Wednesday, August 20, 2008

In the year 2050

When the film 2001: A Space Odyssey made its first appearance in 1968, I was just starting high school and the 21st century seemed pretty intangible.

Nowadays, when I hear about something that's supposed to happen in 2050, it's not hard for me to get my head around the chronology of it. We're talking 42 years from now, when, with considerable luck, I'll still be bearing down on Methuselah.

What got me thinking about the future was a striking demographic forecast issued by the US Census Bureau: America is set to evolve from being a mostly Caucasian country whose ethnic stock and cultural ties are largely rooted in Europe to one that will be predominantly Hispanic and Asian. The African American proportion of the population is to remain roughly static at 14 percent to 15%.

Minorities, now roughly 33% of the population, are projected to become 54% in 2050. The tipping point will actually come in 2042, when the combined non-white population will outnumber whites.

The white population is projected to be only slightly larger in 2050 than it is today, while the Hispanic population - regardless of color - is expected to practically triple, so that nearly one in three US residents will be Hispanic.

The Asian population is predicted to rise from 5.1% to 9.2%. And the number of people who identify themselves as being of two or more races is projected to more than triple, from 5.2 million to 16.2 million.

Two other highlights: In 2050, 62% of America's children will be of non-European stock, compared to 44% today. And the working-age population is projected to become 55% "minority" by 2050 (up from 34% in 2008).

THE MAIN news in all this is that the transformation is taking place at a rate faster than was projected just a few years ago; the reason being higher birthrates among non-whites and laissez-faire immigration policies. Texas and California are today already majority "minority."

And so, in a space of about 100 years, the United States will have gone from a country that was something like 90% white to one where Americans of European stock will be the minority population. The census folks also estimate that by 2050 there will be 439 million Americans, compared to around 300 million today.

THIS TREND has long preoccupied America's radical right. In State of Emergency, Pat Buchanan's latest book, the ultra-conservative firebrand warned: "If we do not solve our civilizational crisis - a disintegrating culture, dying populations, and invasions unresisted - the children born [today] will witness in their lifetimes the death of the West. In our hearts we know what must be done. We must stop the invasion. But do our leaders have the vision and will to do it?"

Buchanan is too shrewd a polemicist to oppose the tinting of America purely on the basis of race. He argues instead, and not unpersuasively, that what is at stake is America's civilization; that the coming new majority will fail to embrace the values that made America the greatest nation on earth.

Laissez-faire conservatives like The Wall Street Journal crowd basically side with liberals in arguing that, overall, immigrants contribute more to America than they extract in public benefits.

But as the Journal has argued, the Left does the cause of immigration no service when it pushes for multiculturalism, bilingualism and racial quotas. For the best way to ensure the survival of American civilization - and with it, pluralism, respect for minority opinion, economic bounty and social tolerance - is if today's heterogeneous minorities are successfully co-opted into both the political system and the sociological melting pot.

An America where people of color outnumber white people is neither a good or bad thing. A negative outcome would be if an American majority were to abandon the values we've come to associate with the US. If American liberals, Jews included, want to prove Buchanan wrong, they should work to jettison multiculturalism, which fosters the Balkanization of America. Of all people, Jews can appreciate the benefits of acculturation over multiculturalism. Where would we be today if places like the Henry Street Settlement and the Educational Alliance had been unavailable to our grandparents and great-grandparents?

POLITICAL SCIENTIST Samuel P. Huntington, writing in Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, warns that Latino immigrants to the US are not embracing the American creed.

Huntington - like Buchanan - warns that the inflow of Hispanic immigrants to the US is different from previous migrations because rather than join the melting pot, they reject the Anglo-Protestant ideas which mobilized the American dream. Instead, they maintain their own parochial political and linguistic values.

Liberal writers, such as Post contributor Samuel G. Freedman, argue that Latinos are expedient targets for "bigotry under the guise of opposing illegal immigration." Fears that "the most recent arrivals have neither the will nor the skill to Americanize" are "a passionate delusion." Hispanic, Asian and African immigrants will no doubt turn out to be as genuinely faithful to America as were the progeny of late 19th- and early 20th-century Jewish immigrants, says Freedman.

I HAVE no way of judging which prognostication will prove the most prescient.

Previous American generations could be reasonably optimistic that their children's future would be part of a continuum of progress, enlightenment, prosperity and values. Liberals and, I suppose, free-market conservatives too, still seem to hold fast to such optimism.

From 6,000 miles away, it's hard to see where this optimism is rooted. America's coming majority needs to be socialized to embrace the American ethos. The argument that this socialization is already taking place is unconvincing.

Perhaps the greater challenge - putting aside the demographic issue - is how to foster the American Idea when modernity and technology actively discourage individuals from thinking about a broader collective.

The future, therefore, may be more like the one visualized by Atlantic magazine writer Robert D. Kaplan. In An Empire Wilderness, he imagines "isolated suburban pods and enclaves of races and classes unrelated to each other" in which bright, analytically literate people around the globe reside in autonomous "city-states" and are more connected with each other than with folks just outside their gated communities.

It should be interesting to see how things play out - assuming I remain, in the words of HAL from 2001, "completely operational and all my circuits are functioning properly."

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