POPULATIONS are fluid, but demography is rigid. The census, which freezes the flow of humanity into categories, creates sharp points and discontinuities in what is really a steady process of change. California is marking, for the most part with pride, one such artificial landmark produced by the 2000 census. Somewhere in the past ten years, the number of Californians who describe themselves as white fell behind the number who describe themselves as something else.
To put it in shorthand, “whites are no longer a majority.” It is true that the 47% of Californians who are listed as white in the census include some Middle Easterners with dark skins and exclude those, among the 32% counted as Hispanic, who might also consider themselves white. But arguments over where the milestone is placed do not alter the road.
The change has happened fast; as recently as 1950, Hispanics were only about 6% of the population. Whites made up around 90%. The drop since then is steep and is accelerating. At present, more than half of the state’s adults are white, but the word covers only a third of its residents who are less than 18 years old; and in the numbers of births and immigrants whites fall a long way behind non-whites.
In taking this path, California is showing the rest of America its future–one in which whites and blacks will share the country with a larger proportion of the population that has Asian or Latin American origins. As it passes its milestone, California offers reasons for both gloom and hope about this future.
Pessimists can point to a series of referendums called by voters in the 1990s that seemed to express white resentment. One barred illegal immigrants and their children from receiving all but emergency government services; another ended affirmative action, selection by race rather than merit; a third banned bilingual education in schools. All passed by large margins. If the economy goes into recession, this could increase the anger against immigrants, who can be accused of taking jobs away from people who have lived in America all their lives.
There are more reasons, however, to be optimistic about California’s experience as the country’s most ethnically diverse large state. Of those referendums, only the first, Proposition 187 banning services for illegal immigrants, was truly racially divisive. Pushed by politicians eager to exploit anger about the long recession from which California was just emerging, it won a majority, and helped to propel its proponents to success. But its longer-run impact has been quite different. Latinos, who are now voting in increasingly large numbers, turned against the state’s Republican Party, which had embraced 187. The party has still not recovered.
Ending affirmative action and bilingual education, on the other hand, had wide support among Latinos from the start. They rightly saw these referendums as attempts to dismantle obstacles to assimilation into America. Support for the affirmative-action measure divided along ethnic lines only when politicians versed in the race-based politics of multiculturalism decided to link it to Proposition 187. The anti-bilingualism initiative kept high levels of Latino support right up to voting day, and has become even more popular since then as children of Spanish-speaking parents have started to do better at school.
Multiculturalism grew out of the politics of the black civil-rights movement. But, in practice, California follows an older American pattern. The melting pot works even more efficiently today than it did when the idea of apparently different peoples blending together as Americans first became a cause of celebration. Up to 40% of the American-born children of Asians and Latinos, the fastest-growing groups in California, marry outside their own ethnic groups, a far higher proportion than the 5-10% typical of second-generation Italian-Americans and Jews in the middle of the 20th century.
For Latinos, themselves the product of racially mixed Mexico and other Latin American countries, the idea of the melting pot is much more attractive than defensive multiculturalism. California, leading the way statistically, can pass on to the rest of the country what it is learning from its newest citizens: in America, ethnic boundaries can dissolve.
What seems new as California becomes more Hispanic is also a rediscovery of the past. Before it joined the union in 1850, California was part of Mexico. Until the gold rush, most Californians were Spanish-speaking ranchers and missionaries, or native Indians. Kevin Starr, a historian, has suggested that the 20th-century white majority may come to be seen as an historical aberration.
In truth, the state is at root neither Hispanic nor white. Early California was not so much Mexican as empty; the non-native population in 1840 was less than 10,000. And unlike New Mexico’s Hispanics, many of whom can trace their roots to the first Mexican settlers, most Californian Latinos are the product of immigration within the past 30 years. Immigrants come to California looking forward, not back.
There is in any case something perverse in arguing whether such immigrants will change the nature of America. While the anti-immigrant lobby frets that America is in danger, the rest of the world embraces, or denounces, what it calls Americanisation. “American culture” reaches children in tiny villages in the Andes. The thought that the children of Peruvian immigrants growing up ten miles from Hollywood could undermine it is laughable.
As they have always done, immigrants to America will become American even as they mildly change the American mixture. The fact that California’s immigrants tend to be Hispanic and Asian will continue to shape the character of the state, but it will not alter its Americanness. America is full of regions and states that are no less American for being numerically dominated by particular groups: Utah, with its Mormons; Hawaii, Asian from the start; Wisconsin, where 45% of the population is of German descent.
What all Californians, Hispanic, Asian and otherwise, want is housing, schooling, jobs and health care. The real challenge in California’s census result is not in the fine print but in the simplest number of all, the grand total: 33.9m people, and growing fast.