categories into racially based behavior appears to occur after the preschool years (Hirschfeld, 1994). The early development of perceptions and attitudes about race (both one's own and that of others) is a highly sensitive concern in a pluralistic society. This critical issue, which was not addressed by the committee, demands extensive, multidisciplinary investigation.
Notwithstanding the absence of clear definitions of race and ethnicity, they persist as prominent demographic markers for categorizing children and families, even as the blending of cultures increases and the racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. population grows. Over the past two decades, the proportions of Asian and Hispanic children in the United States have increased while the young black population has remained stable and the percentage of whites has declined. Much of this growing diversity of young children is the result of increased immigration and higher birth rates among immigrants and their descendants, who represent more than 100 different ethnic and linguistic groups (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 1998a). These trends are projected to continue, if not accelerate, through the early decades of the 21st century, such that current notions of majority and minority groups will become less meaningful for children and, as they age, for adults as well.
By the year 2030, children in families of European origin will make up less than 50 percent of the population under age 5 (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 1998a). These demographic realities suggest both promising opportunities and potentially sobering challenges. The opportunities offered by a multicultural society that is cohesive and inclusive are virtually limitless—including the richness that comes from a broad diversity of skills and talents, and the vitality that is fueled by a range of interests and perspectives. The challenges posed by a multicultural society that is fragmented and exclusive are daunting—including the wasted human capital that is undermined by prejudice and discrimination, and the threat of civil disorder precipitated by bigotry and hatred.
The changing demographics of the early childhood population in the United States present both the opportunity and the challenge of a great social experiment. The outcome of this experiment will be influenced to a large extent by how human diversity is addressed in the rearing of children. The foundations of relationships and the fundamentals of socialization are culturally embedded and established during the early childhood years (see Chapter 9). Consequently, further research on how young children learn about and develop attitudes toward human differences will help to elucidate both the roots of categorical discrimination and the origins of social inclusion.