A Nation of Minorities

Sitting in the waiting lounge of the airport in Lincoln, Nebraska, I watched a tall, slim little girl of about fourteen and her younger brother walk down the hall with great energy. I surmised they were Somali.

Moments later, a woman in a long, white African dress, her head wrapped as many Somali women entered and followed the children to the waiting area. My musings aside, an African family greeting an arriving passenger in Lincoln is not even cause for notice. Even here in the heartland, we are a nation of diversity, a fact that we sometimes forget and something major media often overlook as they picture us as mostly white of Euro or Nordic stock.

However, the news that the U.S. in 2010 is a nation with no majority confirms our diversity and raises many interesting questions. It may also provide insight into some of the current swirling divisions that leave us so conflicted, immigration being one of the most contentious.

The presumptive image of the country as mostly WASP may linger with the visibility of  the Boomers but a growing population of children and youth who are ethnically diverse has already changed us. We just haven’t quite fully comprehended what’s happened, nor the implications for the future.

Whether mainstream institutions (at least what we used to call mainstream) such as mainline religious denominations and mass membership organizations such as service clubs populated by the old majority can stand remains to be seen.  The development of ethnically diverse congregations has lagged behind the population shift in part due to cultural, language, economic and class differences.

Facing changes in youth culture, mainline groups haven’t been able to attract and keep their own young people, so the changes necessary to be hospitable and welcoming to people who come from different cultures and speak different languages will prove no less difficult.

Beyond cultural differences, a deeper challenge is embedded in the demographic changes we’re going through. The Census Bureau analysis of the population makes a case that change is coming “from the ground up.” By this the demographers mean the changes are occurring because young couples are having more children. Thus, the population changes are not the result of immigration, they’re from propagation. This is home grown diversity. It isn’t an immigrantion issue.

It does raise challenges we’re not giving much thought. We’re challenged to think seriously about quality public education for all children, now more than ever. We’re challenged to consider our attitudes toward national identity in a globally interconnected world. Those nations that effectively adapt, incorporate diversity and understand global connection will be better situated to play a role in shaping the world to come rather than merely reacting to what comes from elsewhere.

And those of the former majority are challenged to overcome fear of new people who have different cultural practices, language, dress and ways of doing things. This will require developing the capacity to be comfortable in a multicultural world.

This is already happening, of course, but it’s also true that cleavages and conflict plague progress toward an inclusive society. The immigration debate about border control is the most contentious example. But there’s also the English-only movement and the long-simmering issue of white privilege that some deny and others claim still afflicts relations between blacks and whites.

Even more deeply embedded in this change is something we just don’t like to talk about in the U.S.–class differences based in part on economics. The widening gap between rich and poor is far deeper than multiculturalism.

In fact, elites from every ethnic and language group may share more in common with each other than they share with the poor from within their own ethnic heritage. In the past several years, an affluent, elite global class has developed that enjoys wealth and privilege quite apart from the day-to-day struggle of working people and the poor within their own ethnic and language groups.

This cleavage isn’t addressed by the Census Bureau study, but it is the one with the most potential for social harm and long-term damage to social progress and harmony. If the mainline churches were to address the justice issues inherent in this challenge, they would be tackling one of the foremost issues at the root of the changing demographic landscape.

Whether they can do it and survive is altogether another question. But it may be the most important question they face.

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