Stirring the melting pot

The Thinker by Rodin

They were out there in force again today. You know, they who should not be seen. The janitors. The day laborers. The dishwashers. The construction workers. Today was after all May Day, a day which most of the world celebrates as the real Labor Day. May Day commemorates the strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, which began on May 1st, 1884 and culminated in the Haymarket Riot of May 4th, 1884. Eleven people died that day, and eight anarchists were later executed for allegedly throwing bombs into the crowd. It was an early but memorable skirmish in the labor movement, not just here in America, but also across the world. The strike was the catalyst for the eight-hour workday that Americans take for granted. (Perhaps I should say, “took for granted”. In our current economy, the eight-hour workday, like company pensions, is becoming obsolete.)

Today hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters, many of whom are here illegally, brazenly marched again through the streets of Los Angeles. Immigrants marched in many cities nationwide. 400,000 marched in Chicago, where May Day originated. Tens of thousands also marched in Houston, Florida and New York City. Many marched with oversized American flags and chanted “U-S-A!” You can bet the strikers at the Haymarket Riot were not acting quite so patriotic.

Today’s march follows on the heels of massive marches by immigration activists in March that attracted millions of people. It began in earnest on March 25th when over a million supporters of immigrants rights marched in Los Angeles. Tens of thousands also crowded the national Mall in Washington on April 10th to press a similar cause.

In truth, the face of America has been changing for a long time. Until recently, we could pretend it was otherwise. Illegal immigrants who live on the margins of society, who have learned the art of not being seen, are easier to put out of mind. Now this sleeping giant in our midst has woken up. It is clear as we move forward in the 21st century that the America of this century will look quite a bit different from the one most of us remember during the last century.

This is not news to me, for I am a Washingtonian. Comedian Stephen Colbert at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner called Washington a “chocolate city with a marshmallow center”. However, the greater Washington area feels more ethnically diverse than any other area of the country that I have ever been. It is fitting that the area I choose to call home is in many ways modeling how the rest of the country will be by 2050.

It is all a bit startling to my father, age 79. He is by no means a racist, but mostly he has known only the white middle class suburban life. In 2004, he and my mother moved from Midland, Michigan to Silver Spring, Maryland. They went from perhaps the most Wonder Bread city in Michigan to a retirement community that was overwhelmingly white but serviced by a people of darker hues. (How Wonder Bread is Midland? The Chinese restaurant we went to had white waiters.) Even my mother, certainly not a racist either, was never quite comfortable during her final days in the nursing home in Silver Spring, for she had a black physician and mostly a black staff taking care of her.

Her physician came from Ghana, where she had left her husband and family. She is in this country on a five-year contract. Her job is to ease very old and chronically infirm folks from old age to death. Talking with her during those dark days when my mother was languishing there, I learned that she was here because there were no American physicians willing to do her work. This is the way it is throughout much of our country. Those of us who have wealth can squeeze our dollars so well because of the cheap and often illegal immigrant labor that comes across borders.

Now the immigrant community is realizing they do not have to take it anymore. They understand that they have achieved a critical mass. They are no longer content to languish in the shadows of society. They came to this country to have a better life. While in most cases their new lives are better than those they left behind, the difference between their lives and ours is jarring. In many cases, they arrived here illegally. In many cases, they also pay employment taxes. However, the taxes rarely buy them anything. They contribute taxes into a system they cannot draw from unless they become either citizens or permanent residents. The closest they come to getting some return for their Medicare taxes is if they do not have insurance and have to visit an emergency room.

Some of us will wish that they would go back where they came from. Aside from the fact that it will not happen, our economy is intricately dependent upon their continued presence. However, even K-Marts blue light specials do not last forever. It is time, they are saying, for a more just share of the commonweal.

Ask any demographer and they will tell you the same thing. Whites will eventually be a minority in their own country. Here in the greater Washington region, in less than a decade, whites will be in the minority. In other metropolitan areas like Houston, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the day has already arrived.

Perhaps what we are experiencing now in our Republican controlled government is the last gasp of a dying era. For Republicans are overwhelmingly white. Perhaps Republicans sense that their end is near. The solid red South and West is likely to look a lot purpler in the next decade. Hispanics and many other minorities are moving from the margins into the full-fledged citizens, and they will be voting. It is not a given, of course, that they will be voting for the Democrats. Nevertheless, they are likely to carry different values and choices with them in the voting booth.

The U.S. Census Bureau has made its own estimates. Hispanic and Asian populations will triple in size over the next 50 years, while the population of white Americans will decrease by 19 percent. By 2010, 35% of America will be minority. By 2050, we will all be minorities. For a while, whites may retain the status of the largest of the minorities, but no ethnicity or race will be able to claim majority status.

I do not think this is a bad thing. America has long claimed to be a melting pot. However, in truth a melting pot has meant that immigrants assimilate traditional white Protestant European values. By 2050, we will become a melting pot in fact.

One thought on “Stirring the melting pot

  1. “Whites will eventually be a minority in their own country.” Shaking off old paradigms isn’t easy. Race is not a zero sum game and the country belongs to more than just the white people.

    I think one of the biggest handicaps we as a country face in this immigration debate is the gratuitous racialization of the terms of the debate. As a teacher I see too many kids allowing identity politics to hold them back from embracing opportunities and new ideas. In all this controversy, the least hopeful things I hear come out when adults too identify by race rather than by community.

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