301. "Some Diversity," Society, (July/August 1998), pp.59-61.
Various demographers have been predicting for years that the end of the white majority in the United States is near, and that there will be a majority of minorities. CNN ran a special program on the forthcoming majority of the people of color in America. President Clinton has called attention to this shift in a recent address at the U.C. San Diego campus for a renewed national dialogue about race relations. He argues that such a dialogue is especially needed as a preparation for the forthcoming end of the white majority, to occur somewhere in the middle of the next century. White House staffer Sylvia Mathews provides the figures as 53% whites and 47% mixture of other ethnic groups by 2050. Pointing to such figures, Clinton asked rhetorically if we should not act now to avoid America being divided into "separate, unequal and isolated" camps.
What is fundamentally wrong about this way of focusing the interracial dialogue is that it is implicitly and inadvertently racist: it assumes that people's pigmentation, or, more generally, racial attributes, determine their visions, values, and votes. Actually, very often the opposite is true. The fact is that America is blessed with an economic and political system, while far from flawless, that is embraced by most Americans of all races. It is a grievous error to suggest that because American faces or skin tones may appear more diverse some fifty years from now, that most Americans who hail from different social backgrounds will seek to follow a different agenda or hold a different creed than the white majority.
Two findings out of many that could be cited illustrate this point: A 1992 survey found that most black and hispanic Americans (86 percent and 85 percent, respectively) seek "fair treatment for all, without prejudice or discrimination;" the figure for all Americans is a close 79 percent. A poll of New York residents shows that the vast majority of respondents considered teaching "the common heritage and values that we share as Americans" to be "very important." Indeed, more minorities than whites endorse this position: 88 percent of Hispanics and 89 percent of blacks, compared to 70 percent whites.
No Solid Camps
The very notion that there are social groups called "Asian Americans" or "Latinos" is largely a statistical artifact (reflecting the way social data are coded and reported), promoted by some ethnic leaders, a shorthand the media finds convenient, and something President Clinton may end up helping to perpetuate rather than challenge. Thus, most of the so called Asian-Americans do not see themselves, well, as Asian-Americans and many resent being labeled this way. Many Japanese-Americans do not feel a particular affinity to Filipino or Pakistani-Americans, or to Korean-Americans. And the feeling is rather reciprocal. As Professor Paul Watanabe, from the University of Massachusetts, an expert on Asian Americans and himself an American of Japanese descent, puts it: "There's this concept that all Asians are alike, that they have the same history, the same language, the same background. Nothing could be more incorrect."
William Westerman of the International Institute of New Jersey complains about Americans who tend to ignore the cultural differences among Asian nations, which reflect thousands of years of tradition. He wonders how the citizens of the United States, Canada, and Mexico would feel if they were all treated as indistinguishable "North Americans."
The same holds for the so called Latinos, including three of my sons. Americans of Hispanic origin trace their origins to many different countries and cultures. Eduardo Diaz, a social-service administrator, puts it this way: "...there is no place called Hispanica. I think it's degrading to be called something that doesn't exist. Even Latino is a misnomer. We don't speak Latin." A Mexican American office worker remarked that when she is called Latina it makes her think "about some kind of island." Many Americans from Central America think of themselves as "mestizo," a term that refers to a mixture of Indian and European ancestry. Among those surveyed in the National Latino Political Survey in 1989, the greatest number of respondents chose to be labeled by their country of origin, as opposed to "pan-ethnic" terms such as "hispanic" or "latino."
The significance of these and other such data is that far from dividing the country into two or three hardened minority camps, we are witnessing an extension of a traditional American picture: Americans of different origins identifying with groups of other Americans from the same country--at least for a while, but not with any large or more lasting group.
Far from there being a new coalition of non-white minorities soon to gain majority status (something President Clinton points to and Jesse Jackson dreams about as a rainbow, that contains all colors but white), the groups differ greatly from each other -- and within each other.
Moreover, on numerous issues the differences among various minority groups are as big or bigger than those between these groups and "Anglo" Americans. For instance, fewer Cuban Americans agreed with the statement that U.S. citizens should be hired over noncitizens, than Anglo (42% Cubans compared to 51% of Anglos), other Hispanic groups agree more strongly than Anglos (55% of Puerto Ricans and 54% of Mexican Americans). Quotas for jobs and college admissions are favored only by a minority of any of these four groups studied, but Cubans differed from Mexicans and Puerto Ricans more (by 14%) than from Anglos (by 12%).
The fact that various minorities do not share a uniform view, which could lead them to march lock-step with other minorities to a new America (as some on the left fantasize) is also reflected in elections. Cuban-Americans tend to vote Republican, while other Americans of Hispanic origin are more likely to vote Democratic. Americans of Asian origin cannot be counted on to vote one way or another, either. First generation Vietnamese-Americans tend to be strong anti-Communists and favor the Republican party, while older Japanese and Chinese-Americans are more often Democrats, while Filipino-Americans are more or less equally divided between the parties. (Of the Filipino-Americans registered to vote, 40% list themselves as Democrats, 38% as Republicans, and 17% as independent.)
We often encounter the future first in California. In a 1991 Los Angeles election for the California State Assembly, Korean-American, Filipino-American, and Japanese-American groups each ran their own candidate, thus splitting the so called "Asian-American" vote, not deterred by the fact that they thereby ensured the election of a white candidate.
Candidates of all kinds of backgrounds may carry the day in the next century America, but the notion that all minorities, or even most members of any one minority, will line up behind them based on their pigmentation, is far from a reliable assumption for a national dialogue about our interracial future.
While African-Americans are the least mainstreaming group, there is a growing black middle class, many members of which have adopted rather similar life styles and aspirations to other middle class Americans. Even if one takes all African-Americans as a group, one could be swayed too far by the recent data on the great differences in the ways whites and blacks perceived the O.J. Simpson trial and other matters directly concerning racial issues. When it comes to basic tenets of the American creed, the overwhelming majority of blacks are surprisingly accepting of them. For instance, a national survey asked in 1994: "a basic American belief has been that if you work hard you can get ahead--reach your goals and get more." 67% of blacks responded "yes, still true," only ten percent less than whites. Most blacks (77%) say they prefer equality of opportunity to equality of results (compared to 89% of whites). When it comes to "do you see yourself as traditional or old fashioned on things such as sex, morality, family life, and religion, or not," the difference between blacks and whites was only 5%, and when asked whether values in America are seriously declining, the difference was down to one point. Roughly the same percentages of blacks and whites strongly advocate balancing the budget, cutting personal income taxes, reforming the welfare system, and reforming Medicare. Percentages are also nearly even in responses to questions on abortion and marijuana.
In a recent extensive national survey conducted at the University of Virginia, James Davison Hunter and Carl Bowman found that "...the majority of Americans do not engage in identity politics--a politics that insists that opinion is mainly a function of racial, ethnic, or gender identity or identities rooted in sexual preference." While there were some disagreements on specific issues and policies, this study found more similarities than discrepancies. Even when asked about such divisive issues as the direction of changes in race and ethnic relations, the similarities across lines were considerable. 32% of blacks, 37% of hispanics and 40% of whites feel these relations are holding steady; 36%, 53% and 44% feel they have declined, respectively. (The rest feel that they have improved). That is, on most issues four out of five--or more!--agreed with one another, while those who differed amounted to less than 20% of all Americans. No anti anything majority here, or most likely, in our future.
Intermarriage and "Others"
Last but not least, the White House figures are misleading. They are based on a simplistic projection of past trends, ignoring the rapidly rising category of racially mixed Americans, the result of the rising number of cross-racial marriages and a rejection of mono-racial categories by some others, especially Hispanic-Americans. One out of 12 marriages in 1995 (8.4%) were interracial/ethnic marriages. Intermarriage between Asian-Americans and whites are particularly common; marriages between Hispanic-Americans and whites are also rather frequent, while such marriages with African-Americans are the least common. Since 1970, the proportion of marriages among people of different racial or ethnic origin increased by 72%. And the number of children of interracial marriages has quadrupled since 1970 to reach the 2 million mark. Moreover, in the 1990 Census, 4%, or 9.8 million Americans chose to classify themselves as others, i.e. not members of any particular racial group. Even if these trends do not accelerate and continue only at the present pace, the figures for 2050 may read something like the following: 51% white; 14% multiracial; 35% minorities. The rise of the "others"--far from dividing the country still further, along with the fact that more and more Americans will be of mixed heritage with relatives in two or more camps, as Tiger Woods has--will serve to blur the racial lines. That is, while there may well be more Americans of non-European origin, a growing number of the American white majority will have a Hispanic daughter or son in law, an Asian stepfather or mother, and a whole rainbow of cousins.
Multiculturalism or American creed?
All this does not mean that racial diversity is a figment of the President's imagination. But the changes in America's demography do not imply that the American creed is being or will be replaced by something called "multiculturalism." The American creed always had room for pluralism of sub-cultures, of people upholding some of the traditions and values of their countries of origin, from praying to playing in their own way. But the interracial dialogue would be better served if the President would stress that pluralism was, is, and is likely to continue to be bound by a shared framework if America is to be spared the kind of ethnic tribalism that tears apart countries as different as Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and raises its ugly head even in well established democracies such as Canada and the UK (where Scottish and Welsh separatism is on the rise).
The President could point to the social, cultural, and legal elements constitute the framework that holds together the diverse mosaic: A commitment by all parties to the democratic way of life, to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and to mutual tolerance. It is further fortified by a strong conviction that one's station in life is determined by hard work and saving, by taking responsibility for one's self and one's family. And, most Americans still share a strong sense that while we are different in some ways, in more ways we are joined by the shared responsibilities of providing a good society for our children and ourselves, one free of racial and ethnic strife, and providing the world with a model of a country whose economy and polity are thriving.
Amitai Etzioni is the director of The George Washington Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies and author of The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (Basic Books, 1996).