The Multicultural Myth

Immigration is changing the complexion of the United States–or is it? Since the early 1980s, more than 13 million newcomers have settled here–a number roughly equal to the population of New England. And though it may appear that America’s races are melting together, demographic data show big lumps floating in the national melting pot. Indeed, this new wave of immigration is creating two Americas: one that is young, urban, and multicultural, and another that is middle-aged to elderly, suburban to rural, and almost all white.

As University of Michigan demographer William Frey points out in American Demographics (June 1998), only 21 of the nation’s 325 metropolitan areas are truly multicultural–which means, compared to the national average, there are fewer non-Hispanic whites and more members of at least two major racial and ethnic groups. The multicultural list includes nine of the nation’s largest urban areas: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and San Diego. It also includes 11 smaller cities in California and Texas. But except for Albuquerque, no city of fewer than 2.5 million people outside of California or Texas makes the list.

Cities become multicultural for a simple reason: Immigrants tend to settle near their ports of entry, or where it is easiest to find a wide variety of jobs. Of the 20 metropolitan areas with the greatest population of Asians, eight are in California and six are in the metro corridor that runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston. This is because almost half of Asian immigrants enter the United States through Los Angeles or San Francisco, and another 25 percent pass through New York or Newark. The same pattern holds for Latinos: Half of U.S. Hispanics live in California and Texas, states that were part of Mexico until the 1850s.

Immigrants tend to move into areas where the white population is leaving. This is an old pattern, but in the 1990s white flight is happening not only to neighborhoods but also to entire states. Early in this decade, native-born Americans fled from California and New York as immigrants poured in. Today, this pattern persists in New York, New Jersey, and smaller metro areas throughout the Northeast. Nationally, white population growth is rising rather slowly, but it is booming in metropolitan areas that attract newcomers from California, New York, and other states: places like Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Orlando.

Hispanic pioneers are making some inroads into Nebraska, Iowa, and the Rocky Mountain states. And Asian professionals are showing up in Dallas, Washington, Omaha, and Minneapolis. Yet minority migration away from the coasts and borders remains small. Even as the melting pot bubbles away, the majority of U.S. counties are still at least 90 percent white.

The dividing lines of the future, though, may have less to do with race than with class and age. Included among the nation’s most racially integrated neighborhoods are some middle-class suburban developments built since 1980, according to demographer Reynolds Farley. These new neighborhoods have no established patterns of race or ethnicity. Minority homeowners there are likely to have the same kinds of jobs, children the same age, and the same political views as their white neighbors.

And as older Americans keep their distance from immigrants, younger Americans seem to be drawing closer to them. Sixty-three percent of college freshmen say they socialize frequently with someone from a different racial or ethnic group, according to the University of California’s annual American Freshman Survey.

Despite the new white flight of the 1990s, Americans still worship youth, and youth equals diversity.

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