Recent news from the Census Bureau that a “minority” majority might be a reality somewhat sooner than expected --- 2042 instead of 2050 --- may lead to many misapprehensions, if not in the media, certainly in the private spaces of Americans.
For some on the multicultural left, there exists the prospect of America firmly tilting towards a kind of third world politics, rejecting much of the country’s historical and constitutional legacy. Some left-leaning futurists, like Warren Wagar envision a nation of people fundamentally torn by “racial conflict.” By mid-century, Wagar sees an America suffering from a “gigantic internal struggle” that will eventually lead to its ultimate decline.
The xenophobic right, probably much larger but no less deluded, sees the similar potential for mischief, where American values are undermined by what 19th century Nativists called “ a rising tide of color.” It is part of a scenario that the likes of Pat Buchanan and Samuel Huntington envision as the rise “revanchist sentiments” along the nation’s Southern border.
Yet in reality America’s ability to absorb newcomers represents not so much a shift in racial dominance but a new paradigm, where race itself begins to matter less than culture, class and other factors. Rather than a source of national decline, the new Americas represent the critical force that can provide the new markets, the manpower, and, perhaps most important, the youthful energy to keep our city vital and growing.
You can see this in all sorts of geographies. The most dynamic, bustling sections of American cities --- places like the revived communities along the 7-train line in Queens, Houston’s Harwin Corridor, or Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley --- often are those dominated by immigrant enterprise. At the same time many of our suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse, a sign of decline according to some urban boosters but in reality just another proof of the ability of suburbs to reinvent themselves in a new era.
Even small communities have been enlivened by immigrants, where refugees often have an even greater impact than they do on the biggest cities. In the 1990s, newly arrived Bosnians and Russians in Utica, New York were widely seen as sparking new growth and jobs in a stagnating community, bringing values of hard work and sacrifice. “How long before they become Americanized?” asked the head of the local Chamber of Commerce. “Right now all we know is we love them, and we want more.”
This is where America’s future diverges most clearly from that of its competitors, both the older industrialized societies and the newly emergent powers. In recent decades Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, across the former Soviet Union, and the former Yugoslavia --- became more constricted in their concept of national identity. In countries such as Malaysia, Nigeria, India and even the province of Quebec, preferential policies have been devised to blunt successful minorities. Because of such policies, sometimes accompanied by lethal threats, Jews, Armenians, Coptic Christians, and Diaspora Chinese have often been forced to find homes in more welcoming places.
Europe, too, has received many newcomers, but to a large extent its society and economy have proven far less able to absorb them --- a far different result than one would expect from a supposedly enlightened society widely admired by American ‘progressive’ intellectuals. This is particularly true of the roughly twenty million Muslims who live in Europe, but who have tended to remain both segregated from the rest of society and economically marginalized.
In European countries, it is often easier for immigrants to receive welfare than join the workforce, and their job prospects are confined by levels of education that lag those of immigrants in the United States, Canada or Australia. And in Europe, notably in France, unemployment among immigrants --- particularly those from Muslim countries --- is often at least two times higher than 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.
Similarly, European immigrants often separate themselves from the dominant culture. For example, in Britain, up to forty percent of the Islamic population in 2001 believed that terrorist attacks on both Americans and their fellow Britons were justified; meanwhile, ninety five percent of white Britons have exclusively white friends.
In contrast, only one-quarter of whites in a 29-city U.S. survey reported no interracial friendships at all. This measure of racial isolation ranged from a low of eight percent in Los Angeles to a high of 55 percent in Bismarck, North Dakota. Overall, it’s clear the integrative process in the United States, which over the past century has experienced the largest mass migration in history, is well advanced.
This contrast is particularly telling when looking at Muslim immigrants. In the United States, most Muslims --- themselves from diverse places of origin --- 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 prospects for success than other Americans.
More important, more than half of Muslims --- many of them immigrants --- identify themselves as Americans first, a far higher percentage of national identity than is found in western Europe. More than four in five is registered to vote, a sure sign of civic involvement. Almost three quarters, according to a Pew study, say they have never been discriminated against. “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.”
Even if immigration slows down dramatically, these groups will grow in significance as we approach mid-century. By 2000, one in five American children already were the progeny of immigrants; by 2015 they will make up as much as one third of American kids. Demographically, the racial and ethnic die is already cast. The forty-five percent of all children under five who are non-white will eventually be the 20-somethings having children of their own. Whether they achieve a majority by 2043 or 2050, many of these Americans are likely to share more than one ethnic heritage.
So rather than speaking about growing separation and balkanization we are witnessing what Sergio Munoz, a Mexican journalist and long-time Los Angeles resident, has described as the “the multiculturalism of the streets.” Street level realities differ from those seen by political reporters or academics. People still talk about the South, for example, and its racial legacy. Years ago economic leaders in southern cities like Dallas, Atlanta and Houston recognized that to preserve institutionalized racism would be bad for business. By the mid-2000s these very cities, were seen as among the best places for black businesses and families.
The remarkable progress on race, even in the Deep South, has in many ways forged the path for the new Americans, including Mexican-Americans and Chinese-Americans who have also faced discrimination. More important, the road to economic success, unobstructed by institutionalized racism, will be even more open for their children.
This does not mean that there remains a great deal of confluence between particular ethnicities and higher rates of poverty. Massive immigration has brought to many cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, large numbers of poorly educated and non-English speaking newcomers. Critics may be correct that current policies tend to foster too much immigration among the less skilled. Although newcomers often increase their wages over time, the influx of even newer arrivals tends to keep wages for groups such as Latinos consistently below native levels, and likely depresses wages for the least skilled natives.
Immigrants by their very nature constitute a work in progress. In the move to highly skilled positions --- including in the blue collar sectors --- the average immigrant income grows and the percentage of children who finish high school or enter college tends to rise (in some groups more decisively than in others). Rates of homeownership also rise with time, reaching native levels after about three decades.
What is too often missing today is a focus on how to spur this upward mobility. This requires less racial “sensitivity” sessions and cultural celebrations, and more attention to the basics that create a successful transition to the middle class --- like decent schools, public safety, better infrastructure, skills training as well as preservation and development of high paying blue as well as white collar jobs.
The bottom line is that neither political nor the cultural arguments about immigration are central to everyday life: Concepts such as “ethnic solidarity,” “people of color” or “cultural community” generally mean less than principles such as “Does this sell?” “What’s my market?” and, ultimately, “How do I fit in?”
In essence, if the economy can continue to work and expand over the coming decade, America’s increasing racial diversity not only will do no considerable harm, but lay the basis of a more remarkable, unique and successful nation in the decades to come.
Joel Kotkin is the Executive Editor for Newgeography.com.