Well, it’s official. In just three decades, fewer than half of the people living in America will look like me. Yesterday, the Census Bureau released a demographic portrait of the United States in 2043, and it doesn’t look good for white folks. According to the data, thanks to declining birth rates and three decades of Latino immigration, White America will hit its peak in 2024, and decline steadily thereafter. Whites will finally lose majority status around the time I turn 72. That’s a year later than earlier projections, thanks to the recession. But hey, who’s counting? The writing is on the wall. And, to hear Bill O’Reilly tell it, it’s the end of the world as we know it.
But those of us who recognize diversity as the elixir of American exceptionalism aren’t too worried. That’s because while the white establishment is taking it on the chin, Latino-, African- and Asian-Americans will all experience a growth spurt; even the Native American population is swelling, if you can believe that. The dominant word in all those ethnic categories is American. So what’s all the fuss about?
For a nation founded by British colonists and run by their descendants for more than half of its existence, the notion of officially handing the keys over to someone else doesn’t exactly sit well with some of my pale-faced cousins. Caucasian Americans have been fretting about their declining status since at least 1921, when Lothrop Stoddard predicted the collapse of the white world empire in his book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. Stoddard— whose theories were championed by two presidents and influenced passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924—proscribed global racial segregation as a means of protecting white culture. White civilization, he wrote, “will be swamped by the triumphant colored races, who will obliterate the white man by elimination or absorption.”
In 2002, I sat in an auditorium in Philadelphia and listened to Pat Buchanan spew much the same rhetoric during his book tour for The Death of the West, which laments the decline of European world dominance and warns of a “Reconquista”—or reinvasion—of the southwestern United States by Mexican nationals.
Same story, different century.
Fear of the “other” is almost as old as America itself. Let’s not forget that when immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Germany and Russia landed on our shores, they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms (and they weren’t considered “white” either). Right here in Philadelphia, anti-Catholic sentiment led to attacks on newly arrived Irish—who settled in and around black ghettos—culminating in the nativist riots of 1844. Ten years later, when Robert Taylor Conrad ran (successfully) for mayor of the city, he did so with the promise of barring the foreign born from holding public office. That year, nativist politicians under the “Know Nothing” banner swept elections in Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago and San Francisco on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. A century later, these same feared immigrants were well on their way to running things.
We are indeed in the midst of a transformative cultural shift, but if history tells us anything, it’s that the diversity of our ancestors’ experience is what helped make America great. Isn’t it our responsibility, as the progeny of those early immigrants, to give new arrivals the chance to make the same contribution?
I say yes. But the responsibility goes both ways. Those who are taking up the keys to America are going to have to learn how to drive as Americans. And, for better or worse, that responsibility necessarily means giving up a part of who and what they once were. America is a melting pot; it’s not a salad bowl. I remember, as a child, asking my grandmother why she didn’t speak Italian like her own mother did. “My parents only spoke English with me,” she explained. “They wanted me to be an American.” My grandmother was born in this country; she was an American regardless of the language she spoke. But that’s not the way her parents saw it. For my great-grandparents and immigrants like them, being an American was about much more than a birth certificate or naturalization document.
For centuries the immigrants coming to U.S. shores did so with the belief that whatever it was they were giving up, they’d get get something better in return. I’m not so sure that promise is as resounding as it once was. In the end it all comes back to opportunity, which means government policies that promote a vibrant American middle class that people of all ethnicities can strive to be a part of. If our “new” America is to avoid becoming a pale reflection of the old, we need to reinvigorate that dream so that becoming an “American” carries with it the promise of something more compelling than a piece of paper embossed with an eagle seal.