Melted

BEN WATTENBERG

June 17, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

We too often pay attention to the foam on the beer, not the beer in the mug. But if you want to see the future, foam-watching is the wrong way to do it. Ultimately, the foam gets absorbed into the beer, not vice versa.

New 1990 Census data have recently rolled out. Key headlines stress America's changing ethnography. "Immigrant Tide Surges" is the Page 1 lead story in USA Today. Others deal with "multiculturalism," "diversity" and the record number of Americans (32 million) who speak a foreign language at home. It is said that turbulent America is now "a mosaic," or perhaps "a salad bowl" -- but no longer "a melting pot."

That's the head of foam. It's important. The 1980s were indeed a very big decade of immigration (9 million), mostly from Asian and Latin countries.

But what about the beer in the mug? It's changing too, and in ways that directly contradict the foamy story of hyperdiversity. In point of fact, the "melting pot" is now more prevalent than ever.

The proof of major melting is not in the latest statistics, which come from the middle part of the vast four-year census publishing sequence. But it will be demonstrated as later and more sophisticated data emerge, and as scholars refine the material.

Thus, final 1990 numbers should show that for the first time the typical infant born in America will officially be of "mixed ancestry." That is, we are moving to a point where only a minority of us will be "pure" -- pure English, Italian, Polish, Irish, Mexican, Asian, black or pure anything else. Most of us will be "mixed" in this ever more "melted" nation.

Using earlier census data, Professor Richard Alba of the State University of New York has calculated that 28 percent of people born in America prior to 1920 were "mixed;" by 1971-80 it was 48 percent. Sophisticated extrapolation on the back of an envelope brings the 1990 number to over half. (Moreover, according to Harvard Professor Mary Waters, mixed ancestry levels are substantially understated.)

Why so much "melting"? We practice "exogamy." That's the uptown word for "intermarriage," be it between ethnic groups, religions or races, a process often suffused with both personal pain and national gain.

The 1980 census reveals that of Italian-Americans born before 1915, only 34 percent had intermarried. Of those born after 1955, 77 percent had intermarried. Polish-American rates were 53 percent and 83 percent. Young Hispanics and Asians were intermarrying at twice the rate of their elders -- about a third compared to about a sixth.

Professor Egon Mayer of Brooklyn College has estimated that Jewish intermarriage has gone from about 6 percent in the 1960s to about 50 percent now.

Black intermarriage is much lower. Of blacks over 70, only 0.4 percent had intermarried. The rate now is about 3 percent and rising. From 1970-80, among black males in the Western states marrying for the first time, 17 percent had intermarried.

The Melting Pot is also simmering linguistically. The rule of thumb is that after the third generation, English takes over. The grandfather may speak only Italian. The son speaks Italian and English. The grandson speaks only English. It is inexorable; if an American kid is interested in television, sports, music or movies, that kid speaks English.

In 1980, among Asian-Americans born in the United States, 74 percent spoke English only. Another 17 percent were bilingual, speaking English "very well." It's happening with native-born Latinos too, only at a slower rate; 28 percent spoke English only, and another 43 percent were bilingual and spoke English "very well."

So why all the fuss about "the immigrant surge"? No secret: Many Americans fear de-Europeanization.

That should become less of an issue as the years go on. Something else, very important, is happening beneath the frothy demographic foam. A new pluralist folk is aborning -- bold, and tempered in turbulence -- the legendary melted American. We're in the pot together.

Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of "The First Universal Nation." A PBS television special which deals with the theme of this column will air Friday, 9 p.m. on WETA, channel 26, 10 pm on Maryland Public Broadcasting, channels 22 and 67.

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