A comeback for the American melting pot?
When U.S. President Barack Obama’s white mother married his black African father, in 1961, black-and-white marriages were one in 1,000 and inter-racial marriages were banned by law in 15 American states. Even where they were legal, mixed marriages were widely considered taboo.
Fast forward to the present and more than six out of 10 Americans approve of marriages between whites and non-whites. In 2008, one out of seven of all new marriages in the United States were between spouses of different races or ethnicities, according to a study that looked at blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics.
The 2008 rate, a record, was double that of 1980 and six times that of 1960, partly because of weakened cultural taboos and partly because of successive waves of immigrants from Latin America and Asia, says the study, by the Washington-based Pew Research Center. It is one of several analyses culled from census data in advance of the release later this year of the results of the 2010 U.S. census. (The census is conducted every 10 years).
The figures and the underlying change in attitudes are remarkable. Do they point to a future, generations away, where the predominant colour of the citizenry is not white, black, brown, or yellow but beige? Probably not. But they might revive a long-running debate on the concepts of the American “melting pot” and the “salad bowl.”
In the melting pot, different cultures, races, and ethnicities are brewed into an American stew. In the salad bowl, the ingredients combine into a salad but retain their distinct identity. For the past few diversity-conscious decades, the salad bowl notion has been conventional wisdom.
One prominent melting pot sceptic, Cornell University’s Daniel Lichter, points out that fewer than 5 percent of all married whites have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity. (Hispanics, who come in all colours, are not considered a race but an ethnic group).
“The vast majority of whites today — as in the past — marry other whites,” Lichter wrote in an essay. “We are still far from a melting pot …”
How far nobody knows. The Pew study found that of the 3.8 million Americans who married in 2008, 9 percent of whites, 16 percent of blacks, 26 percent of Hispanics and 31 percent of Asians married someone whose race or ethnicity was different from their own. The most common mixed pairings were between whites and Hispanics.
INTER-MARRIAGE AND ASSIMILATION
It’s in the eye of the beholder whether inter-marriage is a decisive step in the assimilation process (what could be better than physical intermingling?) or a dire threat to the white majority (66 percent) and those of its members who think that “Anglo-Protestant values” and traditions are the bedrock of American identity.
The intellectual father of that idea was the late Samuel Huntington, a Harvard political scientist whose controversial 2004 book “Who are we?” provided the underpinning for many of the arguments used by groups advocating curbs on immigration. Huntington foresaw a “bifurcated America” with two languages, Spanish and English.
For white Americans who fear that demographic trends run against them, several sets of new data provide more cause for concern. In June, official census figures showed that non-white minorities, including Hispanics, accounted for 48.6 percent of the children born between July 2008 and 2009. That was up from 46.8 percent from 2006/7.
As early as next year, the U.S could reach a long-expected racial milestone — more babies born to non-whites than to white Americans of European ancestry. Melting pot or salad bowl, whites seem destined to minority status even in the improbable case that immigration were reduced to a trickle.
The reason? More than 80 percent of America’s population growth from 2000 to 2008 came from non-white minorities, according to a study of the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
The U.S. population reached 300 million in October, 2006, and is forecast to hit 350 million by 2025. That growth rate, in the words of Brookings’ Metropolitan Project Director Bruce Katz, makes the United States a “demographically blessed nation.”
Blessed because America’s competitors, from Japan and Britain to Germany, are shrinking because of declining birth rates. Russia has suffered the sharpest population decline of major industrialized countries — 6.6 million since 1995.
But America’s growth and demographic transformation also comes with huge challenges for which there is no solution in sight. One of them is growing economic inequality, according to the Brookings study, the other is a sharp division in education. Today, around 50 percent of Asians and 31 percent of whites hold college degrees, compared with 13 percent of Hispanics and 18 percent of blacks.
A recipe for salad rather than stew?