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How Texas' Shifting Demographics May Preview Larger Changes In America


America has a habit of following trends that occur in one of its states: Texas.

The state and nation are in the midst of a demographic transformation. The 76 million babies born between 1946 and 1964, who are predominantly white, are aging. And more young Americans being born and growing up today are people of color.

“No force in the world is going to stop Houston or Texas or America from becoming more African-American, more Latino, more Asian and less Anglo,” Rice University professor Steven Klineberg said. “So the only question that we have been given is: How do we make this work?"  

On KERA’s Think, Klineberg and Texas Christian University professor Max Krochmal talked with host Krys Boyd about how the state’s demographic shifts might preview larger changes nationwide.

“And the critical necessity if we’re going to make this work is major improvements in education and opportunities for kids, many of whom are living in poverty, to be able to compete successfully in the global knowledge economy of the 21st century,” Klineberg said.

Interview Highlights

More than a quarter of the state’s population is under 18 years old. What are the implications of that from a political standpoint?

Krochmal: That population is overwhelmingly people of color, and as those folks become more politically active and more aware of the issues at stake, it has the potential to move the needle politically. Young people are really on the leading edge of several vibrant social movements that are really taking off in the state right now.

At the same time, in our last presidential election in Texas, the percentage of the voting age population that actually turned out to vote was less than 50 percent. So the largest political party in Texas right now is the non-voter. And historically young people do not vote in large numbers, so it’s not clear yet which direction that will go.

But in terms of political transformation, I think that the energy we see right now among young people who are engaging in the immigrant rights movement and Black Lives Matter and other struggles for justice has the potential to really upend things. 

Does the perception of Texas as a state where the Republican Party usually wins state offices keep Republicans and Democrats from voting in larger numbers?

Krochmal: The districts have been gerrymandered in such a way that very few contested elections take place and as a result, neither party invests in much money in turning out voters or educating voters. At the individual level, people don’t have necessarily as much motivation to go and participate. Even unlikely voters will participate in politics if they’re organized to do so. If you reach that voter five times, you educate him or her about the issues, they’ll come out and vote on Election Day, even if they have no history whatsoever of doing that.  

"No force in the world is going to stop Houston or Texas or America from becoming more African-American, more Latino, more Asian and less Anglo."

What accounts for the fact that black and Latino Texans have less per capita income that Asian and white or Anglo Texans?

Klineberg: There’s a whole history, of course, of racism in America that has massively redistributed income in different ways. But it’s also that we’ve become a nation of immigrants again, and it’s a bifurcated immigration stream. One group of immigrants, largely African and Asian, are coming with much higher levels of education than we have ever seen in the history of immigration. They had been banned for the 20th century from coming here and could only get here as professionals of exceptional ability.

And then you have Houston as the first large city that you get to coming from the South. There used to be an invisible line that went from Corpus Christi through San Antonio to El Paso, where Latinos stayed beneath that line. And then in the 1970s, with the oil boom and the open, unoccupied buildings and new opportunities that came, then the Anglos stopped growing and the oil bust occurred, you had large numbers of Latinos coming with very low levels of education and doing the jobs in construction and restaurant work and personal services, which accounts for these growing inequalities predicated now more than ever on education.    

Stream or download the entire interview and subscribe to the Think podcast.

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.