A Closer Look at the Melting-Pot Myth
Mar 16, 2001
Publisher: Newsday


The new race and ethnicity statistics released with the 2000 census are being touted as evidence that we are an increasingly diverse nation and well on the way toward becoming a national melting pot. Those describing themselves as white Anglo ("non-Hispanic white only" in census-speak) now constitute less than 70 percent of our population, and the minorities display many cultures and hues, including 6.8 million Americans who identify themselves with more than one race. Indeed, this national profile makes the case that we are statistically a melting pot and remain unique among the world's industrialized nations.

Yet it is a mistake to make the further case that our demographically diverse statistical portrait represents an actual melting pot that spans our nation's communities from coast to coast. Several commentators reciting partial statistics from the recent headcount have proclaimed that new ethnic minorities are "surging" into broad regions of the country that have been notably non-diverse- in the Midwest, South and elsewhere. As evidence, they recite facts such as that Iowa's Hispanic population has grown by a whopping 153 percent since the last census, or that the Asian population in Mississippi increased by 84 percent. Similar statistics and commentaries about surging diversity seem to accompany the Census Bureau's rollout of each state's new data. In comparison to Iowa, just-released census figures for New York that show a 29-percent increase in the state's Hispanic population may seem unimpressive. But before we get carried away, take a closer look at the numbers. Iowa's Hispanic population represents less than 3 out of 100 residents; the state is still 93 percent white. New York's non-Hispanic white citizens make up 62 percent of the state's population and compose only 35 percent of the city's residents. Other heartland states with "surging" Hispanic populations include Indiana, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Nebraska, where Anglos still make up more than 85 percent of the population, with less than 6 percent Hispanic. Similarly, Mississippi's Asian population stands at 0.6 percent, despite recent growth. Like much of the South outside of Florida and Texas, Mississippi's population is dominated by whites and blacks.

All of this goes to show that it's easy to compile a high rate of growth from a tiny initial population (lesson from Statistics 101). And while larger numbers of Hispanics and Asians have moved into the heartland and traditional South to take service jobs, work as laborers in the construction or meat-packing industries, or become students at the local universities, their high rates of growth will not turn these regions into the real melting pots that exist in metropolitan New York, New Jersey, California, New Mexico, Texas, Florida and Illinois. The new census statistics show that, over the 1990s, Texas' Hispanic population grew by 2.3 million-46 times their numeric gain in Iowa- and now constitute about one-third of that state's population. The Lone Star State's Anglo population is almost down to one-half. California's Hispanic gain will be even larger and, along with a significant Asian increase, will take the Golden State's Anglo population below 50 percent.

The final results of the 2000 census will reveal that America is made up of multiple melting pots resting on a heartland that shares only modestly in the new immigrant diversity. The emergence of melting-pot regions as distinct from a broader American heartland is being fueled by the continued renewal of new immigrant minorities in traditional gateway cities. At the same time, many native-born Americans-including college graduates, middle-class suburbanites and retirees-are headed to noncoastal "New Sunbelt" states in the Southeast and non-California West; the new census data show that 700,000 non-Hispanic white people left New York State in the 1990s. They are not moving away from immigrant minorities as much as following the pulls of growing employment opportunities and natural amenities of these decidedly whiter or white-and-black regions. The myth of the national melting pot does a disservice to people in the heartland, whose primary experience with ethnic diversity is through exposure to the media or from traveling to larger American cities.

While news stories emphasize diversity gains with overblown statistics, the people who live in these areas don't get the daily, face-to-face interaction with different groups that shapes behaviors and attitudes. In the melting-pot pockets, people accommodate, assimilate and tolerate. The national challenge that this demographic pattern presents is how to sensitize residents in the heartland to the various and rich cultures of their fellow Americans. Immigrant minorities are not unwelcome in these parts of the country. The new census results do show a greater diffusion of Hispanic and Asian groups that exceeds previous estimates. However, in the nation's heartland, these new groups are far from achieving the critical mass that they hold in the melting-pot cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Miami, New York and Chicago. They remain in these areas because they are better connected, more able to build institutions, and have a greater impact on local politics and culture. They help to globalize the economies in these "world cities" and put their stamp on the unique demographic ethnic personalities of these places.

These multiple melting pots are the incubators for the assimilation of new ethnic groups in the 21st century, and they represent a departure from the single melting-pot image of the past. Yes, the new census data make it plain that we are as diverse, statistically, as any nation on the planet. But they do not make the case that we are becoming a national melting pot.

William H. Frey is a Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute and Research Scientist on the faculty of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.