All great countries, empires and civilizations have their stories — grand narratives that consist of both truth and myth. If the American story is to endure and serve as force of unity, it must change with our changing demographics. It must account for race, language, religion, cultural rituals, and significant historical events.
The traditional American epic begins with the age of European exploration and includes as its salient points the American Revolution, the Civil War, the conquering of the American West, America’s rise as a world power, the waves of immigration propelling its development, and its significant role in winning the two world wars. After that, the story becomes more muddied and non-linear, marred with dark chapters but overall a beautiful, positive narrative of expansion and progress.
Resilient epics are not static, they must evolve with significant events but also with the changing demographics of the population. There is no question that demographics will be a key factor in the future evolution of the American story.
Demographic trends indicate that the white American majority is declining. U.S. Census Bureau data shows between 2010 and 2015, the white-only population (not Hispanic or Latino) decreased from 63.7 percent to 61.6 percent.
During the same period, Hispanic or Latino, Black, and Asian populations all increased marginally, totaling 36.5 percent of the population.
In March of 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that by 2020 more than half of the country’s children will be minority race, and that this shift will take place for the population as a whole in 2044. It also indicated that the fastest growing segment of the next decades will be people from “two or more races.”
I’ve taught U.S. history for the past 20 years. I’ve seen that at least some of the stories of Americans of color live in conventional U.S. history texts, including the blood on the hands of European-Americans. For African Americans, the story covers the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, colonial slavery, slavery and Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the struggle for civil rights in the 20th century. For other minorities, there are such episodes as the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, and the struggle of Latino migrant workers.
With the success of such books as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” the American story will and must again be amplified and enriched with the stories of yet other peoples who have come to America. For example, in a recent interview with Foreign Policy magazine, comedian Hasan Minhaj said, “New Brown America represents a whole generation of kids who are either descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves, who are coming to America and enriching what it means to be American.” … “We’re adding to that narrative.”
The battle for the future of America’s story, specifically as a binding force, will turn on some key questions. Among them: For the fading white-only population, how open will it be to changes which make the story even more faithful to the struggle of people of color? For blacks, when will the national original sin of slavery be sufficiently redeemed? How open will they be to include the even earlier original sin of their own people in Africa, without which the Atlantic slave trade would not have flourished? And for all of us: What is our common, unassailable American Creed? How are we to endure as a nation of nations?
Much more so than external threats, it will be our national bonds rather than our divisions that determine our success in facing future challenges. A key factor in that unity will be the legitimacy of this more-complex, future American story in the eyes of the rising people of color.
Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and is the author of “From Conflict to Cooperation: The Takeover of the East German Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter @FredZilian.