Last week the census released new data that those of us who study demographic trends have seen coming for a while now: For the first time, the majority of babies (children under 1 year old) were kids of color. In many states, that change had already happened — in 12 states and the District of Columbia, the majority of children under age 5 are of color. Why should we care about this? There are many reasons, but mostly because this new demographic reality will have broad impacts on everything that matters to us, from education to health care, from politics to culture.

Some on the right are already decrying the browning of our kids. After the numbers were released, the conservative interest group Eagle Forum said (among other things), “the USA is being transformed by immigrants who do not share [American] values, and who have high rates of illiteracy, illegitimacy, and gang crime, and they will vote Democrat when the Democrats promise them more food stamps.” How insulting, to insinuate that simply because these kids aren’t white that they don’t have values and won’t love this country. Not to mention that being a Democrat is equated to lacking values! But then again, I guess I shouldn’t expect more from this organization.

If they’re that upset by this kids stat, then surely they are fretting over the fact that by 2042 there will be no clear ethnic majority in the country anymore. In other words, we will be a majority minority nation, and we probably will need to change the way we talk about “minorities” soon.

So what does all this mean for you? Well, it depends. Let Pat Buchanan and his ilk tell it, this country is about to be run by a big brown army. As amusing as Buchanan is to me, I don’t think it’s funny to imply that because kids aren’t white, they somehow are less American. Gee, that sounds an awful lot like some of the attacks levied at the President.

It is an undeniable fact is that there are disparities between communities of color and whites. As we noted in a recent report, Hispanics and especially African-Americans felt the brunt of the economic downturn and are recovering at a pace slower than whites. And if we don’t address these disparities, as the country becomes more diverse, it will have a negative impact on our economy.
But therein lies the beauty of being able to see our future today. We KNOW what’s coming; this announcement is basically a crystal ball into what our potential future workforce will look like. We also know what areas we need to focus on to close the gaps.

And there’s another reason to be thankful for our growing diversity. It allows us to be optimistic about America’s economic future. If you look at places like Japan and some European countries, they have a rapidly aging work force with a diminishing number of young people to take their place. Thanks to our booming youth population, we will not face that issue. And our booming youth population is due almost entirely to communities of color.

This coming change should also be an opportunity to continue to build the inter-ethnic coalitions we’ve seen across the country. With no one clear majority (economics aside), people of all races will have to work together to advance their common agendas. You already see this happening in places like Alabama, where civil rights groups joined forces with immigration advocates to protest the harsh anti-immigrant laws. Those same groups are also joining forces with youth advocates to fight back against voter-ID laws intended to suppress the vote.

This country will change a lot in the coming years. How we respond to it depends a lot on how we prepare for it. I hope that our leaders, from the President on down, start to publicly acknowledge not just our growing diversity, but why it’s a good thing for America.

Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123