Achieving a More Integrated America

Achieving a More Integrated America

Despite the black family in the White House, this seems an odd moment to think about the possibilities for minority mobility and ethno-racial integration. Recent Census Bureau data demonstrate what we could have guessed from past economic downturns: African Americans and Hispanics have suffered far more than whites. They are much more likely to experience unemployment and poverty. The situation of minority children is especially dire. About one in three black and Hispanic children live below the poverty line. This is probably an underestimate, because the official poverty line is not a realistic threshold. The statistics are dismal: the heaviest burdens of our staggering income inequalities continue to be borne by minorities (except for Asians).

And yet, an unusual opportunity lies ahead to advance the racial integration of American society. The exodus of the baby boomers from the labor market will provide the opening. This group, born between 1946 and 1964, is disproportionately white and highly educated and occupies a huge patch of the most rewarding terrain in the labor market. (They make up, for example, about 70 percent of engineering managers and two-thirds of registered nurses.) As the baby boomers leave the work force between now and the early 2030s, when the youngest of them turn seventy, the young Americans entering the labor market will be much more diverse in ethno-racial terms than the old Americans exiting it.

The turnover in the labor market will lead to “non-zero-sum” mobility: a period when minorities can advance economically without threatening the life chances that whites take for granted for themselves and their children. Put simply, under reasonable assumptions about who takes what sort of job, there will not be enough whites coming into the work force to replace the white baby boomers, let alone take the new jobs that will be created in the future. Non-whites will therefore have unprecedented opportunities. U.S.-born blacks and Hispanics are most likely to benefit. Asian Americans already outperform whites in schools and the labor market, and other minorities—including the poorest among them, Native Americans living on reservations—are relatively few in number.

That leaves an obvious question: won’t others—working-class whites, new immigrants from Asia, white women—fill the vacuum? No. Given the numbers involved, it’s implausible that they could meet the nation’s expanding need for highly trained workers in the next quarter-century. For instance, young whites are already a highly educated group—more than 60 percent go to some form of college. How many more might plausibly be enticed to do so? A modest rise in this percentage would lead to only a small number of additional whites qualifying for good jobs. Though the details are different, the story is similar for the other alternative beneficiaries. This is not to deny that they, too, will see increased opportunities because of the...