WASHINGTON — What is going to happen to 'white' values?" Dale Hurd repeatedly asked while interviewing me for a TV program for the Christian Broadcasting Network. His concern was aroused by the detailed data about the racial makeup of American society that the US Census Bureau is about to release.
Although the precise breakdowns by 63 racial categories (including racial combinations) are not yet known, figures depicting the basic changes in America's demography have been issued. US census data already available are often said to point to a rise of a "majority of minorities" (beginning in California, next in Texas, and thereafter all over the United States). But it is far from obvious what these figures mean, let alone that they entail a decline of European values, those of the founders.
I told Mr. Hurd that American core values - respect for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (as well as the communitarian quest for a more perfect union), the democratic way of life, and the bill of rights - either deserve our commitment because we find them compelling or they should be rejected.
The race of whoever first articulated them matters not. Imagine discovering that the ancient Greeks really got their ideas from Egypt or Libya, as some claim. Would they be less valid? What if we learned that John Locke was a Moor?
Also, the fact is that most Americans from all social groups want the same basic things, although this cannot be demonstrated here without taking much more space. Most Americans seek prosperity and peace, a brilliant future for themselves and their kids, safe streets and honest government, among other things. (Next time you read about racial discrepancies found in opinion polls, note that the differences played up often amount to less than 20 percent, which means that the similarities, usually not referred to, amount to more than 80 percent.)
Granted, there are differences on select issues, especially when they directly concern racial relations, for instance between the views of African-Americans and others on the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial. But these are exceptions, not the rule.
The very notion that there are two American camps, the majority and "the minorities," is a dubious construction. Not only do most minority members agree with the majority on most issues, but on those issues where they differ with the majority, they also disagree with one another. The two major nonwhite groups, Asian Americans and African-Americans, are particularly disparate, with the first much more conservative than the latter. And Hispanic Americans do not even agree with one another about what race they are. In the 1990 census, 52 percent defined themselves as white, 3 percent as black, and 43 percent chose "Other Race."
Furthermore, the very notion that there are monolithic "minorities," a term bandied about daily, ignores the fact that differences within each minority often exceed differences among them. Many Cuban Americans' attitudes are closer to Asian Americans' than those of Puerto Rican Americans, whose viewpoints are closer to African-Americans. Japanese Americans share little with Filipino Americans, and so on. Among those surveyed in the National Latino Political Survey, approximately three-quarters of Puerto Ricans and two-thirds of Cuban Americans and Mexican Americans chose to be labeled by their place of birth, as opposed to "pan-ethnic" terms such as "Hispanic" or "Latino."
Last but not least, Americans of different backgrounds intermarry, and they do so at an ever-rising rate, especially the young, who own the future. Before too long, the majority of Americans will not be minorities or the majority, but people whose parents, in-laws, uncles, and cousins are like those of Tiger Woods: Americans of all kinds. These multiracial and multiethnic Americans will blur the sharp edges now attributed to the various social groups, moving America ever closer to a monochrome society - although its appearance will be more akin to chocolate milk than to that of palefaced Americans.
The importance of all this is that if people were to stop looking at pigmentation and other factors that are skin deep, jumping to the conclusion that there is a close relationship between race and the way one thinks and behaves, they would see that America is much less diverse than racial statistics are often said to imply.
Does all this mean that American society will remain basically unchanged?
Certainly not. It has been the genius of America from its inception as a society of immigrants that it both incorporates newcomers and adapts, growing richer by absorbing some of their unique features. Thus, the US may well become more focused on nations south of its border and on the Pacific Rim than on Europe, but this will entail few basic substantive changes in American foreign policy. We shall still favor free trade, oppose nuclear proliferation, support human rights, and so on. And teaching children more about cultures other than Western ones will add to the broadening of our educational horizons rather than to abandonment of the "classics."
Will we be a society free from racial and ethnic conflict? America never has been. However, we learned long ago to resolve, in peaceful ways, most of these conflicts most of the time. We have nothing to fear but those who try to promote fear.
Amitai Etzioni teaches sociology at George Washington University and is the author of "The Monochrome Society" (Princeton University Press).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor