Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer February 14, 2011

Read the census data that have been coming out over the past couple weeks and you're compelled to a stark conclusion: Either the Republican Party changes totally, or it has a rendezvous with extinction.

What the census shows is that America's racial minorities, aggregated together, are on track to become its majority. The Republican Party's response to this epochal demographic change has been to do everything in its power to keep America (particularly its electorate) as white as can be. Republicans have obstructed minorities from voting; required Latinos to present papers if the police ask for them; opposed the Dream Act, which would have conferred citizenship on young immigrants who served in our armed forces or went to college; and called for denying the constitutional right to citizenship to American-born children of undocumented immigrants.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

If the Republicans have a long-term strategic plan, it seems to derive from King Canute, who commanded the tide to stop.

The most dramatic numbers in the census are those that tally children. In the first four states for which the Census Bureau released detailed information - New Jersey, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia - the number of whites under age 18 actually declined the past decade. The numbers of Latinos, blacks and Asians among the young, by contrast, are soaring, and they are highest among the youngest.

Nationally, whites are now a minority - 49.9 percent - of Americans age 3 and under. In eight states and the District of Columbia, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution's William Frey, minorities comprise the majority in pre-K and kindergarten. Looking at all school enrollment, from pre-K through graduate school, Frey told the New York Times' Sabrina Tavernise, whites were 58.8 percent of all students in 2009, down from 64.6 in 2000.

Two separate phenomenons are at work here. The first is the declining birth rate among American whites. According to Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, the number of whites under the age of 20 fell 6 percent between 2000 and 2008. The second, of course, is the surge in the number of young Latinos.

The numbers on Arizona are particularly revealing. According to Frey, only 42 percent of Arizonans under 18 are white, while 83 percent of Arizonans over 65 are white. Arizona's draconian racial monitoring law, then, is not merely targeted at Latinos but also at the young. (This racial divide doesn't augur well for funding public education, what with the fate of majority-Latino schools dependent on an older white electorate. In California in the early 1990s, a heavily white electorate routinely vetoed ballot measures that increased funding for the state's (heavily Latino) schools. By the late '90s, however, so many Latinos had registered to vote that such measures routinely passed.)

Arizona and California merely prefigure the rest of the nation's demographic changes. According to an analysis in The Post last week, such longtime majority-white communities as Maryland's Montgomery County, which includes some of Washington's toniest suburbs, are now minority white, too, and a majority of Maryland's children are minority.

The Republicans have responded to this vast transformation by proposing nativist and racist "solutions." In Nevada, California and Colorado last fall, they ran statewide candidates who embraced Arizona's law. And in Nevada, California and Colorado, massive turnout from Latinos, who overwhelmingly voted Democratic, defeated those candidates. In a nationwide poll released Monday by La Opinion, the nation's largest Spanish-language daily newspaper, just 9 percent of Latino voters said they'd vote for a Republican in next year's presidential election.

Undaunted, the Republicans since November have doubled down on their anti-immigrant jihad - rejecting the Dream Act during the lame-duck congressional session, continuing to call for more mass deportations and the denial of birthright citizenship. Where once a sizable number of Republican legislators (and President George W. Bush) were open to immigration reform, hardly any even broach the topic today amid the ever-rightward gallop of the GOP's voting base, which itself grows whiter each year.

The Republican Party, which began life, it's increasingly hard to remember, as the party that opposed black slavery, has two choices: It can defy its base and work with the Democrats to craft a policy that offers legalization to undocumented immigrants, and by so doing gain a chance to rebuild its support among minority voters. Or it can continue down its current path and try to cling to power by denying citizenship and voting rights to as many minority Americans as it possibly can. It can become a slightly kinder and gentler version of the old Southern segregationists, or South Africa's apartheid white nationalists. And, like them, it will end up like King Canute.

meyersonh@washpost.com