America’s future lies in minorities

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

There’s a joke I tell behind Miami’s back.

I’ll be elsewhere in the country and someone will ask how race and diversity are viewed from a South Florida perspective. I reply that, according to the Census Bureau, Miami’s polyglot population represents what America will look like in about 40 years. And if America really understood that, it would be worried. Rim shot.

My point is that, for most of the years of the American experiment, our dialogue about race and diversity has been strictly bipolar: black and white, minority and majority. But by 2050, the conversation will be three way — black, white and brown — and none will have dominant numbers. We will ALL be minorities.

Given that America has never mastered the bipolar debate, the challenge of a three-way debate should give us pause. Especially when you factor in the racial and cultural stresses that periodically rattle and rend Miami.

Consider the young woman who told me once how her newlywed sister went to their mother with marital problems only to be told that such problems were what she deserved for being in a “mixed marriage.” The upshot: Both newlyweds were black, one born in the United States, the other in Haiti. Take it as proof that in South Florida, even black, white and brown is more complicated than you’d expect.

Similar complications are coming soon to the nation as a whole, as evidenced by the growing Hmong population in Minnesota and an influx of Africans in Maine. So the country ought to watch Miami with interest because it has a stake in the city getting it right.

Or, it could take the Tom Tancredo approach: Write Miami off altogether. In a recent interview with a conservative Web site, Tancredo, an anti-illegal immigration hawk who has championed the building of a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico, said Miami “has become a Third World country. You just pick it up and take it and move it someplace. You would never know you’re in the United States of America.”

For this, Tancredo has been publicly and properly rebuked by two prominent fellow Florida Republicans: Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Gov. Jeb Bush.

Me, I think the fact that Tancredo calls Miami not just another country, but a “Third World” country is rather telling. Apparently for him, Spanish accents and the smell of jerk chicken automatically equal poverty. It may surprise him to learn, but one seldom sees donkey carts on Miami streets and electricity is available almost 24 hours a day.

It is worth noting that Tancredo represents Colorado’s 6th District, which is centered on the town of Littleton. Littleton, according to the last census, has a population of about 40,000. Just 1.2 percent of its people are black, 8.4 percent Hispanic — both significantly below the nation as a whole.

Not to dump on Littleton, but it represents precisely the sort of stark homogeneity that will become obsolete in the nation the Census Bureau predicts. So it’s not hard to understand why Miami scares its congressman.

For the record, Miami scares Miami sometimes. Like when there are Cubans in a snit or American blacks up in arms or Haitians feeling put upon or whites feeling left out. You look around and ask yourself if, from this cacophony, it is possible to make harmony.

But really, what choice do we have but to try? What else have we ever done? Change is coming, but then, change is always coming. You cannot fence it off, cannot legislate it away. You can only face it and confront its challenges as best you can.

That’s what we did when whites went West, when slaves became free, when Europeans streamed through Ellis Island. It’s what we are doing now. Miami is just the noise you get when a mix of peoples jockey for opportunity and shout to be heard.

Tancredo says that’s not America. I say, when has America been anything else?

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com