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Major Social Issues in the Early 21st Century

Major Social Issues in the Early 21st Century

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Pair viewpoints on 21st-century social issues in America with positions on climate change, gay marriage, and multiculturalism

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what's covered
Historians will have to wait several decades before they can draw conclusions about the early 21st century. The nation and its diverse population grapple with economic and foreign policy issues, including homeland security, and with important social issues. This tutorial examines three questions that confronted Americans in the early 21st century.

  1. Who is an American?
  2. What is a Marriage?
  3. What is Climate Change?

1. Who is an American?

Controversy regarding immigration is not new in the United States. Neither are calls to restrict immigration. So what distinguishes the debates over immigration and American identity during the early 21st century?

At the beginning of the 21st century, many Americans realized that an important demographic change was underway in the nation. The number of Americans of color, as well as the number of multi-ethnic Americans, was growing. The percentage of the U.S. population formed by people of non-European ancestry was also increasing.

Ethnicity Map

The map above indicates the top ethnicity (i.e., the ethnicity of the highest percentage of residents) in different parts of the country in 2000. Note the large percentage of Mexican-Americans (pink) in the southwestern U.S., including the border region. African Americans (dark purple) were concentrated in the South. States including Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma had large American Indian (orange) populations. Americans of German (light blue) descent and other Americans of European descent inhabited significant areas throughout the nation.

The United States continued to experience increased immigration from Asia and Latin America during the early 21st century. Asians comprised approximately 25 percent of all immigrants who arrived in the country between 1990 and 2000. In 2010, Latinos were the largest minority group in the United States.

Immigrants from Asia and Latin America came from a variety of countries and backgrounds. Some, who were financially secure at the time of their arrival in the United States, sought occupational or educational advancement. Others were refugees, who fled political oppression or war.


Beginning in October of 2013, approximately 52,000 children, some of them unaccompanied by an adult, attempted to enter the U.S. by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 58 percent of these migrants, most of whom came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, had fled their countries to escape poverty, violence, and exploitation.

Continued immigration, population growth, and the nation’s increasing diversity raise important issues for the U.S.:

1. Increasing diversity has redefined race relations in the United States.

As a result of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, race relations in the United States had been defined in biracial terms (i.e., based on a division between blacks and whites). The increasing presence of Latinos, Asian-Americans, and other ethnic groups in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has resulted in a redefinition of race relations, based on multi-racialism and multiculturalism.

2. Demographic trends indicate that white Americans will be a minority by the end of the 21st century.

According to an estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 percent of the population will be white in 2050 (compared to 70 percent in 2000). Hispanics will comprise approximately 25 percent of the population in 2050, while Asian Americans and African Americans will each account for about 13 percent at that time.

These statistics illustrate the growth of diversity in the United States. However, based on recent events, it seems that some individuals will continue to define American culture in terms of European heritage, and will support legislation to preserve this definition.


The drive to designate English as the official language of the U.S. is strong in areas with large Spanish-speaking populations. In 2006, three-quarters of Arizona voters supported a proposition to make English the state's official language.

A bumper sticker demanding that immigrants speak English reflects a perception that recent immigrants have not assimilated into American culture

“English-only laws” are one way in which some express their opposition to increasing diversity. During the 2008 presidential campaign, and throughout his presidency, the “birther movement” claimed that Barack Obama had not been born in the U.S. and, therefore, could serve as President. Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant and an American woman, was born in Hawaii. Members of the “birther movement” have also advocated the repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment provision that grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States.

Some supporters of “English-only laws” argue that they are necessary because immigrants are unwilling to assimilate into American society. Some extremists in the “birther movement” would limit U.S. citizenship to whites. Given the demographic factors mentioned above, it is clear that racial and ethnic diversity are here to stay, but it also clear that views regarding immigration and race will range between restriction and tolerance.

2. What is a Marriage?

The debate over same-sex marriage in the early 21st century was an important continuation of the “culture wars”. Growing acceptance of homosexuality by Americans, and simultaneous reconsideration of the traditional definition of marriage, was one of the most significant social changes of the period.

term to know
“culture wars”
Social and political conflicts between conservative and liberal values in the U.S. during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
did you know
In 2001, almost three-quarters of Americans said they knew someone who was gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

In the 1990s, support for legal, same-sex marriage was not widespread. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party supported it. Federal legislation, including the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) indicated that the federal government was opposed to legalization of same-sex marriage.

term to know
Defense of Marriage Act
Defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman; denied federal benefits to same-sex couples.

Like the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, the initial victories on behalf of same-sex marriage were won at the state level, in the court system. In 2000, Vermont allowed same-sex couples to join in state-recognized civil unions; a legal arrangement in which they enjoyed all of the legal rights and privileges of marriage. Civil unions created legal relationships that were equivalent to marriage, though the word “marriage” was not used to describe them. In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that barring gays and lesbians from marrying violated the state constitution. The court also ruled that offering same-sex couples civil union instead of marriage was discriminatory. As a result of the Court's decision, Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage.

However, not all states followed Massachusetts' lead in this matter.

did you know
Between 1998 and 2012, 30 states banned same-sex marriage — by statute, or by amending their constitutions.

In 2008, opponents of same-sex marriage introduced a ballot initiative In California called Proposition 8, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Despite strong support for a broader definition of marriage, the proposition was voted into law.

Supporters and protesters of same-sex marriage gathered in front of San Francisco’s City Hall (a) as the California Supreme Court decided the fate of Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative which stated that “only marriage between a man and a woman” would be valid in California. Following the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, supporters rally in Iowa City on April 3, 2009 (b). The banner displays the Iowa state motto: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” (credit a: modification of work by Jamison Wieser; credit b: modification of work by Alan Light)

Like other social issues related to the “culture wars”, the debate over same-sex marriage was divided along generational and religious lines. Many young Americans, known as millennials, were more likely to support same-sex marriage and gay rights than older Americans. According to a recent “Religious Landscape Study” by the Pew Research Group, 76 percent of adults who stated that religion was very important to them opposed same-sex marriage.

Changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage helped the Obama administration to initiate reforms on behalf of gay rights. In 2011, the administration reviewed Department of Defense policies, an undertaking that resulted in the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

term to know
“don’t ask, don’t tell”
The policy enacted during the Clinton administration that prevented military personnel from being required to reveal their sexual orientation, and prohibited them from revealing it.

In June of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right. The decision overturned federal laws, including the Defense of Marriage Act, and state laws including the one that had resulted from Proposition 8 in California. At the time of the Court's decision, one poll indicated that approximately two-thirds of Americans supported same-sex marriage. The Court’s ruling, and the evolution of views on same-sex marriage, were evidence of one of the most rapid social transformations in U.S. history.

3. What is Climate Change?

Although most Americans no longer opposed same-sex marriage, they remained divided on other issues. One of the most polarizing was global climate change.

Concerns that industrial emissions, automobile exhaust, and other types of air pollution were causing changes in the earth's climate were first expressed during the mid-20th century.


In 1931, Thomas Midgley invented Freon, the first of many chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and other devices. It was subsequently discovered that when CFCs were released into the environment, they damaged the ozone layer of the earth's atmosphere. In 1958, scientist Charles David Keeling charted a gradual increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Based on this data, scientists have discovered a steady rise in atmospheric temperature.

Despite near-unanimity in the scientific community that climate change is real; that it is, in part the result of human actions; and that it will have devastating consequences, Americans are divided on the issue, along partisan lines. Some Republicans have discredited evidence that global warming is the result of human activity, including industrial emissions and deforestation. Others deny that atmospheric temperatures are increasing. They believe that climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by environmental activists.

did you know
In January of 2017, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reported that, in 2016, surface temperatures on Earth were the warmest since record keeping began in 1880.

Additional Resource

View NASA's global warming graphic which displays surface temperatures between 1880 and 2016.


(You won't be tested on this.)

An image from NASA and NOAA’s 2017 report, showing that the surface temperature in some parts of the world was almost two degrees (Fahrenheit) above average.  Source:

Industry pressure and partisan politics obscured objective science and research. In 2006, the Bush administration was accused of suppressing scientific reports on climate change, based on a Union of Concerned Scientists survey of 1,600 climate scientists. Nearly three-fourths of the scientists who participated in the survey believed that their research had been evaluated according to new administrative requirements; undergone third-party editing to change conclusions; or that they had been pressured not to use some terms, including “global warming”. In 2017, it was reported that fossil-fuel giant Exxon-Mobil had suppressed evidence of climate change discovered by company scientists, and had funded publicity campaigns to discredit global warming.

News coverage of global warming, and the work of environmental activists, presented an alternative view of climate change - one based on the reality of the phenomenon - to the public.


In 2006, former Vice President Al Gore released a documentary film titled An Inconvenient Truth. The film presented the reality and dangers of global warming in terms that a general audience could easily understand. It grossed $24 million domestically, and won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

For the immediate future, it seems unlikely that scientific evidence will be sufficient to bridge the partisan divide over global warming. Democrats have included a climate change plank in their platform in recent elections. They dismiss Republicans as climate change deniers. Republican candidates who believe in global warming and want government to respond to it risk alienating conservatives who dismiss climate change, and corporations that oppose additional regulations. Americans continue to express their opinions on the issue in the public forum, including cable television, radio, and social media. They remain divided regarding climate change, as environmental groups, talk show hosts, and others try to influence their thinking.

Additional Resource

Watch a short video by National Geographic to learn more about climate change.


(You won't be tested on this.)

Knowledge of history, and historical thinking skills, can provide a valuable perspective on the social issues of the day. Although immigration has been an important issue throughout U.S. history, its continuation, and the nation’s increasing diversity, show that racial politics will remain important. The "culture wars" — a term coined in the 1980s — continue today, and include debates regarding gay rights. Following the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, it appears that the marriage has been redefined — not only legally, but in the view of many Americans. It also seems likely that climate change will remain a divisive issue for years to come.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Welcome to America--Now Speak English bumper sticker, Creative Commons, Religious Landscape Study, Views about Same-Sex Marriage, Pew Research Center, 2014,, “NASA, NOAA Data Show 2016 Warmest Year on Record Globally” retrieved from NASA:, Wasserman, L., & Kaiser, D. (2016, December 22). The Rockefeller Family Fund Takes on ExxonMobil. Retrieved May 16, 2017, from, Derived from Openstax tutorial 32.3 Some sections edited or removed for brevity.

Terms to Know
Defense of Marriage Act

defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman; denied same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

“culture wars”

social and political conflicts between conservative and liberal values in the United States during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

“don’t ask, don’t tell”

the policy on military service by homosexuals and bisexuals implemented by the Clinton administration.

People to Know
Barack Obama

first African-American president of the United States, who served in office from 2009-2017 after running on a campaign of “hope and change” that appealed to American voters looking for an alternative to ongoing conflict in the Middle East and economic recession at home.

George W. Bush

Republican President and son of former president George H.W. Bush, who served as president from 2001-2009 following the contentious election of 2000; the terrorist attacks of 9/11 defined his term in office as he launched a “war on terror” that committed American troops and resources to ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

William J. Clinton

democratic president from 1993-2001 who, as a “New Democrat,” advocated a compassionate conservatism that combined socially liberal policies with fiscal conservatism.