The image from the TikTok video said it all.
A smiling Suni Lee, holding up her Olympic gold medal as the best female gymnast, with the background showing a partially eaten pizza in a cardboard delivery box.
Lee is the daughter of immigrants who fled Laos for the United States during the Vietnam War. But she is fully embedded in mainstream American culture—social media, sports and pizza, which is itself a product of an earlier generation of immigrants to this land.
Immigration has been one of the most polarizing political issues in the United States over the past 20 years.
Turns out, however, that much of the controversy has been stirred up by faulty government data—causing Americans to tell themselves false narratives about what immigration is and isn’t changing in American culture. The true picture shows that immigrants today are joining and being included in the broader American culture in much the same way as happened with all previous waves of immigration.
Since 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that the United States would become a “majority minority” country in the relatively near future. That is to say, in roughly the 2040s, white, non-Hispanic residents would be outnumbered by Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. I personally never thought such a future was worrying, since essentially every American is a descendant of immigrants.
Given that reality, I think our approach to immigrants should follow God’s command in Leviticus 19:34: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” However, many Americans worry that much of what they love and find good about American culture would be lost if too many immigrants arrive too fast, without sufficient time for them to join the broader American culture.
But the Census Bureau’s “majority minority” prediction is almost certainly wrong, according to a recent book by Richard Alba, a sociologist at the City University of New York. In The Great Demographic Illusion, published by Princeton University Press, Alba shows that the “majority-minority” narrative is based on government data that fails to recognize that increasing numbers of people born to parents of mixed ethnicities view themselves as white and that mainstream American culture increasingly recognizes them as part of the majority.
In other words, Asian- and Hispanic-Americans are assimilating into American culture—just as Italians, Eastern Europeans, Irish and Germans did in generations past. Alba, the son of Italian immigrants, also documents that assimilation doesn’t mean immigrants or their children are required to erase their ethnic identity. Instead, ethnic identity takes on more of a symbolic importance and ceases to affect the everyday lived experience of people of mixed ethnic backgrounds.
The Census Bureau data doesn’t recognize this reality. Instead, the Census Bureau categorizes as a minority anyone that lists their as ethnicity as white plus a minority category.
“If you’re changing white to nonwhite, there’s a problem,” Alba told the Wall Street Journal. “The surge in mixing across ethno-racial lines is one of the most important and unheralded developments of our time.”
An important caveat is that assimilation in this positive sense isn’t happening as much for people of mixed races. As I pointed out in a previous post, American attitudes toward black-white intermarriage are far more accepting than they were just a few decades ago. But children of black and white parents—such as former President Barack Obama—are still viewed primarily as black—subject to all the problems of racism that still occur.
One more important caveat: Re-examining the Census Bureau data doesn’t mean the frictions due to immigration aren’t real: ethnic enclaves, frustrations due to language barriers, competition for working-class jobs, the sense of threat to the American culture we’ve known. Just changing our view of the “majority-minority” narrative won’t fix those challenges.
But I suspect—and hope—that if immigration stops being a story of cultural and political takeover, it will make immigration seem less threatening to my fellow cultural conservatives: a reality with real but fixable problems, which have been solved during previous waves of immigration. Similarly, I hope liberals recognize that working to unify America’s complex mix of ethnicities is more valuable than emphasizing differences for political gain.
The United States remains a place where immigrants like Suni Lee’s parents want to come and where they and their children can both join and enrich the culture. Sometimes, like Suni Lee, they even win Olympic gold. Certainly, we can all cheer for that.