A report last week from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program contains a profound policy question for leaders of America's cities: How do they respond to a population that increasingly is black, brown and Asian?
The report shows that between 2000 and 2010, America's 100 largest metropolitan areas became ever more populated by "minorities," so much so that in 22 metro areas, minorities now make up a majority of the population.
Indeed, non-whites and Hispanics accounted for 98 percent of population growth in the 100 largest metro areas between 2000 and 2010. Nationwide, the Hispanic and Asian populations each grew by 42 percent. The black population grew by 12 percent. The white population grew only 1.2 percent. Forty-two of the 100 largest metros actually lost white population.
Where did they all go? Remember, we're talking metropolitan areas here, so suburban flight wouldn't account for the loss. The 11-county (plus the city) St. Louis metropolitan statistical area, for example, goes as far west as Warren County in Missouri and as far east as Clinton County in Illinois.
Some of the urban white population may have moved farther out. But most of them simply died faster than they were replaced, either by new births or in-migration.
Whatever the cause, Brookings demographer William H. Frey reports, America's cities are "on the front lines of a transformative era affecting public policy and race relations for decades to come."
Among the challenges Mr. Frey sees posed by these changes is how communities "will provide social, educational and health services to rapidly changing, diverse Hispanic and Asian communities who speak a variety of languages and represent different origins."
None of this will be news in places like New York, Los Angeles, Houston or Miami, which have been confronting demographic change for decades.
The trends are not nearly as pronounced in St. Louis. The Hispanic population in the metro area stood at 72,019 in 2010, up from 31,582 a decade earlier. But that's still just 3 percent of the metro population. The Asian population now stands at 60,072, or 2.1 percent of the population.
Our challenge continues to be the white-black divide. At 18 percent in 2010, the black population in the St. Louis metro area remained roughly the same as it was in 2000.
The region's measure of racial segregation remained roughly static, too. The so-called "dissimilarity index" — a mathematical formula in which a result of "1" represents a completely integrated city and a "100" means a completely segregated city" — now stands at 72 here. That makes St. Louis the seventh most-segregated of the 100 largest metro areas. Milwaukee had the highest dissimilarity index at 80.
These dry numbers become more urgent when they're placed against a political background. As one era gives way to another, deep feelings of dislocation can result. The "I want my country back" mantra of the tea party is one manifestation.
Brookings talks about a "cultural generation gap" between young and old on issues like immigration, education and the competition for scarce public dollars. "These gaps will become most prevalent within large metro areas, especially within the suburbs, where the divides will be most apparent," Mr. Frey predicts.
America and Americans are changing, and changing rapidly. As a nation, we can choose to whine about it or make it work for everyone's benefit.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH