Commentary: U.S. demographics are shifting but we're all Americans

The Sacramento BeeMay 22, 2012 

The U.S. Census Bureau says I won't be a minority in California within three years, if not sooner. It also said last week that for the first time in American history, minority births have surpassed white births.

"The United States has reached a historic tipping point – with Latino, Asian, mixed-race and African American births constituting a majority of births for the first time," wrote the Associated Press.

"Minorities made up about 2 million, or 50.4 percent, of the births in the 12-month period ending July 2011, enough to create the milestone."

I've been waiting for this day for years. Truth be told, I turned my back on the "minority" distinction a long time ago and buried years of negative emotion in the process.

I'm a proud American today, but I got to that place via a different route from the graying baby boomers who would fear the implications of last week's census news.

Fear not. My generation assimilated, and the next one will as well.

When those historic babies come of age, I would tell them they were lucky to have avoided that whole minority trap.

I wish I had. But as a Californian born in the early 1960s to Mexican parents, I was part of a generation raised in the no-man's land between the eldest boomers and the newborns of today.

Most of my life has been marked by a massive migration of immigrants to the United States in the last 40 years – 12 million people from Mexico alone.

That influx has just ended, but not before inflaming ethnic tensions throughout my lifetime. Some of us remember our elders picketing and boycotting for civil rights.

We grew up on David Carradine playing an Asian man on "Kung Fu" because Bruce Lee was too Asian for the part on 1970s television.

I'm not yet 50 and my own profession was largely integrated during my career. I worked alongside ethnic journalists who were the "first" in their newsrooms, and the stories they told were tough to hear.

Have you ever been called a "minority hire"? I have.

Those terms were hurled in moments of fear and envy over status and stature that was up for grabs. I first heard it when I was a college student in the 1980s, which figures. Affirmative action in education, along with immigration, have been the roiling issues of my adult life.

I've covered them for The Bee, which became diverse as a newsroom only in the last 20 years.

And oh boy, that was not easy.

Some animosities were never reconciled, but some were. I should emphasize that I was neither a victim nor blameless along the way.

I simply bought into the "minority" thing until one day I stopped subscribing to what others thought and said, and to the labels and distinctions that I hope will be fully irrelevant by the end of my life.

When I write about these issues, the online comments can be very caustic from some – but that's OK. It's taken me this long to appreciate how the wave of immigrants of the last 40 years shook up the landscape and scared a lot of people in the process.

That fear had spawned angry words and wedge politics, such as the draconian immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama.

In California, it created Propositions 187 and 209, which attacked undocumented immigrants and affirmative action, respectively.

The changing demographics fuel those who claim America is in decline.

It's not. The babies of today and of the near future will grow up in families already bringing vitality and optimism to their country – our country.

You see it in the bustling businesses in Sacramento's Little Saigon. You see it in promising young leaders, such as Woodland Mayor Artemio Pimentel, the son of farmworkers supported by a broad coalition of Democrats and Republicans.

I've stood before the future of our country, and it is hopeful.

Earlier this year, I was honored to be the guest speaker at a massive swearing-in ceremony of new U.S. citizens at the Memorial Auditorium in downtown Sacramento.

The old, ornate theater was packed to the rafters that day with new Americans, and their hopeful faces spoke to the profound assimilation of many world cultures into one American culture.

They were so excited. They weren't here to alter America, but to be a part of it. They weren't minorities. They were the future.

In that moment, four words I'd heard all my life suddenly became real: one nation under God.

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