When Americans think of our nation's power (or our imminent lack of it) we tend to point to the national debts, GDP or military prowess. Few have focused on what may well be the country's most historically significant and powerful weapon: its emergence as the modern world's first multiracial superpower.
This evolution, after centuries of racial wrangling and struggle, will prove particularly critical in a world in which the power of the "white" race will likely diminish as power shifts to China, India and other developing countries. By 2039, due largely to immigrants and their offspring, non-Europeans will constitute the majority of working-age Americans, and by around 2050 non-Hispanic whites could well be in the minority.
But this should not be seen so much as a matter of ethnic succession as multiracial amalgamation. The group likely to grow fastest, for example, will be made up of people, like President Obama himself, who are of mixed race. There is no more demonstrable evidence of the changing racial attitudes of Americans. As recently as 1987 slightly less than half of Americans approved of interracial couples. By 2007, according to the Pew Center, 83% supported them. Among the millennial generation, who will make up the majority of adults in 2050, 94% approve of such matches.
Today roughly 20% of Americans, according to Pew Research Center, say they have a relative married to someone of another race. Mixed-race couples tend to be younger; over two-fifths of mixed-race Americans are under 18 years of age. In the coming decades this group will play an ever greater role in society. According to sociologists at UC, Irvine, by 2050 mixed-race people could account for one in five Americans.
The result will be a U.S. best described in Walt Whitman's prophetic phrase as "the race of races." No other advanced, populous country will enjoy such ethnic diversity.
The U.S. will likely remain militarily and even economically preeminent, but much of its power will stem from its status as the world's only multiracial superpower. America's global reach will extend well beyond
Our continuing relative success with immigration is key to this process. In the next decades the fate of Western countries may well depend on their ability to make social and economic room for people whose origins lay outside Europe. No Western-derived country produces enough children of European descent to prevent them from becoming granny nation-states by 2050.
In other words, countries and societies need to become more racially diverse in order to succeed. Yet over the past few decades many countries, from Iran to the nations of the former Soviet bloc, have narrowed their definition of national identity. Even the province of Quebec, bordering the U.S., has imposed preferential policies devised to blunt successful minorities. Because of these restrictive policies, which in some places are accompanied by lethal threats, Jews, Armenians, Coptic Christians and diaspora Chinese have often been forced to find homes in more-welcoming places.
In recent decades Europe has received as many immigrants as the U.S., but it has proven far less able to absorb them. The roughly 20 million Muslims who live in Europe have tended to remain segregated from the rest of society and economically marginalized. In Europe, notably in France, unemployment among immigrants – particularly those from Muslim countries – is often at least twice that of the native born; in Britain, as well, Muslims are far more likely to be out of the workforce than either Christians or Hindus. British Muslims, according to Britain National Equity Panel, possess household wealth one-fifth that of the predominant nominally Christian population.
This is also a famously alienated and socially isolated population. For example, in Britain in 2001 up to 40% of the Islamic population believed that terrorist attacks on both Americans and their fellow Britons were justified. They are not mixing much; 95% of white Britons say they have exclusively white friends. In comparison, only 25% of American whites in 29 selected metropolitan areas reported having no interracial friendships at all.
Despite scattered cases of terrorists in our midst, the contrast between U.S. Muslims and their counterparts overseas is particularly telling. In the U.S. most Muslims are comfortably middle class, with income and education levels above the national average. They are more likely to be satisfied with the state of the country, their own community and their prospects for success than are other Americans – even in the face of the reaction to 9-ll.
More important, more than half of Muslims – many of them immigrants – identify themselves as Americans first, a far higher percentage than in the various countries of Western Europe. This alienation may be a legacy of the European colonial experience, but it can also be seen in Denmark and Sweden, which had little earlier contact with the Muslim world. In contrast, in the U.S. more than four in five are registered to vote, a sure sign of civic involvement. "You can keep the flavor of your ethnicity," remarked one University of Chicago Pakistani doctorate student in Islamic studies, "but you are expected to become an American."
But the general success of American immigration extends beyond Muslims. Even the largely working-class immigrants from Mexico generally have had lower unemployment than white and other workers, at least until 2007; then with the housing-led recession their unemployment rate began to rise, since so many were involved in construction and manufacturing. Once the economy recovers the historical pattern should reassert itself. Other large groups, including Asians, Cubans, Africans and a still considerable number of Europeans, have performed even better.
Immigrants by their very nature, of course, are a work in progress, reflecting the essential protean nature of this civilization. Yet they are clearly becoming Americans and transforming who we are as a people. Ideologues on the left and right often don't understand what is going on in America. The left, locked on the racial past, looks for new grievances to stoke among newcomers. They envision the rise of a fractured country – precisely the same thing many conservatives fear.
Yet Hispanics, and particularly their children, are not becoming serape-wrapped Spanish speakers. Among Hispanics in California, 90% of children of first-generation immigrants speak fluent English; in the second generation half no longer speak Spanish. Only 7% of the children of immigrants speak Spanish as a primary language.
Over the next few decades this pattern of ethnic and racial integration will separate America from its key competitors. In 2005 the U.S. swore in more new citizens than the next nine immigrant-receiving countries put together. These newcomers will reshape the very identity of the country and allow the U.S. to continue growing its labor force.
Our prime competitors of the future – India and China – are unlikely to evolve in this direction. India is a highly heterogeneous country itself and remains driven by ethnic and religious conflicts. China, like Japan and Korea, remains a profoundly homogeneous country with little appetite or capacity to accept newcomers.
America's relative openness is particularly critical in the worldwide struggle for skilled labor. Right now more than half of all skilled immigrants in the world come to the U.S., though Australia and Canada, which have much smaller populations, have higher percentages of them. Despite repeated press reports about return migration to home countries, understandable given our sometimes bizarre immigration policy and the deep economic downturn, the vast majority of skilled immigrants – at least 60% – from around the world are staying.
America's successful evolution to a post-ethnic society will prove particularly critical in U.S. relations with developing nations, our largest source of immigrants. Even those immigrants who return home to Europe, China, India, Africa or Latin America often retain strong familial and business ties to the U.S. They can testify that America maintains a special ability to integrate all varieties of people into its society.
As we negotiate the next few decades, America's growing diversity allows it to stand alone, a multiracial colossus unmatched by any in the evolving global economy. In the current world being a "race of races" represents not a dissolution of power but a new means for expressing it.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.