W hite babies are no longer a majority of new births, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. America is quietly “browning,” it is said, like dinner rolls in a warm oven. Yet such change does not come about without resistance from those who prefer to remain unbaked.
White supremacist groups have been having a “meltdown,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups. In an ABC News report, he called the demographic trend “the single most important driver in the growth of hate groups and extremist groups over the last few years.”
To the haters and the racially paranoid, even President Barack Obama’s historic election is just one more piece of mounting evidence that whites are losing their majority in America’s population. The Census Bureau now expects the nation will have no racial majority in 2042.
Two opposing visions shape our national debate about this demographic development, which largely has been driven by immigration trends. One fears that dramatic cultural change will tear the nation apart. The more hopeful view sees our younger generations, unburdened by historical baggage, leading America to a transformative integrated and post-racial era.
The truth probably lies between those two scenarios. Today’s immigrants are assimilating over time in much the same way as earlier generations, driven by the traditional American dream of opportunity and upward mobility. But I don’t expect ethno-cultural differences to lose all value.
America’s traditional melting pot always has been more of a mulligan stew, balancing respect for ethnic traditions with a sense of common purpose. Our challenge for the future, as in the past, is how we can make that stew work for everybody and keep it from boiling over.
The element of race adds a new complication to assimilation in a country that seldom has undertaken racial change easily. As much as Americans have benefited from a national identity that is based on ideas – not a single racial or ethnic tribe – white supremacy was embedded in law for most of our history. Every naturalization act from 1790 to 1952 included language that reserved citizenship to a “white person,” although standards as to who is considered “white” constantly have changed.
Even today, slightly more than half of those who checked “Hispanic” for ethnicity on the 2010 census forms also checked “white” for race. To the census, you are whatever you say you are, even if others see something different when they look at you.
Still, the question of who can melt in today’s melting pot rings alarm bells for some who long for a more monocultural past. An unhappy blogger who identifies himself as “Roger” laments in a post on Phyllis Schlafly‘s Eagle Forum website that “the USA is being transformed by immigrants” who “have high rates of illiteracy, illegitimacy and gang crime, and they will vote Democrat when the Democrats promise them more food stamps.”
Roger’s narrative runs quite the opposite of historical realities. Most immigrants are known for working long hours in rough conditions for low wages, driven by hope for a better life, including a good education for their children.
And their social conservatism on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, school prayer and capital punishment tends to be closer to Schlafly than Obama. Rising Republican stars such as Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida show that immigrant ambitions don’t have to lead to the Democratic Party.
But Roger is hardly alone in his discomfort with change – and not all of the uncomfortable folks are white. Former District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry, now a City Council member, offered a recent example. He apologized for his “admittedly bad choice of words” in suggesting in earlier public remarks that Asian business owners in his ward “ought to go.”
Obviously, the landscape is changing for us black folks, too. As we gain some measure of power in the melting pot, our victim rhetoric must change too.
In fact, if anyone should be concerned about helping white Americans adjust to becoming a minority, it is African-Americans. We have lots of experience.