Last week, The Times reported that California demographers had scaled back their state population projections for 2040, citing a sharp decline in the Latino birthrate. They had overestimated population growth in part because their assumptions incorporated a 1970s nostalgia that treated culture the same way that Americans have always regarded race.
As a result, the demographers didn't properly take into account assimilation and its effect on fertility across generations of immigrants. As with previous newcomers, today's second generation tends to have fewer children than the first, and the third fewer still.
Americans traditionally considered race as unchangeable and biologically determined. Culture and ethnicity, by contrast, were seen as less innate and more malleable; they changed and adapted over time. Though it was scandalous for a black man to "pass" for white, it was always more acceptable for a Jew to pass for a WASP (think Ralph Lauren) or a Mexican to identify herself as Italian or Spanish (think New Mexico).
Incorporating this idea into its questions, the Census Bureau asked Americans about their parents' place of birth. This allowed analysts to sort the data across at least three generations. The first generation reported being foreign-born, the second native-born to foreign-born parents and the third and beyond were native-born to native-born parents.
In 1970, ancestry replaced parent's place of birth in the bureau's decennial questionnaire. This shift was a product of the times. Only 5% of the U.S. population was foreign-born then, the lowest percentage in American history.
Many latter-generation Americans felt alienated from their ethnic roots; others reacted to the emergence of black nationalism. The new ideology of multiculturalism attracted them. Though many of its adherents were thoroughly assimilated, an increasing number of Americans of all backgrounds came to see the U.S. as less of a melting pot and more of a confederation of permanently separate races, ethnicities and cultures.
Multiculturalism emphasized and celebrated cultural continuity across generations. It preached that a third-generation Japanese American had more in common with his foreign-born grandmother than with his fifth-generation Polish American neighbor.
Assimilation was a dirty word in such a scheme. It was viewed as necessarily coercive rather than as a process by which people of diverse origins gradually achieved a "cultural solidarity sufficient at least to sustain a national existence," as sociologist Robert E. Park wrote in the 1930s. Because assimilation was said to promote ethnic self-hatred and homogenization, it was assumed that if immigrants were not forced to assimilate, they wouldn't.
For African Americans, railing against assimilation was another way to reject a mainstream culture that had long rejected them. But for many whites and Mexican Americans -- there was no such thing as a Latino in 1970 -- the driving force behind their rebuff of assimilation was nostalgia.
The typical white American was several generations removed from the immigrant experience. The majority of Mexican Americans were at least third generation. Multiculturalism and its sentimental emphasis on cultural continuity allowed these latter-generation Americans to reclaim a culture, and sometimes an identity, they felt had slipped through their fingers. Highly assimilated, English-dominant Mexican Americans could reclaim a strong Mexican identity. A sixth-generation white suburbanite of mixed European ancestry could call herself Irish and thus enjoy a sense of intimacy that whiteness never bestowed.
Ironically, just as the U.S. was about to receive one of the largest immigrant waves in its history, Americans began to view ethnicity and culture in terms of preservation rather than change.
Multiculturalism did allow contemporary immigrants the space to retain and adapt new and old behaviors and styles as they wished. One result was that the nation became more comfortable with cultural differences. Gone were the days when the children of immigrants were punished for uttering a foreign language in school. The sometimes humiliating Americanization programs of the 1910s and 1920s were no more than bad memories.
But over time, multiculturalism also kept us from understanding how the United States was changing. The celebration of difference hasn't allow us to see how immigrant and the majority cultures so often influence each other and converge.