Saturday, July 4, 2015

America's challenge is learning to live with itself

This post was written a year before the 2016 Presidential elections. The thoughts and issues it presents are as relevant now -- even more so -- than when it was first written.

ON JULY FOURTH, 2015, the 239th birthday of the United States, it's an appropriate time to take a few moments to ponder the question raised by immigration reform activist Jose Antonio Vargas: What is an American?

My immigrant parents and their friends, who grew up in the Philippines, referred to white people in this country as "the Americans." Never mind that my father and his military peers fought under the Star Bangled Banner during World War II and the Korean War, never mind that they led active civic lives, involving themselves in their community affairs, voted every election day, they always considered themselves as outsiders, not really what they thought of as "Americans."

To this day, when most of the world think of Americans, they think of the white folks of our country.

When I toured China a few years back, my tour group consisted of African/Americans, Asian/Americans and European/Americans. We were seen as oddities in that land. Chinese would ask to take pictures with us. Some of us bridled at being stared and pointed at. At one photo taking session, I told the person who posed with us, "We are America. All of us."

(Just so you know, in my other travels, Italian and Germans reacted the same way as the Chinese towards us Americans of color. Curiosity and preconceptions of America is universal.)

I'm not sure what I was trying to do but I thought at the moment that it was important for them to know that Americans are a diverse lot. We may be of different pigmentation, our ancestors arrived on these shores in different times, some of us may speak with accents, but in our hearts and minds, we are all Americans.

A new Census Bureau report shows that my generation of baby-boomers fading further into the what demographers like to describe as the silver tsunami, and giving way to Millennials in a country whose younger generations are also becoming more diverse - and more tolerant, despite the Dylan Roots of the world.

The white population in the United States reached an all-time high median age of 43, while those younger than 5 were outnumbered by minority children.

“That’s a reflection of how the U.S. is aging,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center. 

I live in a small community that has seen its minority population surpass the white population, which has reduced since 1995. The 2000 Census confirmed the trend. Taken together, Latinos, Asians and blacks make up the majority. (As we look at ourselves, we have to be careful not to lump those three groupings into one monolithic bloc.) In other words, my neighborhood is not the "Leave It To Beaver" neighborhood of the 50s and 60s.
This city, this state of California, is a harbinger of what this country is going to be. The next few decades, will be rocky ones as people of color learn to ease their way into the mainstream, not fully accepting of the fact that they ARE the mainstream in many communities. 

Equally critical is the way white Americans become accustomed to just being one of many, instead of the retaining their position of dominance and power to which they are accustomed.
The "privilege" and entitlement many of Euro/Americans believe is the natural order of our society is going to - needs - to change.

Go to any elementary school today, and you will see the diverse future of America.

As this demographic shift occurs, it is being bolstered by the newcomers coming to this country for the same reason my parents chose to become Americans.
The latest census data shows that China has replaced Mexico as the chief source of U.S. immigrants. Immigration from Latin America has slowed overall even as Asian migration continues to grow.

The impact of the Asian/American community goes beyond their mere numbers. 

The Center for American Progress stated in a recent article:
"Asian immigrants play an important role in helping the U.S. economy thrive. The most recent Census Bureau Survey of Business Owners found that Asian immigrants owned 1.5 million businesses, which had total sales and receipts of $506 billion and employed 208 million people in 2007. The number of Asian immigrant-owned businesses increased 40 percent from 2002 to 2007, compared to the average increase of 18 percent for all U.S. businesses.
"Asian immigrants also play an important role in the consumer market. They hold the fastest-growing buying power share—also known as spendable income after taxes—of any racial or ethnic group in the country. The Selig Center at the University of Georgia’s Terry School of Business estimates that the cumulative buying power of Asian immigrants grew from $274 billion in 2000 to more than $700 billion in 2013."
According to a 2012 study, The Rise of Asian Americans, from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, Asian/Americans are projected to make up 1 in 10 residents by midcentury, Asian/Americans as a whole tend to be more satisfied than the general public with their lives and the direction of the country. They lean Democratic and want a government that provides more services.

Besides immigrants, another dynamic is taking place as U.S. universities and colleges seek foreign students to address some of their funding shortcomings.

International students studying at U.S. colleges and universities also are now most likely to come from Asian countries, roughly 6 in 10, and some of them are able to live and work in the U.S. after graduation. Asian students, both foreign born and U.S. born, earned a plurality (45 percent) of all engineering Ph.D.s in 2010, as well as 38 percent of doctorates in math and computer sciences and 33 percent of doctorates in the physical sciences.

In addition, the new immigrants - Latino and Asian - tend to be younger and more prolific than their Euro/American counterparts. “This year is the first time the 0 to 4 population is minority-majority,” said Ben Bolender, chief of the Census Bureau's population estimates branch. It was a shift long expected: In 2013, the rate was close enough — about 50-50 — that young minority children were on the cusp of outnumbering white children, but now the number has decisively moved into the majority, Bolender said.

The University of California released its admittance information for incoming freshmen last week and the data shows that Asians and Latino freshmen outnumbered the white freshmen. 
The 2015 admission numbers for California students show slight changes in UC's diversity, with Asian-Americans making up 36 percent, Latinos 30 percent, whites 25 percent and African-Americans 4 percent.

Among international students, 15,317, or 62.2 percent of those applicants, were admitted, compared with 13,575, or 60.1 percent, last year, the data showed. Asian students - primarily from China, Korea and India - made up the largest foreign group, according to UC.

New Americans at a citizenship ceremony. 

So what does all of thisl mean?

Rodney King was prophetic when he asked, "Can't we all just get along?" The key to America's future is going to be how, and if, we can answer that simple question.

I'll go one step further and be blunt, the key will be how white Americans learn to live, work and play with the new majority in the coming decades. Will they fight it as those who want to "take back America," or "Make America great again," or return to the "good, old days" when white was right and everyone else knew their place; or will they accept the new Americans' myriad contributions to the American way of life - in all aspects: economically, politically and culturally?

America is changing once again. And for most of us, change is hard. 

The xenophobic fear of balkanization is understandable, but groundless. Over and over again, we have seen that by the second and third generation, English becomes the primary language spoken at home and the "Americanization" process continues. It is already happening with the Latinos who came in the 1990s and 2000s.  "Americanization" will happen with the new Asians.

One possible hopeful sign is the growing multiracial population of America, especially amongst Millennials. 

More and more Americans are identifying themselves as multi-racial, according to a Pew Research Center report released on June 11. "Multiracial Americans are at the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S.—young, proud, tolerant and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole," says the report.

Although still a small part of America right now, their numbers are expanding exponentially as love does - apparently, indeed - conquers all. 

America is a never-ending work in progress (interpret that any way you like). Each wave of immigrants has changed our country for the better. The latest wave of immigrants and the growing American-born Latino and Asian communities will also have an impact as we all seek our version of the American Dream. America will be slightly different. But, America has always been different. We revel in our individuality and exceptionality, That's who we are, have been and will continue to be.

My apologies to civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., but to borrow his metaphor of reaching the mountain top. What we find when we reach that mountain top ... is the view of ... another mountain.