The 2010 Census confirms that Latinos are America’s fastest growing minority. By surpassing the 50 million mark, Latinos now represent 16.3 percent of the total U.S. population--- one in six Americans. Latinos currently make up 15% of the labor market. With more than $1 trillion in purchasing power, Latinos in the U.S. alone would rank among other countries as the 12th largest global economy. And contrary to public opinion, the growth in Latino population is not being driven by immigration but rather by birth. Latinos make up 23% of the population under 18 and one in four babies.
The importance of this new paradigm goes beyond shifting demographics, since Census data is used to redraw congressional districts and allocate federal funding for states on everything from roads to schools. The growing influence of the Latino community should be felt across the board ---politically, economically and culturally--- but we have not yet fulfilled that potential. The new Census data reveals three critical issues that provide both opportunities and obstacles for the Latino community to impact our social justice agenda. Only by strengthening our voice as a community will our growth in influence and well-being match our growth in numbers.
The first issue involves redistricting in the states most impacted by population growth: New York, California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. As many as ten new Hispanic congressional districts could emerge from that process, but only if Latinos are vigilant in ensuring that the lines are justly drawn. Many of these states are controlled by Republicans, who are less likely to make decisions that give the historically Democratic-voting Latino population more political clout. In some areas, the population concentrations leave legislators with no choice but to create Hispanic majority districts. But in others, opportunities exist for creative efforts to dilute Latino voting influence. To combat this, Latinos must be willing to invoke the Voting Rights Act and call upon the Justice Department to uphold their minority rights, by means of litigation if necessary.
And just as importantly, to effectively wield their growing political power, Latinos must go to the polls. In the 2008 election, there were an estimated 19.5 million eligible Latino voters and less than half that went to the polls, well below the national average. As more young Latinos become eligible to vote, the percentage of Latinos in the voting population, which currently stands at 9%, will rise dramatically, providing opportunities for Latinos to have a greater voice in issues such as immigration, education, and economic opportunity. We must instill in our young people a sense of civic duty and pride and lead by example---and that starts with making our presence known in the voting booth.
The second issue is education. Census data illuminates the hard truth: Our population lags woefully behind whites, blacks and Asians when it comes to high school and college degrees. The reasons behind the discrepancy are complex, and the steps to overcome it are equally so. But step one is conveying to all Americans the fact that we are in this together. President Obama has set forth a goal of 60% college attainment for America’s young people by the year 2025. That goal will not be reached if nearly a quarter of our population (23% of U.S. children under 18 are Latino) are not included in education gains.
If we as a nation do not make significant changes in high school completion and college attainment rates across the board, we face a shortage of 23 million college-educated adults in the workforce over the next 15 years, according to the Lumina Foundation. We must make investment in education across all communities a priority if we are to compete in the global economy.
Finally, the third issue of opportunity is the cultural influence of the growing Latino population, particularly in regions of the country that have been traditionally more homogenous. While Latino population gains in states like New York and California were significant, states like South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky saw ten-year growth rates well over 100%.
Latinos are not just living and working and raising families in border towns and large cities---we are a part of a national landscape. And we are bringing with us a unique culture and taste in food, music and art that are transforming that national landscape. America’s top rated show, ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, has featured Latino dance professionals and Latino dance styles. A number one rated movie in the country, the animated feature Rio, boasts a Latino star and director. And the cover of People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful People” issue featured pop and movie star Jennifer Lopez. Latino culture is now an established part of American culture, adding to the rich array and blend of cultural influences that are uniquely American.
And, as new Latino enclaves develop across the South and in other regions, the cultural tapestry of communities will continue to evolve and change. This new cultural language can also be effective in building bridges to Latino nations worldwide---bridges that can enhance economic opportunity, trade, and U.S. prosperity. The face of America is changing and all of us, no matter our ethnicity, have a stake in building a better America---one that is as rich in cultural diversity as it is in opportunity.
Mickey Ibarra is Founder of the Latino Leaders Network and President of the Ibarra Strategy Group. Previously, he served in the Clinton White House as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs.