Sunday, January 25, 2009

The America that President Obama is Inheriting

Our new president, Barack Obama, has inherited an America that he seems uniquely qualified to lead. His upbringing is now well-documented and his varied life experiences reflect the changing demographics of the United States. The face of America is literally changing and will continue to do so in the coming decades.

A recent Newsweek cover story focuses on the shifts within the United States and the trends that are now apparent.

On the significance of the Immigration and Nationality Act:
"The message seemed mixed. It was 3 o'clock on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 3, 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson had come to the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to sign the unsexily named Immigration and Nationality Act. It was a grand and sentimental stage for Johnson, who loved the grand and the sentimental. There he was, less than a year into a term he'd won in the greatest of landslides over Barry Goldwater, at the mythic gateway to America, Robert and Ted Kennedy in the audience, the eyes of the press fixed on him in the shadows of the nation's most fabled icon of freedom. "Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers," Johnson said, reaching for political poetry. "From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide."
But the president was openly ambivalent, too. "The bill that we sign today is not a revolutionary bill," he said, defensively, almost as though to reassure white Americans that they had nothing to fear. "It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power." On reflection, the bill LBJ signed on that October day was one of the most significant of his momentous presidency, and the virtually forgotten legislation played a key role in creating the America that made this week's inauguration of Barack Obama possible."
On the division of Americans along ethnic lines:
"Yet the Obama victory is about more than Obama, and about more than black and white. In a democratic republic like ours (a product, in large part, of Madison's insight, Jackson's energy and Lincoln's genius), the president is both a maker and a mirror of the manners and morals of the electorate that has invested him with ultimate authority. We have not reached the promised land in which race and ethnicity no longer matter; history tells us that racism, tribalism and nativism will be always with us. The America of 2009, though, is not the America that Johnson felt coming into being the year before he spoke at the Statue of Liberty. After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told an aide he had just handed the South to the Republicans for a generation. (If you count a generation as roughly 21 years, he was off the mark, since the racially inspired backlash shaped politics for more than 40 years.)
For the moment—and it could be a very brief moment—the division of voters into us and them along racial and ethnic lines is at once more difficult and less effective. As the electorate changes, voters themselves are more likely to come from diverse backgrounds or live in a world in which diversity is the rule, not the exception. Not every part of the country is like the Bronx, where there is a 90 percent chance that any two people chosen at random will be of a different race or ethnicity. But there are now Hispanics, for instance—the country's fastest-growing population—living in practically every county in the country.
The roots of this new America—for it is quite new—can be traced to our long-running debate over immigration, a debate Johnson was trying to shape. Immigration boomed in the first decade of the 20th century, too. Waves came from Italy (1.9 million), Russia (1.5 million) and Austria-Hungary, which included Poland (2 million). All told, by 1910 there were about 13.5 million foreign-born people in the United States, according to the U.S. Census, and 87.4 percent of them were European."
On Americans' views of the changing demographics:
"The new reality is reflected in the NEWSWEEK Poll. Sixteen years ago, in the wake of the recession of 1991–92, anti-immigrant sentiment ran high, with 60 percent of Americans saying that they thought current immigration to the United States was a bad thing on the whole, and only 29 percent saying it was a good thing. Now the public is evenly divided, 44 percent to 44 percent. The percentage saying there are too many people coming to America from Africa has dropped from 47 percent in 1992 to 21 percent. Closer to home, public approval of interracial marriages (like the one between Obama's parents) has risen significantly in the past decade, from 54 percent in 1995 to 80 percent today.
The percentage of Americans who say they know a mixed-race couple has risen from 58 to 79 percent since 1995, and more than a third (34 percent) say they or a close family member have married or live with someone of another race or who has a very different racial, ethnic or religious background, including a quarter (24 percent) who say it is specifically an interracial marriage or live-in relationship."
Another article that may interest you from The Atlantic is entitled, "The End of White America" by Hua Hsu which has this provoking heading:
"The Election of Barack Obama is just the most startling manifestation of a larger trend: the gradual erosion of “whiteness” as the touchstone of what it means to be American. If the end of white America is a cultural and demographic inevitability, what will the new mainstream look like—and how will white Americans fit into it? What will it mean to be white when whiteness is no longer the norm? And will a post-white America be less racially divided—or more so?"

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