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Changing demographics told decade's story

Think of the past 10 years as a period in which demographic patterns reshaped the nation and the world. Those shifts will extend into this new decade.

Demographic shifts certainly started changing America's politics.

Last decade brought our first president of color, a Latina Supreme Court justice and many local black and Hispanic officeholders. It also brought us our first two black secretaries of state. And it gave us three presidential elections — 2000, 2004 and 2008 — in which the Latino vote was central for George W. Bush and Barack Obama winning the presidency.

What's more, the most intense domestic debate — even more volatile than health care — was the one about immigration.

The Economist picked up on America's diversification last week in spotlighting political leaders likely to emerge in the next decade. Two of the three — San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Washington schools superintendent Michelle Rhee — are Hispanic and Asian-American, respectively.

In short, the WASP political establishment is in decline. No longer will white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and their networks of influence dominate our politics — or, for that matter, our businesses, universities and culture. The WASP world will not disappear, but it must share power with blacks, Asian-Americans and, most of all, Latinos.

This shift presents new issues. The most crucial one is closing the educational gap between Latinos and Anglos. Latinos are the fastest-growing segment in America's public schools, but they trail white students in high school and college completion rates.

If those trends continue, our advantages in the world economy seriously erode. India and China are all too ready to produce leaders in the technology and science industries that drive the economy.

Those two nations' rise is another example — and a powerful one — of how demographics drove the world. Neither nation was "discovered" in the past decade, but they affected it through the rise of their technological class.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman captured this reality in his best-seller "The World Is Flat," describing how China and India were as apt to provide technological services as the United States. As a result, the global economy experienced a "flattening" it had not witnessed before.

U.S. technology experts responded in 2006 with an alarming report detailing how America was falling behind in producing scientists and engineers. President Bush and Congress then passed the little-known but crucial America Competes Act to improve math and science education in the United States.

Of course, Islam's growth across large parts of the world was central to the demographic revolution, especially in Europe. Over the past four years, Muslim birth rates in Britain grew 10 times faster than the rest of the population. Countries such as France struggled to assimilate their Muslim population.

The ugly manifestation of Islam's rise made itself known on Sept. 11, when radical Islamists unleashed their evil. The phenomenon continued until the last weekend of the decade, when a radical Muslim attempted to bring down a plane headed to Detroit.

Going forward, the world's greatest test is getting adherents to the three major Abrahamic faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — living together in relative harmony, even as they try to understand one another.

And it flows directly from the demographic shifts that manifested themselves in this past decade — and that we will continue to see. What the past 10 years begat, the next 10 will inherit.