E Pluribus Unum, California Style

Thursday, October 30, 2003
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I have a dream that one day Arthur Rosenberg, the Nazi ideologist of racial purity, will be brought back from hell to sit by the path that runs along the foothills above Stanford University. Let him sit there for an hour and watch them all jogging past: the Japanese-American, six feet tall and built like a Texan quarterback, the Hispanic-American, the Iranian-Italian-American, the Scandinavian-Chinese-American, the German-Irish-Indian-American, sporting every shade of skin color and variation of physiognomy, often in quite beautiful combinations. Then let Herr Rosenberg die, again, of shock at this irrevocable confounding of Nazi dreams.

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Californication, to steal a phrase from the rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers, is perhaps the ultimate answer to the problem of racial difference. If men and women were consistently to pay no regard at all to race or ethnicity when they chose whom they wanted to have children with, and those children and their children's children were to continue in the same way, you would eventually reach the point where the premises not just of racial stereotyping but also of affirmative action and "ethnic" quotas would be undermined. Your census answer to the question "ethnic group?" would read simply "human."

This experiment in becoming simply human is currently most advanced in the relatively prosperous, liberal democratic immigrant societies of the Anglosphere: Australia, Canada, the United States, and Britain. It looks so easy—just take one man and one woman and mix—but the conditions, cultural, social, economic, and political, that allow these young combo-Californians to emerge are actually complex, delicate, and demanding. Even here, in one of the most privileged corners of one of the richest and most naturally blessed states of one of the most open and free countries on earth, the process is recent, tense, and contested.

"America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming," wrote the Russian-Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill in 1908. But it was, precisely, the races of Europe that he saw melting together. As my Oxford colleague Desmond King shows in his splendid book Making Americans, the United States' 1924 Immigration Act imposed quotas that perpetuated the preponderance of white European immigrants. Only since that provision was finally revoked in 1965 have the millions of new Americans come in from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In 1960, just 16 million Americans did not trace their ancestry to Europe; now it's 80 million. When Richard Nixon became president in 1969 there were only some 9 million people in America who had been born abroad; now there are at least 30 million. Roughly one in every four of today's Californians was born outside the United States. And they come from everywhere. If you look down the line of checkout assistants at Safeway or Fry's Electronics, all the peoples of the earth seem to be represented—and they all say "Have a nice day."

Moreover, it was only in the 1960s that African-Americans ceased to be routinely discriminated against in law in many parts of the United States. Attending a concert by the great jazz pianist Harold Maburn, it suddenly hit me that this brilliant and hugely dignified musician must have spent his youth, in Memphis, Tennessee, being categorized as an inferior human being. Condoleezza Rice, the United States' first ever African-American national security adviser, recently recalled before a gathering of black journalists how a childhood friend of hers, Denise McNair, was killed in the notorious racist bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

What one might call the great mixing is a product of the last 40 years. Race is still a source of the most electric tension in the United States. Until Arnold Schwarzenegger—himself a first-generation immigrant—filed his papers to run for governor of California, the lead story on the television here (vying occasionally with Iraq) was the suit for alleged rape filed by a white woman against the black basketball hero Kobe Bryant. According to a CNN/Gallup poll, 68 percent of black Americans asked thought the charge was false, compared with only half of white Americans; 68 percent of black respondents said they were "sympathetic" to Bryant, against only 40 percent of white. Recently racist fliers were distributed by a white supremacist group in the town where he is due to go on trial. The fliers were reportedly headlined "Don't have sex with blacks."

The great mixing is recent, tense—and contested. The right-wing American nationalist Pat Buchanan has recently out-Spenglered Oswald Spengler (author of The Decline of the West) by publishing a book entitled The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization. Immigrant invasions! Adducing some of the statistics that I have just mentioned, Buchanan cries, "If Americans wish to preserve their civilization and culture, American women must have more children." So, all ye Daughters of the American Revolution, lie back and think of America.

Alternatively, one could hope that Californication works: that large numbers of people of immensely diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds really can mix and blend while yet retaining a sufficiently common civic culture for America to survive as a free, democratic, and self-confident nation. No one has ever done it before: not in America, not in Australia, not in Canada, let alone anywhere in Europe. Zangwill's melting pot "melted and reformed," to the extent that it ever did, because there was a powerful and attractive Anglophone culture, to which the incoming, largely European minorities adapted. As an astute columnist once remarked, there were not just Wasps—White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—but also Casps (Catholic Anglo-Saxon Protestants), Jasps (Jewish Anglo-Saxon Protestants), and Basps (Black Anglo-Saxon Protestants). No longer. The incoming numbers are too large and diverse, the Wasp role model too contested.

The other day, I walked into the Stanford students' union foyer just as an Islamic prayer meeting was dispersing. The young women all wore head scarves, but if you had only heard a tape recording of their conversations at parting you would not have been able to distinguish them, by accent, vocabulary, or tone ("OK guys, like, whatever") from any other American students. If there is a society on earth that can still perform the extraordinary feat of forging some sort of unity out of such diversity—e pluribus unum, as the coins say—it is America.

Who, besides the Americans themselves, has the greatest stake in their succeeding? We Europeans do. Look at the demographic map of the world, and you will see one continent above all that needs either a massive baby boom or large-scale immigration to sustain its aging population. That continent is Europe. Much of our immigration is likely to come from the Muslim world. In theory, it should be easier for Turks, Moroccans, Algerians, and Pakistanis to feel at home in Europe than in America because Europe is just a loose, diverse continent rather than a single nation. In practice, it's the other way round. So we should learn from the Americans. What Europe needs is more Californication.