It could not have happened at a more opportune time. Just as California is leading the nation in undoing policies designed to integrate and ensure equality for minorities, the state is entering a "post-minority" era. Early next year, when the percentage of white residents will dip below 50, America's most populous state will boast no single majority group. For the next quarter century, all Californians will be minorities.
This demographic shift hardly crept up on us. Yet, because the 30-year-old language we used to speak of nonwhites is ill-equipped to tackle the possibility of their preeminence, Californians have been unable to prepare for, even envision, a post-minority future. The mere thought of a predominantly nonwhite society inspires widespread fear of Balkanization, rampant social ills and even racial impurity. Whatever else they may be, last year's Proposition 187 and this year's drive to dismantle affirmative-action programs are deluded attempts to roll back the "browning of California."
Californians cannot begin to plan responsibly for their post-minority future until they rethink their views of race and ethnicity. A good first step would be to stop allowing politics to define ethnic groups. Politics tends to polarize and divide groups. As such, it will be used as a weapon of resistance by a largely aging Anglo and angry electorate for at least another generation. Much as Latino activists are encouraged by rising naturalization rates among immigrants and the potential for increased political power, an appropriate response to the state's new "majority-minority" society doesn't appear to be forthcoming from politics.
Beginning with the birth of "minority" politics in the 1960s, ethnic minority groups have been seen as overgrown political-action committees. Success in the world of politics and government has required a minority group to present itself as monolithic and homogeneous. The term minority --originally denoting a proud, dissenting political group requiring protection from the tyranny of the conformist majority--came to refer to the undesirable "other" in American social life: dark-skinned people who live disorganized lives of poverty, crime, welfare dependency, unemployment, gangs and broken homes. Nonwhites were expected to vie with each other for limited "minority dollars" in a game in which the spoils went to the loser. With nearly perverse pride, minority organizations and leaders have competed with each other to present their communities as the most impaired and, hence, most eligible for public attention and resources. Politics has not only put nonwhite groups institutionally at odds, it has defined them by their dysfunctions.
Assimilation, once considered a viable means to lift minorities out of the pathological margins and into the normative mainstream, cannot be counted on to bring America's component groups together. Political scientist Andrew Hacker has pointed out that, historically, minorities--with the exception of African Americans--have been able to "work their way up the social ladder" and achieve "a valid claim of being 'white.' "
In its time, whiteness has swallowed many a distinct ethnic group. In California, though, not only is the "dominant" group no longer numerically dominant; it, too, has joined the contest for most-aggrieved minority status. Sectors of Anglo America, worried about their loss of preeminence, find it increasingly necessary to compete with other racial and ethnic groups to grab their piece of the pie. The social breakdown is complete. California has lost its ideal of the common good to racial politics. The stated goal is still to include all groups. But now we have no idea into what we are being included.
The major problem facing California is how to make a post-minority society cohere. Multiculturalism is one solution. But even as old-fashioned assimilation sought to downplay differences among groups, the rather vague admonitions of "celebrating diversity" and "honoring difference" don't provide much indication of how we all fit and hold together. It's not enough to integrate another color into the rainbow or drop one more group into the melting pot; we have to recognize that the pot is changing. Once we have accepted the reality that California and Californians are no longer what and who they used to be, we can look at the long-term trends for clues as to who we are becoming.