Shaped by an unprecedented wave of immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa, the face of American society is changing from mostly white to mostly everything else.
The historic shift is already well under way. If it continues at its current pace, by the time today’s toddlers reach middle age, every American will be a member of a minority group.
This swift transformation is challenging long-held assumptions about what it means to be American, and complicating the centuries-old conflict between blacks and whites.
It’s contributing to a nationwide movement to yank away the welcome mat, with new laws that close the doors to newcomers, deport some recent arrivals, and take back benefits once offered to immigrants as a matter of course.
It worries many who wonder whether a multiethnic America will be a stronger competitor in the world economy or whether it will become a 21st century Tower of Babel.
It raises hopes that the long, tragic story of racism in America may yet have a happy ending, that Americans may learn to tolerate and even value the extraordinary variety of our people.
And it raises fears that ethnic tensions may do what a civil war did not - split the country into separate and unequal societies, one mostly black, one mostly white, one multiracial.
In 1996, nearly one in 10 U.S. residents was born in another country, a new Census Bureau study shows. That’s twice as many as in 1970. Though the current influx doesn’t match the 1910 peak, when about one in seven residents was foreign-born, there’s a crucial difference: Back then, the overwhelming majority of immigrants were white-skinned Europeans. Today, the top sources of newcomers are Mexico, the Philippines, China, Cuba and India.
Nearly half the foreign-born population is Hispanic, one-fifth is Asian, and one-twelfth is black, according to the Census Bureau. If that pattern holds true, by the middle of the next century, the United States will be the first fully racially mixed nation in the First World.
“We’ve never had this kind of diversity before, and neither has anybody else,” said sociologist Philip Nyden of Loyola University. “The big question of the next century is, what kind of society is America going to be? Is it everyone behind fences in walled communities, or is it going to be a genuinely multiethnic society?”
Because newcomers settle where their countrymen already are, the ethnic mix will not be spread evenly across the country. Some population experts think the United States is on its way to becoming a nation with “brown edges and a white middle,” in the words of author Dale Maharidge.
Within the next three years, California will become what social scientists call “majority-minority” - no single race or ethnic group will make up as much as half the state’s population. After 2010, states like Nevada, New Jersey, Maryland and Texas will follow suit.
Already the West is the most diverse part of the country, with a lower proportion of whites and a higher proportion of Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans than any other region. It’s not just California that skews the region’s average. The tourist economies of Colorado, Nevada and other Old West states are drawing sizable numbers of foreign-born job-seekers and entrepreneurs.
The Northeast is also diversifying as Asian, Latin American and African immigrants pour in, offsetting white flight westward and southward. If not for the immigrant influx, most of those states would have lost population in the past 15 years.
The Deep South remains a study in black and white. Reversing the great northward migration of the midcentury, many Southern blacks and some Southern whites are abandoning the industrial cities of the North and returning home. The region has drawn some immigrants, but few of them venture outside of big cities like Atlanta.
Only the small-town Midwest resembles the America of Ozzie and Harriet: nearly nine-tenths white, one-tenth black, with a sprinkling here and there of Cambodian refugees or Mexican farm laborers.
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