White, black, brown, yellow, red

December 08, 1992|By EDITORIAL

If good intentions haven't always been sufficient to kindle a flame under the melting pot, sheer demographics have compelled Americans to acknowledge ethnic and racial diversity a fact of national life. Now the Census Bureau is projecting that the U.S. will become even more ethnically diverse in the 21st century, when nearly one of every two Americans will be black, brown, yellow or red.

The end of the last century saw a flood of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Their arrival was viewed with mistrust by the previous wave -- mostly Irish and German -- who were themselves objects of similar misgivings by the Americans who had preceded them. Each new influx challenged accepted definitions of what "America" meant, yet the country always made the adjustment and emerged stronger for it.

A similar redefinition is presently under way. While non-Hispanic whites still comprise nearly three-quarters of the population, people of color will form a steadily increasing proportion in coming years.

By 2050, today's "minorities" will be 47 percent of the population, with Hispanics the largest group, at 21 percent, and Asians the fastest-growing at 10 percent. Blacks, today the largest minority group, will then comprise 15 percent of the country's 383 million people, of whom 3.8 million will be Native Americans, descendants of the original inhabitants of this continent.

The old model of the "melting pot," in which immigrants of different nationalities, languages and religions would blend into a homogenous "American" type worked better in theory than in practice.

It was predicated on the assumption that assimilation meant abandoning the old traditions and values for the dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethic. That no group has been willing to forgo completely its own heritage is evidenced by the long tradition of ethnic pride movements among Americans of all backgrounds.

Thus just as America's cultural identity today is no longer mainly a reflection of its English and Scotch immigrant founders, so America in the future increasingly will define itself in terms of racial and ethnic diversity -- a nation of white, black, brown, red and yellow people. That is a very different America from the one that existed just 50 years ago. The challenge, as throughout our history, will be to reinvent the institutions and civic rituals that enable us to maintain a common national purpose while giving full expression to the startling diversity that has been this country's greatest strength.

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