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Monday, Aug. 30, 2004


Fear of cultural decline: the next chapter

NEW YORK -- Every August my wife Nancy and I leave New York to go south to spend two weeks at a friend's summer house at Sunset Beach, North Carolina. Driving leisurely, mainly so we can ride ferries on Delaware Bay and on Pamlico Sound, we stop for two nights on the way, usually lodging in Onley, Virginia, and Beaufort, North Carolina.

In Onley a few years back, I saw in the parking lot of a modest strip mall something I had not seen before: groups of Hispanics with pickup trucks and vans. Straddling Route 13 at about the midpoint of the Virginia end of the Delaware Peninsula, Onley looks like a typical pit stop -- a congregation of buildings slapped together to service highway users like us. The buildings in fact form a new part of a fairly old town, as I found out by taking a morning walk from our motel, as I do every time we stop there.

The town is not dying. The surprisingly detailed Internet bulletin on it says its population increased between 2000 and 2002, though by just one person: from 496 to 497. In the last few years, indeed, I saw one abandoned house slowly renovated, one overgrown garden gradually cleared.

A longtime resident of New York City where now nearly 30 percent of the population is Hispanic, I was nonetheless surprised at what struck me as a sudden advent of Hispanics in a small Virginia town. When I told Nancy this, she observed that the Sunset Beach mall now houses a Mexican restaurant and that the supermarket there boasts a Mexican corner, which sells rice, chili and other spices, cornmeal, oil and Mexican beer.

Intrigued, I checked and found that one piece of news that came out of the Census Bureau in the fall of 2003 was that the region including Virginia and North Carolina saw the greatest increase in the Hispanic population -- a whopping 18 percent from 2000 to 2002. During the same period, the overall U.S. population increased by less than 2.5 percent.

It then occurred to me that the news was in the air for some time that Hispanics are now the largest minority in the United States. In April 2000, they made up 12.6 percent of the population while blacks made up 12.7 percent. By July 2002, though, the percentage points were 13.7 vs. 12.8, a clear reversal.

In Georgia, the state that saw the largest increase in the two years, such a reversal between Hispanics (6 percent) and blacks (28 percent) is still far off. But if you turn to the Southwest and look at New Mexico, for example, you see that Hispanics account for 43 percent of the state's population and are ready to overtake whites.

One result of these developments has been the rapid diminishing of whites' dominance in American society -- a trend accelerated by increases in immigration from other parts of the world, especially Asia. Only about a dozen years ago, in 1990, whites accounted for three-fourths of the American population. Today they are down to two-thirds.

This turn of events has inevitably created anxiety among some Americans. The latest to express it is Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor who became known worldwide with his 1996 book that is said to have aided and abetted the global sense of "them vs. us": "The Clash of Civilizations."

In his new book, "Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity" (2004), he turns domestic and warns against the decline of America's "Anglo-Protestant culture and political values." The source of his fear is Hispanics, particularly Mexicans who make up the majority among the group. "Mexican immigration is leading toward the demographic reconquista of areas that America took from Mexico by force in the 1830s and 1840s," he asserts.

By "demographic reconquista," Huntington means a creation within the U.S. of "a culturally bifurcated Anglo-Hispanic society with two national languages" (English and Spanish). You can read this part of his argument on the Internet in "The Hispanic Challenge," which was published in the magazine he founded, Foreign Policy (March/April 2004), as the book appeared.

Whether this is the fate that awaits the U.S. and whether that eventuality is good or bad if it ever comes to pass, I am in no position to say. But Huntington surely overworks "America's core culture."

As Andrew Hacker, a Queens College political scientist, notes in The New York Review of Books (June 24, 2004), one may question whether American culture has been so insistently "Anglo-Protestant" from the outset.

More to the point, if you extend the definition of "American culture" to include "Western culture," as Huntington seems compelled to do at times, then his hand-wringing about the potential reconquista is driven, it must be said, by a phantom.

As Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard, wryly points out in dissecting his colleague's book in The New Yorker (May 17, 2004), "Hispanic-American culture, after all, is a culture derived largely from Spain, which, the last time anyone checked, was in Europe."

The American anxiety about new immigrants dates from pre-independence days. It began with, shall we say, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), who, in 1750, hurtled these words against those from Germany: "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?"

At the time, Germans, "the Saxons only excepted," were, like most Europeans, thought of as "tawny" or "swarthy," a skin color characteristic of "Palatine Boors."

The infamous condemnation of Irish immigrants began a few decades later and lasted long, as Susan Orlean has recently reminded us in "The Outsiders," her essay on South Boston in The New Yorker (July 26, 2004). The hostility against Hispanics is only the latest link in the long chain of fear and antagonism against new arrivals.

The category "Hispanic" in the U.S. itself is new. The Census Bureau adopted the term, mainly meaning "U.S. residents of Latin American extraction," only in 1980 and even then combined it with "Spanish." Before that time, "Hispanic" meant "of Spain or Portugal."

In the 2000 Census survey asking Americans to identify a single ancestral country, less than 12 percent of those who responded to the query cited England, in contrast to, say, the 21 percent who cited Germany. These are the figures Hacker gives by way of discussing Huntington's porous polemic, "Who Are We?"

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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