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California Goes Global

How did whites become a minority in the largest U.S. state?

February 20, 2001

How did whites become a minority in the largest U.S. state?

With its 33 million inhabitants, California accounts for 12% of the total U.S. population. California also accounts for more than 13% of U.S. GDP and it exports more goods and services than any other state. California’s economy is so large, in fact, that if it were a separate country, it would be the world’s seventh largest economy — just behind Italy, and well ahead of China.

And, despite its recent energy woes, California is still home to the country’s most vibrant economic centers. Stretching south from San Francisco, Silicon Valley has become a worldwide synonym for technological innovation. Indeed, during the early 1990s, it was Silicon Valley that became the engine that pulled the United States into an economic boom that has only recently show signs of slowing down.

But in addition to its leadership roles in the economy and technology, California is leading the United States in yet another area — and one that could have a similarly profound impact on U.S. society.

While some people have called the United States the only truly global society on earth, California has recently become the only state in the country where the number of “minorities” actually exceeds those of the white “majority.”

For example, as recently as 1984, 60% of the undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley were white. By 1995, the composition of the student body was 39% Asian, 32% white and 14% Hispanic. As such, the changes in California may be preview of things to come in the rest of the country.

When the U.S. Census Bureau released its current population estimates for California, it presented truly historic figures for the demographic make-up of the state: Non-Hispanic whites now make up 49.9% of the state’s population, while Latinos (31.6%), Asians (11.4%) and African Americans (6.7%) make up most of the remainder.

These figures merely confirm a trend that has been observed for some time now. It is predominantly young immigrants who settle in California — and have children at a rate well above the birth rates of the aging white population.

But, as Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante pointed out, the social and human effects of these new numbers are larger: “If there’s no majorities, then there’s no minorities. Maybe now we’ll all be able to call each other Californians.”

In part, the large influx of immigrants was prompted by California’s booming economy. And, immigrants can take at least some of the credit for California’s rapid economic growth, having eased the strain on one of the world’s tightest labor markets — and thus helping to keep the economy growing.

But California is not just a forerunner economically. It is a trendsetting state in the cultural and social realms as well. It is not by accident that 82% of prime-time television shows in the United States are set in California. Evidently, California — be it Silicon Valley, Beverly Hills or Hollywood — is the dream of many Americans and immigrants alike. The social changes occurring in California may thus foreshadow developments throughout the United States in the years to come.

At the same time, California entering its “no majority” was a watershed for globalization. The fact that California has been able to become a state with high immigration, diversity, social change, pioneer industries, new technologies and a booming economy serves as an example of how change and synthesis of mixed commodities can produce a positive outcome.

And it is an example, not just to the United States, but to the world at large. It shows what can be gained from opening up a society to globalization, to diversity and change.

The ethnic diversity of President George W. Bush’s cabinet — composed of six white men, two black men, three white women, one Asian American man, one Asian American woman and one Hispanic man — illustrates the fact that social change is indeed at hand.

Moreover, the most recent estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau merely confirm a trend that is far from over. In fact, the Census forecast for the entire U.S. population estimates that “minorities” will account for 60% of the total population by the year 2100. While the share of African Americans is expected to remain largely constant, the share of Asian Americans will rise from its current 4% of the population to 13%, and the share of Hispanics from 11.5% of the population to 33%.

As such, California is merely the first state to cross the borderline, fittingly enough for this showcase of diversity at work. A truly global community has emerged in California — and the result has become a subject of desire the world over.

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