AUSTIN, Tex.—The underlying theme connecting much of Donald Trump’s message is that demographic, economic, and cultural change is erasing the America that his supporters remember and revere.
Usually implicitly, at other times more overtly, Trump posits a zero-sum world in which gains for minority groups threaten both the physical security and economic opportunity of native-born whites. Trump’s core promise is that he will “make America great again” by combating the changes that his supporters believe are endangering them—whether by deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, imposing “a pause” on legal immigration, temporarily banning all Muslim immigrants, or standing up to black protests against the police.
It’s a vision that has clearly energized many Republican voters—as Trump demonstrated again with his convincing victories in Michigan and Mississippi on Tuesday. In the latest national ABC/Washington Post poll, Trump led Ted Cruz, his closest competitor, by about two-to-one among the nearly half of Republicans who believe that whites are “losing out” because of preferences for African Americans and Hispanics; he slightly trailed Cruz among those who don’t.
But it doesn’t take much time in Texas to recognize that Trump’s zero-sum equation is misguided, even inverted. For that matter, so is much of the dialogue from the Democratic presidential candidates that frames the goal of increasing opportunity for communities of color primarily as an imperative of social fairness.
In fact, as Texas demonstrates, equipping more families of color to reach the middle-class is neither a threat to whites nor primarily a moral obligation for them. It’s become a matter of self-interest. Whether you cheer the trends or decry them, the inescapable reality is that kids of color represent a growing share of the nation’s future students, workers, and taxpayers. If more of them don’t succeed, not only will their communities suffer, so will the overall society.
Awareness of that risk is growing in Texas—even if the state isn’t yet advancing a commensurate response. In its demographic transition, Texas is America on fast forward. Demographers project that kids of color will become a majority of America’s under-18 population later this decade; they already represent two-thirds of Texas’s young people. And while the minority share of the national public-school student body has just crossed the historic 50 percent marker, students of color already constitute over 70 percent of Texas’s public school students; Latinos alone represent 52 percent.
Yet from birth to adulthood, these young Hispanic and African American Texans face gaping opportunity gaps. About one-third of both black and Hispanic kids in Texas live in poverty, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s encyclopedic Kids Count project. That’s triple the share for Texas whites. In every major Texas city, minority kids are vastly more likely than whites to attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as low-income. Fewer than one-in-five Texan African American and Hispanic students score as proficient in 8th grade reading on national tests—less than half the level for whites. In a long-term study of the 8th grade class of 2004, only 13 percent of blacks or Hispanics, compared to 29 percent of whites, had obtained any post-secondary credential 11 years later.
None of these problems are unique to Texas. But the stakes in solving them are especially high here—in ways that will become increasingly relevant to other states. The Rice University sociologist Steve Murdock, who directed the U.S. Census Bureau for George W. Bush, has projected that non-whites will provide all of the growth in the Texas work force through 2050. Latinos alone will contribute nearly three-fourths of the increase, while whites will plummet from about half of workers now to about one-fifth then.
If the state can’t raise the educational achievement of its diverse workers, Murdock has written, “the Texas labor force … will be less well-educated, work in lower-status occupations, and have lower incomes in 2050 than 2010.” The state’s official higher education strategic plan last year similarly warned that without substantial minority post-secondary gains, the result “will be a poorer and significantly less competitive state.”
Over time, the nation faces the same equation. As in Texas, demographers forecast that workers of color will provide all of the national work-force growth in the coming decades. And as the demographer William Frey has projected, if college-completion rates don’t rise for African Americans and Hispanics, the share of all adults with a college degree will start shrinking by 2020.
Such a decline, which is probably unprecedented in American history, would ultimately threaten the financially strained and culturally aggrieved white voters cheering Trump’s insular message. If the workforce regresses in skills as it diversifies, the resulting decline in competitiveness and growth would hurt not only minorities but also the shrinking white majority.
Likewise, even as the predominantly white baby boom moves into retirement, Social Security and Medicare will be strained if earnings—and thus payroll tax obligations—lag for the increasingly diverse younger workforce. As I’ve written before, there is no financial security for the gray without economic opportunity for the brown.
In the clamorous campaign dialogue, America faces a bitter racial battle for influence and opportunity. In reality, as usual, Americans are more interdependent than their politics allows—as more leaders in even this most conservative of states are coming to recognize.
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