Identity crisis

Jim Castelli

September 09, 1991|By Jim Castelli

Washington -- CONGRESS AND the president fight over a civil rights bill.

The nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court sparks sometimes nasty debate about the best way for blacks to make progress. Educators and social critics debate the meaning of "multiculturalism." Others criticize "politically correct" behavior at colleges and universities.

Americans are going through an identity crisis shaped by significant demographic changes and a loss of focus on what it means to be an American. We still have a tendency to view racial issues as, literally, a matter of black and white; we frame the issue in terms of how whites can make up for past injustices against blacks. That perspective reflects the demography of the 1960s, the period that shaped so many of our present views.

But America is becoming far more multicultural than ever before. In 1960, Census figures showed 89.6 percent of Americans were white. Blacks made up the vast majority of non-whites, 10.5 percent of all Americans; 0.5 percent of Americans were of Japanese, Chinese of Filipino descent; 0.3 percent were Native Americans and 0.1 percent were "other" races. The Census did not even use "Hispanic" as a category.

Figures from the 1990 Census are very different: 80.3 percent of Americans were white; 12.1 percent were black; 2.9 percent were Asian or Pacific Islanders; 0.8 percent were Native American and 3.9 percent were "other," many of whom are likely from India or the Middle East. In addition, 9 percent of Americans were Hispanic. Most of the increase in minorities comes from immigration.

Martha Farnsworth Riche, director for policy studies at the Population Reference Bureau, points out that there is even more diversity among pre-schoolers, those under 5: 15 percent are black, 13 percent are Hispanic, 3 percent are Asian or Pacific Islanders, 1 percent are Native Americans and 6 percent are "other." Only 62 percent are non-Hispanic whites.

It's not surprising, then, that many whites feel a sense of change. Unfortunately, throughout American history, those feelings have led to discrimination against people perceived as "different" or as newcomers. Because we are so used to viewing racial issues in terms of black and white, much of the negative reaction to shifting demographics today has been turned against blacks.

Blacks resent that resentment. But that's not all. Riche points out that blacks are "no longer the majority minority." While blacks make up the single-largest minority group, there are fewer blacks than Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Native Americans and "others."

It's likely, then, that blacks feel squeezed from both sides, losing their status as America's all-but-official minority when they are still far short of equality with whites.

These demographic shifts have come at a time when Americans already feel insecure about themselves.

Many people have pointed out that there was something unsettling about the fact that the victory parades for the gulf war lasted longer than the war itself.

The success in the gulf war was, to many people, an antidote to the Vietnam War and the Watergate era. But even that success has become ambivalent, and polls show that a majority of Americans now believe the country is moving in "the wrong direction." Economists can't agree on whether the nation is pulling out of a recession or whether it faces a "double dip," a separate, second recession.

Politicians talk frequently about "American values," but there is, in fact, very little talk about just what those values are or how to maintain them. Conservatives often identify "American values" with a narrow agenda -- anti-abortion, anti-pornography, flag-waving.

Liberals often speak broadly of "rights" but back away from talking about "values" for fear of being seen as imposing religious beliefs.

The irony in all of this is that most immigrants come to this country for the same reason that earlier immigrants came from Europe. They saw America as a land of freedom, equality, justice and opportunity. America hasn't always lived up to those ideals. But as Americans go through a racial and cultural identity crisis in the '90s, they should remember that what makes them Americans isn't their color or their religion or ethnic background; it's the ideals that continue to attract people from all over the world.

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