(This essay was originally published, abridged, as “Changing demographics: The Battle for America’s Story” on February 10, 2018, at thehill.com.)
All great countries, empires, and civilizations have their stories—grand narratives that consist of both truth and myth—which serve as part of the glue which coheres and perpetuates them, along with such factors as race, language, religion, cultural rituals, and significant historical events. However, while founding chapters of a great country’s epic may become fixed with time, the later chapters of the story can never be static; rather, they must change when the country endures a significant historical event or era and also when the country’s demographics change. If the American story is to endure and serve as force of unity, it must change with our changing demographics.
The ancient Greeks had their Iliad and Odyssey, which related the story of the beginnings of ancient Hellas and reflected the aristocratic, heroic values they cherished. These works served as the basis of Greek identity and of their ethical code for a thousand years. Ancient Greece’s story was shaken by the Peloponnesian War, a war lasting 27 years in which—Thucydides tells us—at one time or another just about the entire Greek world was involved.
The ancient Romans had their Aeneid along with their foundation myth of Romulus and Remus, which served to explain the beginnings of the Roman Empire. The magnificent story of the Roman Empire which sprang forth was eventually subverted when the Asiatic and Germanic tribes penetrated its over-extended frontier in the second through fifth centuries. It was also changed decisively when its population turned increasingly toward Christianity. By the end of the 4th century, the emperor declared it the official religion of the empire.
The traditional American epic begins with the age of European exploration and includes as its salient points the American Revolution, the Civil War, the conquering of the American West, America’s rise as a world power, the waves of immigration propelling its development, and its significant role in winning the two worlds wars. After that, the story as epic—marred with dark chapters but overall a beautiful, positive narrative of expansion and progress–becomes more muddied and non-linear.
Resilient epics are not static, they must evolve with significant events but also with the changing demographics of the population. There is no question that demographics will be a key factor in the future evolution of the American story. Demographic trends indicate that the white-alone American majority is declining. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that between 2010 and 2015, the white-alone population (not Hispanic or Latino) decreased from 63.7% to 61.6%, while Hispanic or Latino, Black, and Asian populations all increased marginally, totaling 36.5% of the population. In March of 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that by 2020 more than half of the country’s children will be minority race, and that this shift will take place for the population as a whole in 2044. It also indicated that the fastest growing segment of the next decades will be people from “two or more races.”
As an American of diverse blood who has taught U.S. History for the past 20 years, I can assure America’s people of color that at least some of their sub-stories are in the current American narrative as manifested in conventional U.S. History texts. The blood on the hands of European-Americans is visible. For African-Americans, the story covers the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, colonial slavery, slavery and Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the struggle for civil rights in the 20th century.
For others, I can testify to the coverage of such episodes as the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, and the struggle of Latino migrants workers. With the success of such books as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the American story will and must again be amplified and enriched with the sub-stories of yet other peoples who have come to America. For example, in a recent interview in Foreign Policy, Daily Show comedian Hasan Minhaj said, “New Brown America represents a whole generation of kids who are either descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves, who are coming to America and enriching what it means to be American.” … “We’re adding to that narrative.”
The battle for the future of America’s story, specifically as a binding force, will turn on some key questions. Among them: For the fading white-only population, how open will it be to changes which make the story even more faithful to the struggle of people of color? For blacks, when will the national original sin of slavery be sufficiently redeemed? How open will they be to include the even earlier original sin of their own people in Africa, without which the Atlantic slave trade would not have flourished? And for all of us: what is our common, unassailable American Creed? How are we to endure as a nation of nations?
Much more so than external threats, it will be our national bonds rather than our divisions which determine our success in facing future challenges. A key factor in that unity will be the legitimacy of this more-complex, future American story in the eyes of the rising peoples of color.
Abraham Lincoln’s words still apply. In his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1838, he said: “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined …could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and is a columnist for the Newport Daily News.