(The Root) — Recent census data reveal that, for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half of all children born in the United States, with 50.4 percent of children under age 1 identified as Hispanic, black, Asian American or members of another ethnic minority group.
In terms of the overall population, African Americans are the second-largest minority group in the nation (after Hispanics), with a 1.6 percent increase between 2010 and 2011. Minorities now make up nearly 37 percent of the overall U.S. population, and it's predicted that by 2042, a minority of Americans will be non-Hispanic whites.
What do all of these numbers mean for our understanding of race, for the issues that affect communities of color and for our very concept of who is a "minority" in this country? The Root has gathered a variety of perspectives on the significance of America's becoming a browner nation for a series of interviews on whether, and why, we should pay attention to these demographic changes.
For the sixth in the series, we spoke to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim member of Congress, who has been an outspoken advocate against Islamophobia and has asserted that the GOP is "basically a bigoted party."
The term "white," he told The Root, is "an invention to suit the slaveocracy in America during [the] antebellum [period]," and the term "minority" "may just sort of become an anachronism." He shared what he predicts the results of America's demographic changes will be for race-specific policies, electoral politics and the very words we use to describe one another.
The Root: For the first time in U.S. history, most of the nation's babies are members of minority groups, and the census has forecast that non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered in the United States by 2042. What might be the positive and negative effects of these changing demographics when it comes to issues affecting communities of color?
Keith Ellison: It all depends on whether we as a nation can overcome the legacy of disparate treatment based on race. If we can embrace all Americans without regard to race and color, it can be a great thing for the United States. I mean, the United States will be able to say to the world, "Hey, look — all the world's people reside in the United States, and we're ready to take advantage of their cultural, linguistic and national connections, to put the United States in the position to be the most flexible and versatile nation on the globe."
I'm an optimistic person. The easy answer is always the cynical one … But the truth is, good things happen all the time. That's the one thing the cynics never tell you. I have every reason to believe racial relations will continue to improve, because 170 years ago we had slavery based on race. Fifty years ago we had Jim Crow. I was born in 1963; the Voting Rights Act didn't pass till 1965. Before that, they were legally excluding black people from the right to vote.
Now my kids have friends of all backgrounds. They've got white friends, black [American] friends, Latino friends; they've got Somali friends. These kids coming in my house, it's like the United Nations. It might look like something to me, but it's nothing to them.
But you also asked about the negative side. We also know South Africa existed for a long time with a white minority. So just because people of color will be majority does not mean they'll be the power majority.
TR: The idea that America will be a "majority minority" nation gets a lot of attention. Is there anything you wish people would focus on instead of, or in addition to, the numbers?
KE: I believe the hard edge of racism has undeniably softened. It hasn't disappeared, but it's not like 1860. But one of the things that has gotten harder and more harsh is economic inequality. Over the past 30 years, what you've seen is the democratization of poverty and economic hardship.
Here's what I believe people need to work on: We need to identify pockets of Americans who remain structurally left behind. And what I mean is, the [difference in the] rate of incarceration between blacks and whites is still very high. The [difference in the] rate of unemployment is still very high. We need to find ways to deal with that.
And we might not need a race-specific remedy to solve that problem. For example, if we just invested in transit in my district in Minnesota, it would allow communities of color to access jobs in suburban areas. It would allow minority contractors to be in on constructing the transit.
You don't even necessarily need a race-specific thing, although I do believe in affirmative action. What we've got to do is make a case to all Americans that we really can't afford to just ignore whole factions. We have to make the case that our society writ large is going to suffer if we continue to allow these racial disparities to exist.
TR: As more Americans have nonwhite ancestry, will the definition of whiteness itself be affected, or will we need a new word for "minority"?
KE: Both of those things will be true. At the end of the day, I'm not sure we'll be using the word "minority" anymore. It may just sort of become an anachronism. There is a chance that white people might be able to reclaim their own heritage for the first time in many years.
What is it to be white? It does mean something to be Norwegian. It means something to be Polish or German or Spanish. But "white" is simply a catchall for "light-skinned person." It doesn't really mean anything. It's basically an invention to suit the slaveocracy in America during [the] antebellum [period], and it still works today because of that legacy of Jim Crow … So yes, the idea of whiteness might decline in terms of its meaning as well.
And in my district, for example, it's difficult even to just say "black" people. We have the highest percentage of Somalis in the whole country. We're either first or second in the number of Liberians. The reality is, when you say "black" people, who are you talking about? The Somalis? The Liberians?
And now, in Minnesota, we've started talking in terms of "traditional African Americans," and what we mean is, those people whose ancestors were brought from West Africa and made to work for free for a few centuries in the South, and then their families immigrated to the North — or didn't.
One of the things that will decline over time is the demand that the society or the government bring forth a particularized racial remedy based on a history of deprivation. That will be even more difficult to do in the future.
Now, I'm not saying that I advocate that. Like I told you, I believe in affirmative action. But I believe it will become more difficult. That's why it will become more important to propose economic solutions that will benefit a broad cross section of American working- and middle-class people and the poor, but to make sure in the implementation that these benefits are shared.
TR: Do you see the demographic trends continuing, and if they do, will that affect the work you do?
KE: Honestly, it won't affect anything I do. My district is, like, 10 or 11 percent African American now. After redistricting, it will probably go up to about 13 percent. My district right now is [nearly] 75 percent white, and guess what? Steve Cohen [D-Tenn.], who's white, represents a district that's  percent black, and there have been African Americans who have run race-specific campaigns against him, and he beats them because he serves his constituents, and they're smart enough to know they need real outcomes, not just symbolic leadership.
You won't be able to win elections anymore by making race-based appeals. The dog-whistle stuff that the Romney campaign is doing — it's not going to make sense. People are going to start calling it out.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.