homogeneity, but they’ll say the good old days.

And I wonder how this rub is going to–what’s going to happen here when there are people who, again, who want to assimilate, but others who want to hold onto their culture brought here from someplace else?

Frey: Well, I mean, assimilation will mean a different thing this century. It won’t mean everybody’s going to be like those white Anglos whose ancestors came on the Mayflower or something like that. That’s not going to be mainstream of what’s going on in the United States.

I think most surveys show that young people, if they’re immigrants or first generation or second generation, they want to speak English. They want to be part of the middle class. They want to be American citizens.

Now if they hold onto other aspects of their cultural roots, that’s going to be part of the new center of the United States, sort of accommodating all these different cultural backgrounds and so forth.

So I think, you know, instead of having one assimilation model, there will be an assimilation model maybe from the southwestern part of the country, for the great plains part of the country, for the Florida area and the southeast.

People are going to congeal in different kinds of ways. You know, it goes to show that, after several generations, that holding into your culture isn’t so strong after a while. I mean, that moves ahead.

Tavis: And yet, not just on airplanes or not just in California or Texas, you see, for example, the use of Spanish. You hear Spanish everywhere you go. You see it everywhere you go. And there are people who are, for whatever reason, frightened or afraid of what that means for America when we see Spanish, Spanish, Spanish everywhere you go.

Frey: Yeah. And they’re going to have to get used to it. I mean, they’re going to see these demographic changes and they’re going to have to get used to it. Most young people want to speak two languages. They want to speak English and perhaps Spanish or maybe learn a third one, you know, because we’re moving into a global economy. This is a strength for our nation.

And I don’t think it’s the case where, if you see signs in Spanish, whether they’re road signs or restaurants and so forth, that that means only Spanish can go there or you’re not going to feel comfortable in those places if you don’t speak Spanish. I think people are going to get that.

Again, this is dispersing everywhere. It’ll inch into different communities at different speeds and different ways. And as people get to see this, they’re going to get used to it. Maybe I’m too hopeful. You know, I’ve been accused of writing a good news book about race [laugh]. I’ve been accused of it.

Tavis: A badge of honor. You should wear that as a badge of honor.

Frey: Well, I do, I do.

Tavis: How is–two questions here. How is and how should–those aren’t the same thing, obviously. But how is or how should corporate America because America–I mean, this might get me in some trouble, not the first time. I think that America might have been a corporation before it was a country. That’s debatable.

But it’s all about the money. Everybody knows it’s all about the dollar, and everybody knows that. How should, how is, or how will corporate America interpret this data?

Frey: Well, they should interpret it that this country is changing no matter what. I mean, another sidebar into this is that immigration isn’t going to matter that much anymore. Most of the growth in minorities in the U.S. has to do from what we demographers call natural increase, births to minorities who are already here.

So it’s not about immigration. It’s who’s here and how are we going to deal with this productively? That should be in the minds of the corporate America. And how are we going to get people into our organization that can help embrace these new folks, help them advance and, of course, help the country?

And as I said before, in a global economy, we need to have people who can communicate to folks in other countries. So that should be in the back of their minds too. Whether they will do this, I mean, some of them will do it dragging and screaming across the country, not doing it very quickly.

But I think the sharper ones are going to understand this very quickly because it’s a matter of talent and it’s a matter of being able to manage that talent, and you can only really do that if you understand those different groups that are coming into your organization.

Tavis: But it seems to me to ignore what you’re laying out in the text is to, at some point somewhere down the road, bankrupt your company.

Frey: Yes, absolutely. You’ll bankrupt your company just the way we’ll bankrupt the country if we don’t do something about it. I think that’s right.

Tavis: All right. So now the good stuff politically. We could do a whole show and we might do a whole show with this. But politically, what does it mean that white folk are being more and more outnumbered in every election cycle?

Frey: Well, it means that those people who want to put all these voter ID laws and all of this stuff, trying to push back the wave of demographic change, are soon going to be unsuccessful because it’s going to be so huge.

In the meantime, though, it’s pretty tough sledding some places, as we saw from the last midterm election where we saw, you know, a very–I wouldn’t say just totally Tea Party-esque, but a kind of a very conservative set of candidates winning in the Congress because we didn’t have a big minority turnout.

I think part of the issue is that, if minorities are going to make their presence felt, they’re going to have to be able to come out on election day and vote, and that’s going to take some moving and, you know, getting people together and doing that. We haven’t seen that in midterm elections. We have seen it in presidential elections, obviously, in the last two presidential elections.

The minority population absolutely elected Barack Obama for president. If you look at the popular vote, if you look at the geography of it, those places where Obama won are places where minorities voted for Obama and the white population voted for the Republican candidate in some of those key states.

So that’s a presidential election, but at the local level, at the Congressional level, that’s going to take some time. But I always say that politicians are the best demographers and they tend to figure this out sooner or later where the population’s going to be.

Tavis: I take your point, but for the sake of argument, can say that they might be, but they’re not Republicans. That’s not to demonize Republicans. It is to say, though, that what you’ve just laid out now seems to fly in the face of the strategy that the Republican Party has employed.

And you’re right about the fact that in local elections, even state elections, they continue to do well, but I could list a number of other issues, immigration on down.

You’ve named a few of them already. Immigration, voting rights, voter ID laws, etc., etc., where they’re bucking against the trend strategically at least. They’re bucking against the trend of this diverse explosion that you write about. So maybe they aren’t the best demographers. Is their head in the sand? What is it?

Frey: Yeah. I think, you know, their head’s in the sand in the sense that they’re trying to take as far as they can a strategy that has been successful for them and they don’t really see this demography coming. I always say, if Mitt Romney read my book, he’d be President of the United States today because he would have reached out to the minority population.

Tavis: I hear some folks saying, “I’m glad he didn’t read it.” [laugh]. But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that. Go ahead. But I take your point now. I take your point. If Mitt had read this, he might very well be president. But, see, here’s where I think we disagree a little bit.

I don’t think they can be that stupid. They may be stuck on stupid, but they can’t be that stupid. You look anywhere. I mean, you don’t have to read–with all due respect, you don’t have to read “Diverse Explosion” to see this happening in front of our eyes. I mean, how can they not know it?

Frey: You know, it’s a strategy, as I say, especially in Congressional elections. A lot of those Congressional districts are slow-growing, largely white, largely older white districts. You know, when you look at a state that has some minority concentrations somewhere and this large white low-density area elsewhere, those places are the ones that are getting the votes.

Until that minority population disperses or until the–you know, the Democrats bear some responsibility for this too. They can do better to get the white vote than just not only rely as much on the minority vote. But as soon as those things happen, say, in the suburbs, maybe the middle suburbs, that can be more contentious for the Democrats over time.

Tavis: There are two distinct groups here that I want to talk about now. You’ve pointed to both of them and I think in this instance they may even coalesce. And that is back to the midterm elections, the fact that these white conservatives won some pretty major elections because, as you said, there wasn’t significant turnout by people of color. You’re right about that.

But as also was the case, there was almost no turnout among young people. Now earlier in this conversation, you made the point that it’s not about the folk who are coming here, it’s folk who are already here who are having babies, who are automatically American citizens because they were born in this country. That’s the group you got to be concerned about.

Unless and until young people then start turning out to vote in record numbers like they did for Obama–not even in the second time around, but certainly in 2008–unless and until young people turn out, it’s not just the issue of people of color. It’s also youth voters, young voters. How does that impact all of this?

Frey: Yeah, I think that’s an important thing. Those were two unusual elections for Barack Obama in that young people took such a big role. Minorities and young whites took a big role in that.

It’s always the case in these midterm elections that young people are not too interested. There’s not really a charismatic candidate that they can coalesce around and so forth. But that’s going to have to change, I think. I mean, that’s going to take a little effort on the part of the advocacy groups, on the people who are trying to generate support for this.

One of the reasons I think that people are going to pay attention to all of this is because, when people understand the 2020 census is going to show that more than 40% of the U.S. population are a racial minority and more than half of the population under age 30 will be a racial minority, I think when people understand that, advocacy groups will have an easier time energizing people to go out and push for the issues.

Not just the minorities themselves, but people who take minorities issues to heart, and more people will do that when they get the picture of how the demography of this country’s changing.

Tavis: There’s an old adage and I was just lecturing about this the other night, this notion that we all know that when you can’t change the game, you change the rules.

I could give you any number of pieces of legislation that, to my mind, represent one particular party’s effort to change the rules because they can’t change the game. So if you change the rules to slow down what this really means, then at least you hold on for a little while longer.

That’s one of the reasons, I believe, why you got these strict voter ID laws. You can’t change the game, so you change the rules and you slow down people who get a chance to get in the game so you keep winning for at least a few more election cycles. Does that make any sense to you?

Frey: No. I think that’s what they’re trying to do, but I think they don’t understand how quickly…

Tavis: The game is changing.

Frey: Things are going to be changing. They’re only going to be able to do that so long and you’re going to see this, especially in these border states, states like North Carolina, states like Virginia, states like Colorado, states like Nevada. Whether or not they try to change the rules, they do make things a little tougher. You can see it one way or another.

But those are states where things are going to be changing quickly, maybe a little tougher in the deep south. They may be able to get away with those rules for a while, but you can win a national election without the deep south, I think, if you have more Democratic support in the mountain west and some of these fast-growing southeastern states.

So, yeah, I think they can get away with it for a while, but they really don’t see how fast this is coming. I really think this is going to be something they are going to have to address.

Tavis: Let me flip this now and go the other direction. So the Democrats, politically at least, can sit for the moment perhaps and gloat about the fact that this diversity explosion is coming and, at some point, the other party is just going to no longer be in vogue.

Yet, that shouldn’t be the strategy. There are lessons for them to learn as well. What are the messages for those who are Democrats on the left to learn from this coming reality?

Frey: Well, I would say they should be worried perhaps about the Rust Belt because very close elections were in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, that they won in 2008 and in 2012. Perhaps closely coming along might be Michigan and Wisconsin and in Iowa. These are white states where Republicans were not able to garner as much of a white advantage that they had, say, in the deep south.

If they could get a little bit more of that white advantage and, as these white baby boomers start moving into those older ages and go out to vote in very big numbers, the Democrats could have a fight on their hands in those areas.

So they need to pay a little bit of attention to some of the issues of the older white baby boomers. One of them, of course, is Social Security which is one they’ve had for a long time. It’s hard to believe Republicans can win among these white older voters, but they do. But I think the Democrats can push that a little more.

So there’s a geographical aspect to this as Democrats are maybe gaining some more of the south and maybe some more of the west. They have to pay attention to the Midwest and some of the northeast states and the New England states where those older white voters are going to be looking hard at both parties when they vote.

Tavis: Culturally speaking, socially speaking, for so long there has been this boogey man called the angry Black man, as I said, culturally and socially. Politically we are told now there’s an angry white male.

We’ve seen this play out in a couple of election cycles. What do these numbers, what does this data, say to us about the future of the angry while male in America?

Frey: Well, you know, the angry white male has gained a lot, I think, in the U.S. And I think the angry white male is going to have to depend on the federal government for their Social Security, for their Medicare, and they’re going to have to come to realize that, if people are going to be paying tax money into the whole system to be able to pay for that, it’s going to be increasingly young minority people.

Those are the people who are going to be needing to get the assistance to get those jobs to do that. It’s a simple story. I mean, you could write one of the–you could put up one of those Ross Perot graphs.

You know, people old enough to remember Ross Perot when he used to put these graphs–you could do a couple of simple charts and show people why I say in this book why it’s absolutely necessary to give these young people a break and make them advance so that they can help all of us actually in the society, in the economy, government programs that help old people as well as young people. They’re going to need to be players. There’s no question about it.

Tavis: My favorite Ross Perot quote still all these years later when he was talking about NAFTA, “that giant sucking sound down south” [laugh]. I love the description of NAFTA. I digress on that.

You mentioned government programs. Frame for me as best you can what this data is going to mean, how it will inform the debate that we have about the role of government in our country.

Frey: Well, that’s very interesting because I think, you know, a lot of people think the role of government should be very small, that you should let people do their own thing, that they should make their own way, pay their own kids’ tuition, make sure that, if they need private school, they should go to private schools and so forth.

But I think that as people, again, the demographic roots of this big racial change that we’re seeing will make people also understand that the federal government and the state government have a huge role to play in making sure this next generation succeeds.

Right now, schools are funded largely at the locale level, maybe to some degree at the state level, and we have a lot of sort of segregated, under-resourced public school systems. That’s going to have to change.

I mean, at the federal level, people are going to have to understand that those kinds of monies need to be going into this. Funneled off to the states, funneled off to local communities, that’s a big one, but there are many others.

I mean, the healthcare, of course, any kind of program that subsidizes the welfare of younger families so that they–two working parents have to be able to raise their kids one way or another, have some kind of childcare support. All of those things, some of which Obama has mentioned in his State of the Union address.

That’s a role for big government and that’s a role, after people understand how the demography is changing in the U.S., are going to have to recognize it. It’s going to have to hit them right in the face because I think they’re going to see why it’s important.

Tavis: Let me offer this perhaps as the exit question. I know you’re a demographer. I’m going to ask you to play the role of a psychologist right about now, a cultural psychologist.

I wonder what your best advice is, given that you know this data better than all the rest of us, what advice you would give us on a human level for how we start to wrap our minds and our hearts around the fact that America is changing, that America is going to change. It’s going to look very different in the coming months and years.

As a society, what’s your best advice for how we start to begin to wrap our hearts and our minds around this reality?

Frey: Well, you know, if I were talking to individuals, I’d say go out and volunteer in your local communities, anything to do with youth and young people. Because you go to any playground, you go to any summer camp, what you see are minority kids. That’s where the minority explosion is starting. I think that’s a very important thing.

I also think that local civic leaders, religious leaders, those people who know better, I think, than some of these politicians who try to do the wedge issue with the hate and everything like that, should take the responsibility and get on a soap box and start talking to people about coming together at the local level.

Be ready to receive new people coming into their community. You know, we could stop a Ferguson kind of situation five or ten years down the road because we know where these new minorities are moving to.

We can get them involved in civic engagement in various ways. Give them help in terms of employment assistance and so forth because we know they’re coming. The demography is written right down for them and I think those local leaders and community leaders can help along the way as well.

Tavis: That’s great advice. It’s a powerful new book full of data that I found absolutely fascinating. That’s why we spent the entire show tonight talking about it. It’s called “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America”. You heard Mr. Frey say earlier that these changes are coming faster than we can imagine.

So better now than later to start to wrap our brains and, as I said, our hearts around this new reality that will be the America that we all live and work in. Thank you for your work. Good to have you on the program. Thanks for coming on.

Frey: I enjoyed it.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: February 18, 2015 at 11:47 pm