America: out of one, many
While a new census reveals that US whites will be a minority by 2042, a dominant cultural majority has long been lacking.
In August the US Census Bureau released its latest projections of the ethnic and ‘racial’ constitution of the country, predicting that the white majority of European descent (discounting Hispanics) would be overtaken by minorities in 2042, eight years ahead of previous estimates (1).
This news has not produced the surprise or shock one might have suspected. The shoulder shrugging reaction is perhaps understandable, however, as, over the past 20 years or so, much of the country has undergone significant cultural change. And demographics have undoubtedly played a crucial part in such change; Hispanic immigrants have spread from the south-west throughout much of the nation while parts of the west coast have been Asianised, albeit, over a longer timeframe.
But more significant still is the role of the ‘white’ majority. Lacking ideas and political credibility, this majority no longer behaves like a majority, neither seeking to shape a national culture in its or any other image, nor, consequently, encouraging others to share its vision of America. Immigrants, therefore, are left to bring their own culture with them rather than assimilate into a new nation and embrace its values.
The main reason for the Census Bureau’s revised estimate is the significantly higher birth rate recorded for Hispanic women (2.3 per woman) in the 2006 American Community Survey (2). Many non-Hispanic white couples choose to have a relatively small family; the average fertility rate of 1.8 children per woman is below the replacement level (about 2.1). The figure is fairly similar for Asian women (1.7) and Black women (2.0). Low fertility rates have been, in part, a recent symptom of an uncertainty about the future in most Western countries (see Making a Minefield of Motherhood, by Neil Davenport).
In contrast, immigrants from less developed countries tend to have more children, which is often the norm in their country of origin. In developing countries infant mortality rates are higher and children are more likely to provide for the family at an early age. A larger family is frequently a more economically and socially viable one in these countries. Attitudes of immigrants to the US do change upon arrival, but only over time, as evidenced by lower fertility rates in second and third generation immigrants (3).
High immigration totals of Hispanics and Asians are a second contributing factor that will see their relative proportions rise from 15 to 35 per cent (47 to 133 million) and five to nine per cent (16 to 41 million) respectively by 2042 (4). The rise in people who identify themselves as Black is much more modest climbing from 13 to 15 per cent (41 to 66 million) due to a lower immigration rate.
Combining the fertility rates and immigration data, a picture emerges of an aging and declining white population versus a growing and younger population of minorities. Demographer William Frey notes that by the 2028 election it is anticipated that ethnic and racial minorities will constitute a majority of adults between 18 and 29 for the first time (5).
One of the most striking changes in recent years has been not the total number of immigrants, but the rapid spread of Hispanic people and culture across much of the country. While states bordering Mexico have lived with a significant Hispanic population for some time, their migration to more distant states has taken off in the past decade. This is partially a product of tighter border controls with Mexico. As a result, many immigrants who used to prefer to go home periodically are now finding this harder to do so.
Between 2000 and 2005 many states saw increases of their Hispanic population between 10 and 60 per cent (6). This included states with already large immigrant populations such as Florida whose Hispanic residents rose from 2.6 to 3.4 million, California’s from 10.7 to 12.5 million and New Jersey’s from 1.1 to 1.3 million. States not traditionally seen as a first destination for immigrants also witnessed significant influx of Hispanics: Georgia’s increased from 425,000 to 625,000; Oregon’s from 267,000 to 360,000; Idaho’s from 97,765 to 135,733. Further, these figures are likely to underestimate the change, given that many undocumented immigrants will have been missed by the survey.
While many Americans are very tolerant of immigrants, either from personal experience or because they recognise that the history of America is one of immigration, others have been positively hostile. Assimilation of Hispanics has been hampered by a limited mastery of English and the negative response of longer-established Americans. The result in some towns and cities is a very clear cultural divide and Spanish has very quickly become the nation’s de facto second language, being incorporated by the business and commercial world. In the town of Danbury, Connecticut, where I work, the luring of 11 day labourers into the back of an unmarked federal van, and their subsequent arrest, in September 2006 sparked vociferous protest and debate between pro and anti-immigrant protestors.
However, the prominent rise of a Hispanic culture alongside that of American culture is also because, unlike previous immigration waves, the recent influx of Hispanics has occurred at a time when the notion of assimilation is at its historical nadir. While there have been other historical periods of hostility towards immigrants, such as the end of the nineteenth century, inherent to the very idea of an American nation was that people were moving from geographically and culturally diverse places to build a new nation and, in doing so, were changing themselves.
Immigrants from Europe sought to construct the New World based on democratic and progressive ideals emanating from Europe, while rejecting its intolerance, for example, of religious freedom. This political majority took responsibility for shaping this nation in the image of its Founding Fathers and the principles set out in the Bill of Rights. While in the nineteenth century this majority was exclusive, the twentieth-century minorities, along with women, fought their own way into the political fold enabling them to share in the vision and future of America.
Yet, since the late 1960s and early 70s this progressive vision has been ebbing away; the analogy of a ‘melting pot’ began to be overshadowed by the policy of multiculturalism, in which cultural differences are respected, but also solidified. Nevertheless, the continuation of the Cold War allowed the majority to prolong a sense of nationhood and political engagement with American citizens, including minorities.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, political leadership has all but disappeared and shallow, intangible values such as multiculturalism and environmentalism have taken the place of serious political debate. Today, there may still be a political elite, but it lacks a vision and no longer represents a politically active majority. Its promotion of values is a sorry attempt to retain some vestige of social legitimacy for itself. With no collective vision of where America is heading or substantive basis for shared social and cultural values, there is no ethnic, racial or cultural majority shaping the nation. For a nation built more upon shared ideals and a future rather than a common ancestry and a long history (like Britain or Japan), this undermines the very basis for nationhood itself.
While a minority of white Americans have grown more hostile to recent immigrants, itself a response to the declining sense of American values and lifestyle, others, preaching multiculturalism, make a virtue out of the otherness of Hispanic and other cultures. These, mostly liberals, sensibly react to the inhumane harassment and deportation of immigrants. However, rather than seeking to find a common basis with immigrants they choose to highlight and celebrate their cultural differences and so, not surprisingly, fail to convince others about why freedom of movement is a positive social ideal.
In such a political climate the assimilation of new immigrants into ‘American’ society is problematic and many undocumented workers live in fear of government raids and deportation. Fortunately, many immigrants do still manage to integrate themselves into communities through force of circumstances: they need jobs and health care, and their kids go to school. However, this is entirely at a pragmatic level, devoid of any political and transformative content. Others prefer to return to their home countries.
Today, culturally, America resembles more of a patchwork quilt with ethnic, racial and lifestyles groups finding their own neighbourhoods in which to live. Elsewhere, this has been described as the Big Sort (see Ideological inbreeding by Sean Collins) (7). One of the values around which Americans group themselves is whether one welcomes immigrants or not. While statistics are useful to help clarify immigration and demographic trends, until the issue of immigration is debated in political terms and its value to society clarified it is not possible for these differences to be resolved and a progressive solution found. To do this will require a new majority to be forged. Not one based on ethnic or ‘racial’ grounds, but one with a shared humanistic political culture.
Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University author of Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the moral case for geography to be published by Routledge in October. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)
Alex Standish called for Americans to remake America the land of the free. Sean Collins reviewed The Big Sort. Nancy McDermott looked at the meaing of the 2006 pro-immigration marches. Elsewhere, Nathalie Rothschild, as part of spiked‘s Open the Borders campaign, called for an end to the myth of overpopulation. Or read more at spiked issues USA and Immigration.
(1) In a Generation, Minorities May Become the US Majority, New York Times, 13 August 2008
(2) Fertility of American Women: 2006, US Census Bureau, Issued August 2008
(3) Fertility of American Women: 2006, US Census Bureau, Issued August 2008
(4) Fertility of American Women: 2006, US Census Bureau, Issued August 2008
(5) Fertility of American Women: 2006, US Census Bureau, Issued August 2008
(6) Hispanics at Mid-Decade, Pew Hispanic Center
(7) The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop
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