When I woke up Friday morning, nothing had changed. The Earth was rotating on its axis and I still had three stories to finish and two loads of laundry in the hamper. If a tectonic shift in the identity of the United States of America occurred overnight, I slept right through it.
How, then, to explain the hyperventilating response to the news the day before, that in 2011, minority babies outnumbered white newborns for the first time in U.S. history? To be exact, the Census Bureau reported the number of white newborns falling to 49.6 percent of children younger than 1 year old from April 2010 to July 2011.
The headlines didn’t capture all the little caveats — for instance, that the definition of minority includes Hispanics who may well be regarded as white, or that the numbers parse birth rates, not the total population, which will remain white for some time to come.
But it doesn’t take much for Pat Buchanan’s dire warning of cultural suicide in the face of an increasingly diverse America to find a supportive chorus.
Though the birth rate is driven more by native births than immigration — which is dropping — restrictive immigration bills in states such as Arizona and Alabama continue to find traction, legal challenges aside.
The census report brought worries that an aging white population will be less supportive of funding education for children who don’t resemble them. Remembering that these children will grow up to fuel the economy that sustains retirement and Social Security benefits is, I would think, a pretty good incentive to ease their educational challenges.
Being mindful of the social, economic and cultural implications in a changing America is one thing. Near-panic is another. Hasn’t the population of the country shifted throughout our shared history, with once-ostracized groups – add Irish, Catholics, Chinese, Jews, etc., to the list — forming essential parts of what makes America so special? Haven’t members of every imaginable race and creed shed blood protecting shared values, even when the country failed to live up to them?
The roots of some complainers don’t extend nearly as deep as the folks looked on as “the other.” My African American parents – led by generations of ancestors before them — fought through the roadblocks of race and class to raise and educate five children. They were textbook illustrations of the all-American dream. The thought that their extraordinary achievements would be diminished in any way because they didn’t share the hue of the majority in the country they loved is – well – unthinkable to me.
By now, it’s impossible to divide American contributions and culture by race, gender or ethnicity – and who would want to.
Besides, when it comes to who holds the power in America, what we see every day hasn’t changed that much. When I look at the boards of Fortune 500 companies, including the ones that helped push the country into financial disarray, I hardly see a rainbow. After the census report, some things are the same: Donald Trump reigns from his televised executive perch and Rush Limbaugh spews over the airwaves.
A black president has broken through one important barrier, but when the go-to playbook to defeat Barack Obama means portraying him as not really American, it’s clear that America is still struggling with who is considered authentic. Given where we are in 2012, a census report on infants is enough to trigger a round of soul-searching.
Native Americans must be having a good laugh right now.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.