IF YOU read the classic visitor's guide to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy In America, there are plenty of observations that still ring true: the democratic spirit, religious intensity, civic engagement, constitutional brilliance. But there's one section which will soon have to be simply read as a historical curiosity. It's called: On the Three Races that Inhabit the United States. Make that at least 30.
For Tocqueville, there were the Anglo-Americans, the native Americans, and African slaves and their ancestors. These three still exist, of course, but they have long since intermarried and dispersed. The numbers of white Americans with English colonial roots is now a tiny minority of the population. Because of antimiscegenation laws reaching into the late 1960s in some states, African-Americans were less able to lose their ethnic identity in serial marriages with Italians, Irish, Poles, Jews and whoever else countless generations fell in love or lust with. And the native Americans, for so long segregated on reservations, separated from national life, have diminished in number and presence so that they are now little more than a reminder of the great holocaust on which modern America was constructed.
Immigration did the rest. And last week, the census data showed how unrecognisable modern America now is even to those who lived here a generation ago. For the first time, American blacks are no longer the most populous ethnic minority. There are 34.7m American blacks, but 35.3m American Hispanics. In the past 10 years the Latino population in America grew a staggering 62%.
For the first time since the 1930s, one in 10 Americans wasn't born in America. And these Latino immigrants are not merely Mexican farm labourers over the border in Texas, New Mexico or California. Take a trip to North Carolina, Iowa or Tennessee, where Hispanics were unknown even a decade ago. In construction and landscaping, domestic work, chicken farms and hog factories, much of the manual labour is now done by Latinos.
The cultural repercussions of this are difficult to overstate. For the better part of two centuries, American racial politics has been dominated by the classic black-white divide.
Much of civil rights law, ethnic politics and even the modern exigencies of political correctness rested on this binary model. That model is now shattered. Go to any big American university, still beset with arguments over affirmative action, and you will see a student population dominated by Asians, Jews, Latinos and whites, with a sprinkling of blacks. The notion that America is a deeply racist country is belied by the extraordinary diversity of these campuses.
That tells you why George W Bush was the first president to use a Spanish phrase in his address to Congress and the first in recent times to speak fluent Spanish. It's also why many of his first foreign policy initiatives looked south rather than east, and why Hispanics are plentiful in his administration.
Coming from Texas, he knows the nature of the new country he is trying to govern. This doesn't mean America is about to become a Spanish-speaking country. California just abolished bilingual education in its state schools and has seen Hispanic performance improve dramatically as a result.
The face of the new America is more like that of Ricky Martin, a Puerto-Rican singer who was showcased at Bush's inaugural festivities. Or take Tiger Woods. Not so long ago, he would have been regarded as a black icon. But he emphatically rejected such a label, insisting that he was multi-racial. And indeed, in the last census, people were offered a chance for the first time to pick more than one race in their ethnic identity. A full 8% of young blacks chose the multiracial option, compared with a mere 2% of blacks over 50.
In fact, in some ways, the new complexity of race in America is not a worrying sign for black America. As the years progress, the very complexity robs race of its visceral, binary quality in social life. The more races, the less "race". The constant dilution of racial difference caused by immigration and economic growth defies the easy categories which spawn easy hatred - and blacks, as the prime target of that hatred, will benefit most of all.
What liberals tried for decades to do with law - the abolition of racism - might actually be more swiftly accomplished by the simple mingling and mixing of individuals in a free society with porous borders. The people of America are in the process of pioneering a post-
racial future beyond Tocqueville's wildest dreams. May the pied beauty of that era arrive as soon as it possibly can.


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