By Maria Puente and Martin Kasindorf, USA TODAY

In the future, lots of us will be like Mariah Carey. Or Soledad O’Brien. Or Tiger Woods.

There’s no guarantee we’ll look that good, of course, or sing that well, let alone be able to drive a golf ball 350 yards.

But in the next century more Americans are going to be black, white and Hispanic, like singer Carey and TV news anchor O’Brien. Or black, white, American Indian and Asian, like golfer Tiger Woods.

As a new millennium looms, America is set to become more a nation of blended races and ethnic groups than it has ever been. Or at least that’s the picture that emerges from the population projections made for the next century by the U.S. Census Bureau, by officials in individual states and by demographers like Barry Edmonston of Portland State University in Oregon and Jeff Passel of the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

By 2050, Passel and Edmonston’s calculations suggest, the percentage of the U.S. population that claims mixed ancestry – meaning some combination of black, white, Hispanic and Asian – will likely triple, to 21%.

Within some groups the rates will be even higher. Among Asian Americans, the percentage able to claim some other ancestry in addition to Asian is expected to reach 36%; for Native Americans 89%; for whites 21%; for blacks 14%; and for Hispanics 45%.

This means that millions more Americans will be of mixed racial and ethnic background. “So, them are us and us is them,” quips Harry Pachon, president of the West Coast branch of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank in Claremont, Calif.

Furthermore, the Census Bureau says the Hispanic population is going to be huge – about 17% of the total population by 2025, about 25% of the total population by 2050 – fueled both by higher fertility rates among Hispanics and continuing immigration from Latin America. Over the last two decades, immigrants from Latin America have made up about 40% of the total 19.4 million legal immigrants. Only three major metropolitan areas have dominant or substantial Hispanic populations today – Miami, San Antonio and Los Angeles. But, in the next century, the list will include many more, including some in surprising places – such as Jersey City, N.J., Yakima, Wash., and Orange County, Calif.

The growing number of Hispanics will help fuel the already soaring intermarriage rate. Demographers say up to 30% of Hispanics and Asians marry outside their race or ethnic group now. Passel says his calculations suggest that up to 57% of third-generation Hispanics – the grandchildren of immigrants – marry a non-Hispanic.

“Growing up on Long Island, there was never any question that we were different,” says O’Brien, 32, a rising NBC correspondent and MSNBC anchor. Her mother is Cuban and black, and her father is Australian and Irish. “When I get on the subway in New York today, most of the people look like me – they’re a mix of some kind.”

In the future, more American communities are going to look like the New York City subways.

“The United States is once again on the eve of large ethnic transformations,” says Passel. “This current phase (of change) has already involved social and political disturbances, and raises new questions about who are ‘Americans.'”

Such transformations are not new, says Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy and civil rights organization. “It doesn’t mean a fundamental change in America,” he says. “It’s a natural part of our evolution as a nation.”

Looking like Florida

The Census Bureau’s computers are on the second floor of Federal Office Building No. 3 in Suitland, Md. The machines collect and sift data, analyze decades of trends in births, deaths and immigration, and then project those trends into the future. Every couple of years they spit out snapshots, somewhat fuzzy, of what the USA will look like demographically in 10, 20, up to 50 years.

From these, demographers can get an idea of population growth, racial and ethnic breakdown, the spread of age groups, even the places where the most people will live.

Predicting demographic change is notoriously tricky – many have been wrong before. “It’s hard to get historical distance while you’re in the middle of demographic change,” says Jorge del Pinal, a Census Bureau demographer.

Next year’s census is expected to provide loads of data on the nation’s current demographic picture, including the number of Americans who consider themselves of mixed ancestry.

On the 2000 census form, Americans for the first time will be able to pick more than one race and ethnic category to describe themselves. This is the result of pressure from parents of biracial children who don’t want their kids to have to choose one part of their ancestry over another. Current figures show that about 7% of the population could claim multiple ancestry.

In any case, the results the Census Bureau computers are spitting out these days may surprise, delight or even alarm many Americans. Here are some of the projections:

The total population of the country is projected to grow to 335 million by 2025, a 23% increase over the 1999 population.

The population will be less Caucasian: 62%, compared to 72% in 1999. The growth rate of the white population will be only 6%, compared with much higher rates for Asians, Hispanics and blacks.

The largest minority group by 2005 will be people of Hispanic origin, who can be of any race. By 2025, there will be nearly 60 million Hispanics, about 17% of the total population, compared to 30 million, or 11%, in 1999.

The black population will grow about 31%, but it will remain stable as a percentage of the population: 13% in 2025 compared with 12% in 1999.

The fastest growth rate will be among people of Asian and Pacific Island descent – 102%, from about 10 million people in 1999 to nearly 21 million in 2025. But they will remain a relatively small group as a percentage of the total population, at about 6%.

Native Americans – American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts – will be the group that changes the least as a percentage of the population: They will be 0.8% in 2025, compared to 0.7% in 1999.

The age distribution of the population will shift dramatically by 2025. More people will be very young (21% increase in the number of people 14 or younger). Fewer people will be middle-aged (4% drop in the number of people age 35 to 49). And more people will be very old (14% increase in the number of people over 80 and a 315% increase in the number of people 100 or more).

“By 2020, the rest of the nation will look like Florida does now,” says Peter Morrison, consultant demographer for California’s Rand Corp.

Age differences are even more marked when comparing different groups. The median age of the white population in 2025 is projected to be 42.7 years; by contrast, the median age for the Hispanic population is projected to be 29.4. Because there will be more Hispanics in 2025, their relative youth will act as a counterweight to the aging of the overall population.

The shift of population away from the Northeast and Midwest toward the South and the West will accelerate. In 1995, 57% of the population lived in the South and West; by 2025, 62% of Americans will live in those regions.

These population shifts will be particularly obvious in individual states. States such as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Iowa are projected to grow less than 10% each by 2025. States such as Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Texas, Idaho and Florida are projected to grow 45% or more each. California is projected to grow 56%, the largest jump, to 49.2 million people. West Virginia will grow only 1%.

Florida will become No. 3 in population after California and Texas, pushing New York to fourth place. Georgia will have more people than New Jersey – almost 10 million – and North Carolina will be close behind.

Meanwhile, Americans can catch a glimpse of what the demographic future might be like by studying California, where change is already obvious. For instance, the shrinking of the white population is already noticeable in California, where sometime next year whites will cease to be the majority, slipping under 50% to become merely a plurality, says state demographer Linda Gage.

This kind of change can be tracked in unusual ways. For example, according to the Internet research firm Acxiom DataQuick , the top four surnames among 1997 Los Angeles County homebuyers were Garcia, Hernandez, Martinez, and Gonzales.

In fact, Hispanics will surpass non-Hispanic whites to become the single largest ethnic group in California by 2030. By 2040, Latinos, as they are usually called in California, will be nearly a majority in that state, totaling 28 million out of a state population of 58.7 million.

The city of Los Angeles, population 3.5 million now, is currently more than 50% Latino. In fact, after the 2000 census, “I would be surprised if it’s not over 60%,” says Vivian Dosh of the Southern California Association of Governments.

Meanwhile, the black population of Los Angeles County is expected to decline in numbers. Even now, says Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, many blacks are moving out of the city into distant Moreno Valley or Palmdale, or heading back to the Deep South.

Even in Orange County, a traditional fortress of white conservatives, Hispanics will become a plurality by 2030 and a near-majority by 2040, according to state projections. In San Diego County, Hispanics will pass whites by 2040 to take the plurality.

In northern California, where the Asian population is heavily concentrated, more change is well under way. In Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County, where Asians now outnumber Latinos as the biggest minority, both these groups will climb fast.

By 2020, whites will be outnumbered by both Asian-Pacific Islanders and Hispanics, with nobody having a majority at least through 2040.

Race, ethnic mixing

But the most intriguing demographic trend may be the accelerating rates of race and ethnic mixing. It’s a trend that varies from group to group. For example, blacks are the least likely to marry outside their race, while American Indians are the most likely to: about 60%, by various estimates.

“The black-white line is the most difficult to cross,” says Passel. “About 10% of blacks are married to non-blacks, but that’s up a huge amount in the last 30 years, from 1% or 2%.”

What effect will blended Americans have on the social, cultural and political landscape? Suppose Hispanic and Asian immigrants and their children assimilate in the same manner as Italian, Polish or Irish immigrants in the past. Will most of the descendants of Hispanic immigrants lose Spanish just as, say, Italian immigrants lost Italian?

According to several studies, that is already happening. Will people identify as “Hispanic” or “Asian” if they are only part Hispanic or Asian and speak only English? What will it mean to be “Hispanic” or “Asian” in a world where significant portions of the population can claim the label?

No one can answer these questions with any certainty. But all this mixing suggests that the traditional definition of “assimilation into the American mainstream” — meaning to lose one’s ethnic and racial identity in the process of becoming more Anglo – may lose its meaning.

“Assimilation has always been more of a confluence of different factors, and it’s going to be more so in the future,” says the Census Bureau’s del Pinal. “Just look at the influence of Hispanic immigrants on popular culture now: Nachos have become one of the most popular food snacks. People drink lime with their beer. Salsa is everywhere. The future is going to be a big mixing of cultural influences like that.”

The Irish example

There are always lessons from the past to remember, too: Once upon a time in America, Irish immigrants were considered a separate, non-white “race.” Most Americans believed the Irish could never be assimilated, would forever remain alien, poor, uneducated and criminal. Signs saying, “No Irish Need Apply” were common. Few Americans regarded marriage to an Irish immigrant with anything but horror.

Today, the Irish are considered indisputably white, solidly middle-class, educated and upstanding, and so assimilated that no one thinks twice about it.

In fact, so many people claimed to be Irish in the 1980 census that demographers concluded the number could not be accounted for by immigration and fertility. “Most of the growth of the Irish Americans must have resulted from intermarriage and the children of intermarriage choosing to claim Irish ancestry,” says the Urban Institute’s Passel.

In other words, now everybody’s Irish because it doesn’t matter anymore.

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