The fate of the West in the 21st century may depend on how well its nations integrate ambitious people from the rest of the world into its fold. No advanced Western country—not even America—produces enough children to keep itself from becoming a granny nation by 2050. So unless indigenous birth rates rise beyond pattern and probability, only immigration—and the industry and energy these newcomers and their children bring—can provide the spark to keep Western societies vital and growing.
We see the dynamism of immigrant culture already before our eyes. Many of the most bustling sections of Western cities today, from Belleville in Paris to the revived communities along the 7 train in Queens, are precisely those dominated by immigrant enterprise. Sergio Muñoz, a Mexican journalist and a long-time resident of Los Angeles, calls what is happening in these and so many other places “the multiculturalism of the streets.” These are the true laboratories of successful ethnic integration—a form of multiculturalism that takes place through face-to-face contact, informal cultural exchange and, above all, capitalist commerce.
This “multiculturalism of the streets” differs enormously from the political variety of multiculturalism taught in ethnic studies programs or embraced by governments in racial quotas and “official” Islamic councils. It is also very different from the futile French cult of enforced secularism, which denies ethnic differences and bans individual expression such as the cross, kippah or headscarf. Whenever multiculturalism is formally enforced or officially banned, it distorts natural impulses to ethnic association and invariably causes problems. This is particularly true when the chance to operate a street-level economy is stifled by state intervention—through taxes, labor regulations, certifications—as it is in much of western Europe.
Here in America, as well, we have distorted the benign multiculturalism of the streets in other ways, through militant ethnic studies programs at many American universities, racial quotas and sectarian politics, all of which are associated with the Left and with parts of the Democratic Party. The cadences of America’s culture wars being what they are, such manifestations of institutional multiculturalism have evoked dire warnings from the Right about the dangers to national unity posed by our increasingly diverse population. These concerns, raised in works such as Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? and Victor Davis Hanson’s Mexifornia, focus primarily on ideological and linguistic perspectives. Huntington worries about the future of Anglo-Saxon democracy and fears that our newcomers—whom he calls ominously a “migrant tide”—will become part of “a continuous Mexican society from the Yucatan to Colorado.” Hanson focuses largely on the Hispanic population in places like his rural homeland near Fresno, California. He plays back the pronunciamentos of some Latino politicians, academics and student activists who advocate a separate Spanish-language quasi-state in the American Southwest. Like Huntington, Hanson fears that the rise of a primarily Spanish-language Mexifornia will infect America with the often dysfunctional social, political and cultural patterns of Latin America.
These concerns are not frivolous, particularly in reference to illegal immigration, but they do seem exaggerated. The rural Central Valley near Fresno has long been a center of backwardness, poor schools and social dysfunction. Parts of it resemble Mexico more than they do the modern United States, and integration there may continue to prove difficult. Yet the Hispanic population of the rural Valley constitutes less than a tenth of the overall Latino presence in California, which clusters in large cities and suburbs where mixing is much easier and far more common.
Huntington and Hanson are also correct about the need to bolster the Anglo-Saxon political heritage against the depredations of leftist intellectuals, Latino or otherwise. Yet there is little evidence that Mexican-Americans as a whole have bought into campus-minted separatist notions. Latinos represent a growing proportion of the U.S. military—hardly a sign of disaffection from the national culture. And while Huntington and Hanson are right, as well, that many recent arrivals have primary loyalty to another country and culture and plan to return home, this is nothing new. So it was in the 19th century, too, when many British, Italian and Greek immigrants ultimately returned home. The difference is that immigrants today are far less likely to return to their native countries after sojourning here.
Most important, we must not confuse the intellectual emanations of our culture wars for real life. The sights, smells and sounds of the street are not sources of national disunion today any more than they were a century ago. In 1907, after a long voluntary exile in Europe, Henry James complained bitterly about his “sense of dispossession” as he walked down the streets of American cities. He particularly disliked the guttural tones and business methods of the Jews who crowded New York, Boston and other East Coast urban areas.
Yet the Jews, Italians, Irish and other migrants so detested by James later became the parents of a whole generation of great American writers, as well as some of the nation’s leading politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists and soldiers—not to mention its solid, ordinary blue-collar families. If we look at today’s new Americans, we see the same pattern. Recently-arrived Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans and others—and more so their children—integrate into American life, adding in due course their customs, cuisine and bits of language to it. And as before, some longer-established Americans fret that they will not.
Immigrants and the Marketplace
The best way to see this ongoing process is by checking out the streets of Houston, Los Angeles or New York—the great immigrant portals of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Among the people working there, concepts such as “ethnic solidarity”, “people of color” or “cultural community” generally count for less than basic principles such as “Does this sell?”, “What’s my market?”, and ultimately, “How do I fit in?”
Of course, for many immigrants their own ethnic group provides the ideal starting point for integration into America. Immigrants have always tended to cluster together, service each other and find unique economic niches. They have done so not mainly for reasons of ideology or ethno-political solidarity, however, but simply because it has provided the most obvious and immediate means of making a living. In the 20th-century American city, this pattern was manifest in ethnic enclaves—Jewish, Chinese, Polish, Greek, Italian—that were in many ways self-sufficient. Immigrant businessmen thrived by providing groceries, insurance, banking and mortuary services to their compatriots. Before long, each group carved out its own economic niche—Jews in the garment industry, Chinese laundries, Greeks diners, Italians greengrocers and so on—which could be marketed to the rest of the society. To some extent, these specializations persisted over generations, and some still exist today. Some “ethnic” businesses, too, expanded well beyond their ethnic niches—A. P. Giannini’s Bank of America and Jewish-owned department stores such as Bloomingdale’s in New York or Gottschalks in California’s Central Valley are classic examples.
Today a similar pattern is emerging among newer immigrant communities—but with some notable differences and innovations. One of those differences is sheer scale. Nearly two million people a year move from China, India, Mexico and other developing countries to the “First World”, and roughly half end up in the United States. The number of new migrants to the United States more than doubled between 1980 and 2000. Recent immigrants and their children account for almost sixty million people, the largest number in the nation’s history and roughly one-fifth of the nation’s population. Although some of these newcomers have come from Europe, about 85 percent have come from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Asian and Latino immigrants have revived old patterns of specialized ethnic economic niches. Recently arrived South Asians, for example, have specialized in the hospitality industry, Koreans in green groceries, Vietnamese in nail parlors and Cambodian Chinese in the doughnut business. These and other immigrant businesses are increasingly critical to the health of our economy, particularly in urban centers. According to a recent report by Harvard’s Michael Porter, they are one of the few sources of positive job growth for cities, and have been most notable in such immigrant-rich places as Jersey City, New Jersey and Long Beach, California.
What is also different today from earlier epochs is the intense interest of mainstream businesses in recently-founded ethnic communities. Today even the largest, most “whitebread” corporations focus heavily on emerging ethnic markets. Thomas Tseng, co-founder of New American Dimensions, a Los Angeles-based market research firm, notes that General Motors and Kraft see emerging ethnic markets as a huge potential source of growth, particularly with the slowing rate of population growth among native-born Anglos. “A lot of people are still eyeing the immigrant population, but as you look at the future, it’s the young people who are coming up. That is really the big number—the U.S.-born children of immigrants”, Tseng notes. “They are targeted not just in Spanish or Mandarin, but also in English. This is the future market.”
These assertions are supported by some arresting statistics. Between 1990 and 2001, the buying power of Asians grew by 124 percent, almost twice the rate for white consumers. African-American spending grew by 84 percent, and among Latinos, whose numbers grew by almost 50 percent in the 1990s, spending increased by 118 percent. Taken together, minority purchases exploded from slightly more than $600 billion in 1990 to well more than $1 trillion a decade later.
Given the rapid growth of minority populations, particularly Asian and Latino, minority buying power is expected to top $2.5 trillion by the end of this decade. This will represent almost one out of every four dollars in total U.S. consumer spending. The rise of this market represents arguably the greatest force for ethnic integration in the first decades of this century.
Immigrants not only enlarge but also reshape the economy. With increased access to capital and education, immigrant businesses are growing rapidly. By the mid-1990s, Latino-owned businesses were expanding at four times the rate of Anglo ones. Between 1992 and 1999, for example, the number of Latino-owned companies in Los Angeles County expanded from 177,000 to 440,000. Some of the highest rates of entrepreneurship in America are found among other immigrant groups, notably people from the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and Korea.
Thanks to modern marketing technologies and techniques, many of these businesses can now rapidly penetrate mainstream markets. Perhaps nothing illustrates these changes more vividly than shifts in the fast food business. In the old ethnic paradigm, ethnics—think of Italians and pizza—cooked their local foods first for their own compatriots, and only gradually marketed them to the general population over a generation or two. At the same time, ethnics, and particularly their children, acclimated to “American fare”—in other words, they dragged their folks to White Castles and, later, McDonald’s.
Today the shift from niche to mainstream tastes evolves more quickly. The fast food industry—an invention of mainstream American burger-and-fries culture—has been mastered by ethnic businesses ranging from El Pollo Loco to Baja Fresh to Pollo Compero (a chain from Guatemala). Chinese food has begun to follow this pattern as well. In the past, notes University of North Carolina historian Donna Gabaccia, Chinese cuisine was relatively difficult to mass market compared to most ethnic foods. Although individually-owned Chinese restaurants were among the first to bring fast-order and takeout to the marketplace, the complexity of making Chinese food made it less amenable to standardized production. Yet in recent years even this market has been opened by entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on Asian food’s growing popularity.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous among Chinese fast food start-ups is Panda Express, a California-based chain that hopes to become the Starbucks of Chinese food. Founders Peggy and Andrew Cherng were brought up in Guangzhou, then Hong Kong and Taiwan, and then went to Kansas to study mathematics before settling down in the San Gabriel Valley. In 1973, they opened their first restaurant in Pasadena. Panda Express was born in 1982, and it produces Chinese food the way McDonald’s makes hamburgers, Starbucks does coffee and Wal-Mart sells just about everything else.
Panda Express is not quite McDonald’s or Starbucks, but with more than six hundred stores, it has established itself as the leader in mass-produced Chinese food. The Cherngs’ immodest goal is to build ten thousand stores. Says Andrew Cherng, that’s “just twenty percent growth for the next twenty years. For every hamburger place, I want at least one Panda Express.” The biggest challenge, he believes, is not selling to non-Asians, but building up his firm with primarily non-Asian personnel. Many of the trainees start learning about the company in Spanish, since most don’t speak English any better than they speak Chinese. “The key is people, to get non-Chinese to work and cook like Chinese”, he suggests. But in America anything is possible, even Spanish-speaking Americans who become expert Chinese cooks.
The Post-Ethnic Future
Panda Express’ drive to become the next Starbucks or McDonald’s reflects how the multiculturalism of the streets shifts American culture through the marketplace. As Chinese food moves from the odd shop to the mall, it becomes more a part of American culture. This process is being accelerated, too, by geographic trends, not least the movement of more immigrants—now a majority of them—into the suburbs. Even as many inner city areas remain deeply segregated, some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country are evolving in the peripheries of cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, Washington and New York. Mixed-race neighborhoods are growing all around the country, but most markedly in the once lily-white suburbs where minorities now constitute 27 percent of the population.
Equally important, once distinct geographic regions in which immigrants settled have changed, as many have moved to places, notably the Southeast and the Great Plains, previously home to only a handful of relatively recent immigrants. Today some of the fastest growing immigrant destinations in America are places like Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Las Vegas and Orlando.
This churning of the American population will accelerate the nation’s shift away from ethnic enclaves. As kids grow up in mixed-race suburbs and experience diversity at both school and the mall, they will create what, for lack of a better word, is a “blended” ethnic culture. As Thomas Tseng suggests, young people of all ethnicities choose from a similar menu of music, food and cultural-lifestyle choices. “People are divided not by race so much as by their preferences”, says Tseng. “You are less an African-American or a Latino than someone who is a rocker, a pop music fan or a hip-hop person.”
This trend toward less racially distinct identities has been greatly accelerated among second- and third-generation Latinos and Asians, whose levels of intermarriage reach as high as 30-40 percent. Already more than 2.5 percent of Americans are of mixed race, and this percentage grows significantly among people under 18 in California, the rest of the West Coast and the New York City area.
Linguistic trends show a similar trajectory. Despite fears of an emerging Babel, Latinos and Asians are becoming ever more English-dominant. Ninety percent of Latino high school graduates prefer to speak English over Spanish. This is largely a matter of generational change. The Spanish-dominant first generation is becoming a progressively smaller percentage of the Latino population. By 2040 the second generation is expected to double while the third generation, the vast majority of whom speak no Spanish at all, will expand threefold. As a result, English-dominant Hispanics, who already account for some three-fifths of Latino spending power, will become the prime “ethnic” market. “The second generation will change everything”, Tseng observes. “The whole idea of ethnic marketing will change and have to focus on cross-ethnic pollination and lifestyle issues.”
Latinos, with their tradition as mestizos—people of mixed race—will prove the most critical factor in creating a blended culture in 21st-century America. Most Latinos consider themselves white, although distinct from mainstream whites. Their children, who now account for roughly one in five babies born in the country, mix broadly with other elements of the ethnic stew, and they communicate overwhelmingly in English. “There’s no identifiable group of kids anymore”, notes Houston architect Tim Cisneros. “One of my daughters listens to hip hop, belongs to the Asian engineering society and has a crush on a black guy—and she’s Hispanic.”
This new ethnic stew will create opportunities for new kinds of products and services. Although the millions of first-generation Asian and Latino immigrants guarantee a boom market for “enclave” oriented services, the longer range future can already be identified in the current proliferation of new “fusion” salsa clubs and fashion designs that reflect Latino, Asian or African-American influences.
Culturally-oriented industries may be first to spot the trend. Already, long dominant Spanish language radio stations in Los Angeles are losing out to rock-oriented English-language stations that appeal to Latino youths. Spanish language theaters have been going out of business all over southern California, in large part because youthful moviegoers prefer English. Even Hollywood, not the swiftest to pick up new cultural trends, is increasingly using ethnic flavors to approach a mass audience. The increased crossover power of Latin music from the niche to a more mainstream form of entertainment—epitomized by singers like Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias—suggests the trend.
Movies and television will be next, insists Deborah Franco, president of Elysian Films, an L.A.-based production company that sells Latin-themed programming to major distributors like Dreamworks. “People are getting to see that Latin culture is not just a niche Spanish thing”, explains Franco, a bilingual Latina from Kansas City. “The future of Latino dramas and music are not a Mexican or Cuban thing; it is an American thing that will appeal to mainstream audiences as well.” The former singer says she has a contract with Dreamworks to develop five one-hour dramas and half-hour comedies:
It’s mass market. It’s “Ally McBeal” with a Latino lead. It’s about a young Latina from Glendale and her experience with college. It’s “X-Files” on the border. It’s not Spanish speaking, it’s not La Familia. It’s America, but seen through the eyes of Latinos who have grown up in America.
Franco is speaking not about a Latino culture but a fundamentally American one. To be sure, this culture fusion will not please some conservative intellectuals, who will not look kindly on the incorporation of Spanishisms into our daily language any more than the rising popularity of Yiddish words appealed to Henry James a century ago. For the most part, however, this informal, undirected and mostly market-driven form of integration bodes very well for the continued dynamism of both American culture and economy. It guarantees that America will remain youthful, changeable and, very likely, strongly family-oriented. And it points to a major difference within the civilizational West—for most European countries have yet to figure out how to blend and thrive as has the United States.
Contrary to the concerns of some conservative critics, or the hopes of P.C. campus radicals, the emerging American national reality will not be shaped by the pronouncements of either left-wing academics or conservative political warlords. The new America will be more the product of the street-level trends that operate below the radar of intellectuals—just as it always has. If we’re smart, we’ll let what comes most naturally to American society take its course.