Monday, August 18, 2008

Not as much of a change as you might think

Not too long ago, my uncle lamented to me the changing face of the American demographic. He warned me that when I got to his age, the country would be unrecognizable, that non-whites would constitute a majority of the population. "Imagine being a minority in your own country," he told me. It was an odd comment considering our Jewish-immigrant heritage.

I was reminded of this conversation this week when the Census Department released an analysis of recent demographic data. Under an array of (mostly) justifiable assumptions about migration rates, birth rates and mortality, the Census Department projects that non-whites will cumulatively account for 54% of the American population by 2042. The fears of people like my uncle can be summed up plainly:
"[immigrants] will soon so out number us, [and] all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious"
However, no one should fret this change. For one thing, it's largely semantic. In the New York Times, Sam Roberts argues:

"Never mind, for a moment, that the bureau also predicts that Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American-Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will constitute a majority of the population by 2042. The number of people who say they are white is projected to rise by about two million every year. At that rate, even while the Hispanic and Asian populations expand enormously, the proportion of Americans who identify themselves as white will barely shrink, from a little more than 79 percent, to 74 percent.

It’s not some new math metric that’s responsible. It’s the way the government defines race: most people who describe their origin or heritage as Hispanic or Latino also identify themselves as white."

Census definitions of race are quite fluid and subjective. "Hispanic" can refer to someone from as different and distinct places as Cuba, Mexico or Spain. The definition of "White" is similarly broad, including, "the original peoples of Europe, North Africa or the Middle East". And intermarriage, (about one in three grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants marry non-Hispanic spouses) makes the lines even blurrier.

Additionally, our notion of "non-white" changes as immigrant groups become more assimilated and familiar. A hundred years ago, many were similarly afraid of the influx of Jews, Italians and Eastern Europeans. Today, the cultural and economic achievements of these groups are fundamental to 19th and 20th century American history.

Even for a nation of immigrants, xenophobia is as old as America itself. The quote above is from none other than Benjamin Franklin, describing the influx of German immigrants into 18th century Pennsylvania. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

No comments: