06.11.10

How Ethnic Can Our Politicians Be?

Nikki Haley's South Carolina primary win shows how much America is adapting to demographic change. Reihan Salam on what iCarly teaches about assimilation—and the limits of the melting pot.

In light of Nikki Haley's meteoric rise, one can't help but marvel at how quickly and painlessly the U.S has adapted to momentous demographic change. Here we have a South Asian woman with a southern drawl, running and thriving as the champion of a political movement widely regarded as highly parochial if not bitterly xenophobic. And her success comes shortly after Barack Obama, the son of a sojourning student from the developing world, was elected president of the United States. But it is instructive that Haley and Obama, in different ways, have embraced identities that are profoundly un-exotic. This raises the question of how "ethnic" a minority politician can be before alienating the voting public.

One can argue that Nikki Haley weathered the "raghead" attack because a decent number of conservative white South Carolinians consider her one of them.

Indeed, the suspicions that linger about both Haley and Obama on the political fringe rest on the notion that both are somehow inauthentic. Barack Obama is said to be a secret Muslim while Nikki Haley is said to be a secret Sikh, both sleeper agents of shadowy anti-Christian conspiracies. Yet by and large Haley and Obama are taken at their word. Haley fondly recalls her rural South Carolina upbringing, and seems entirely sincere in her professions of devout Christian faith. Though Barack Obama was raised in cosmopolitan Honolulu and Jakarta, he embraced the cadences and sensibilities of African-American Chicago, rooting himself in a familiar cultural and political tradition.

Tunku Varadarajan: Nikki Haley and the New Racial Face of the South In Postethnic America, Berkeley intellectual historian David A. Hollinger argued that the contemporary United States hasn't abandoned assimilation. Rather, it has embraced "quintuple assimilation," in which Nigerian and Kenyan and Jamaican and Haitian immigrants assimilate into African America while Albanian and Israeli and Irish immigrants assimilate into white America, and so on. And we see this logic reflected in the new statistics on interracial and interethnic marriage. Anecdotally, the influx of immigrants from Latin America and East Asia seems to have strengthened Latino and Asian identities. In California, where the Asian American share of the population exceeds the African American share of the population, we see a blurring of Chinese and Korean and Japanese identities into a made-in-American pan-ethnic mishmash built on shared sensibilities and popular culture. Something similar is happening as Americans of Cuban and Dominican and Colombian origin develop a stronger identification with Mexican Americans. What had been arid bureaucratic categories—the term "Hispanic" was devised by Census officials, and the "Asian" category embraces Mongolians and Bangladeshis and Afghans—are becoming something very real and meaningful.

That said, whiteness is malleable. In How the Irish Became White, historian Noel Ignatiev described how a once-despised minority was incorporated into the dominant social caste in the U.S. Rather than embrace enslaved African-Americans as allies in a struggle against injustice, Irish laborers used the franchise to become part of the governing class and to share in the cultural and economic privileges of whiteness. In doing so, they set a pattern that has since been embraced by other immigrant groups, including, some argue, recent waves of Latino and Asian immigrants. Indeed, the fact that intermarriage rates between whites and Latinos and whites and Asians remain higher than rates between whites and African-Americans suggests that cultural conceptions of whiteness continue to expand. In a sense, one can argue that Nikki Haley weathered the "raghead" attack because a decent number of conservative white South Carolinians consider her one of them. Despite the fact that she's the daughter of immigrants, she is, in every socially relevant sense, a white person with a slightly darker-than-Mediterranean complexion.

According to conventional projections, the United States will have a nonwhite majority by 2050. And indeed, nonwhite minorities will account for a very slight majority of the children born in 2010, a sharp increase from 37 percent in 1990. But of course much depends on what we mean by white. The surge in nonwhite newborns has been driven by the growing Latino population, and of course many if not most Latinos self-identify as white. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of new interethnic marriages were between whites and Latinos. One suspects that this number includes many people of predominantly European origin marrying other people of predominantly European origin, which is hardly shocking news.

So in a sense the notion that the U.S. will become a majority non-white nation by midcentury rests on a faulty premise, namely that the children of white-Latino and, for that matter, white-Asian married couples will identify as anything other than white. Consider the case of Miranda Cosgrove, the teen actor and pop singer best known for her work on Nickelodeon's iCarly and Drake and Josh. Though Cosgrove is of mixed ancestry, she consistently plays white characters. Yet her vaguely ethnic appearance broadens her appeal to the growing number of tweens and teens who don't identify as white, or rather who don't identify as entirely or simply white. Television presenters Alexa Chung of MTV and Olivia Munn of Comedy Central occupy a similar niche. As the U.S. population grows more Latin and Asian, our beauty standards are evolving in turn. In trend-setting cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York, people of mixed ancestry are increasingly seen as the beauty ideal.

One wonders where this leaves the unassimilable or unmeltable ethnics, who choose not to intermarry or to convert to Christianity or some other "mainstream" faith. At present, there are 13 self-identified Jewish members in the U.S. Senate, and two more members with one Jewish parent. In an earlier era, this would have been all but unimaginable. Now we consider it entirely unremarkable, not least because the Jewish community has been part of the fabric of American life for centuries. Can we imagine similar representation of Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims? The obvious answer is no, at least not in our lifetimes. And that's entirely understandable. In any democratic polity, the voting public wants to identify with its leaders. But let's keep the fact that some of our citizens are too exotic for leadership roles in mind before we congratulate ourselves on our tolerance and our embrace of diversity.

Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.