A melting pot big enough to take the world and all it's got
At some point in the 1990s, a supposedly alarming headline appeared in the often-illiberal London Evening Standard. The paper reported that, if demographic trends continued, white Americans would soon become a minority “in their own country”.
It’s hard to know where to begin when unpicking the ethical and logical infelicities of that phrase. If the United States “belongs” to any one people then it is to the Native American nations who were so unceremoniously disenfranchised by a tide of Europeans thugs.
There isn’t much chance of the Sioux and the Apache regaining control of North America. It is, thus, reasonable to accept that no one race deserves the right to keep its collective fist on the nation’s tiller.
Belated confirmation of the Standard’s doomsday scenario arrived this week with a new projection from the US Census Bureau. It seems as if poor wee white Americans will, by 2043, cease to enjoy majority status. The demographics are complex. The rate of immigration from Spanish-speaking nations has declined, but a higher birth rate among that sector ensures an eventual slide into minority for white folk.
Meanwhile, the UK census has revealed interesting facts about the racial and religious make-up of that country. As we have come to expect, those hilarious cards who fill in “Jedi” under faith have, once again, helped the intergalactic belief system to a position as the most-popular alternative faith. (Given that the United Kingdom has an established church, surely all other religions count as “alternatives”. Just a thought.)
Four million fewer identify themselves as Christians than did so 10 years ago. In Northern Ireland, the Protestant population has dipped below 50 per cent.
The most diverting statistics are, however, those relating to immigration. As many as one in eight people living in England and Wales were born outside those countries. India, Poland and Pakistan gave Britain the greatest number of new residents over the last decade.
In the Republic, the people of Poland are also making an impact. Our last census suggested about 767,000 people currently in the country were born elsewhere. The largest rise was from that admirable east European country.
Something interesting is happening to the democratic west. The changes have been under way for quite some time. Forty-four years have passed since Enoch Powell kicked up hysteria about immigration by disingenuously suggesting black children were pushing dog poo through letter boxes in the English west midlands.
That “rivers of blood” speech was delivered a full two decades after the Empire Windrush delivered 493 West Indian immigrants to Tilbury docks. Jews, Normans, Saxons, Africans and Dutch people have been inserting themselves into British society for centuries.
The history and prehistory of the US is a tale of colonisation and immigration. To discuss that country without discussing its racial make-up would be akin to pondering Venice without mention of water.
Myth of indigenous purity
Until relatively recently, however, a messily defined prime sect could claim hegemony in most western nations. All nationalities are mongrels. All of us are – if you go back through sufficient epochs – essentially Africans. But there were enough people who looked the same and spoke the same to allow the myth of indigenous purity to thrive.
No nation, however liberal or decent, was exempt from a belief that one sort of person, with one sort of culture, connected better than any other with the relevant land mass.
Obviously you’d expect a romantic colonialist such as Powell to favour a white, English-speaking, tea-drinking majority in the UK. Right-wing sheriffs in flyblown southern US states are sure to prefer their presidents and sons-in-law to be Caucasian.
Postcolonial states are, however, just as keen on defining nationality within their own borders. Just recall all that Celtic Twilight baloney at the start of the last century. Being Irish had to do with turning into swans, playing games with curved sticks and dancing rudely at windy crossroads.
So-called “national” culture is, of course, worth heeding and preserving. Nobody wants the English to stop watching Punch and Judy shows, fancying pigeons or collecting matchbook covers. We should still stage those awful early WB Yeats plays from time to time.
But the increasing diversity of Irish, British and American society requires us to re-examine unimaginative, outmoded notions of what it means to be a citizen of those nations.
Demographics will, most likely, do the job for us anyway. Interracial marriage has doubled in the US over the past 30 years. Young people in Los Angeles, London and Dublin are increasingly unconcerned about diluting any supposed racial identity. For decades, the soundtrack of young white lives has been derived from music of the African plains and the American slave plantations.
It sounds complicated. But it couldn’t be simpler. To be Irish is to live in Ireland. To be British is to live in Britain. Can we all just get along now?