Voices of Obama's America: Who We Are Now

The message seemed mixed. It was 3 o'clock on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 3, 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson had come to the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to sign the unsexily named Immigration and Nationality Act. It was a grand and sentimental stage for Johnson, who loved the grand and the sentimental. There he was, less than a year into a term he'd won in the greatest of landslides over Barry Goldwater, at the mythic gateway to America, Robert and Ted Kennedy in the audience, the eyes of the press fixed on him in the shadows of the nation's most fabled icon of freedom. "Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers," Johnson said, reaching for political poetry. "From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide."

But the president was openly ambivalent, too. "The bill that we sign today is not a revolutionary bill," he said, defensively, almost as though to reassure white Americans that they had nothing to fear. "It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power."

To borrow an old line about Winston Churchill, when Lyndon Johnson was right, he was right, but when he was wrong, well, my God. (See, for example, War, Vietnam.) On reflection, the bill LBJ signed on that October day was one of the most significant of his momentous presidency, and the virtually forgotten legislation played a key role in creating the America that made this week's inauguration of Barack Obama possible.

Why exhume the long-dead Johnson on the occasion of one of the most engaging inaugurals since George Washington took the oath at Federal Hall in New York City in 1789? Because who we are now—a country in which traditional barriers of race and age and gender are crumbling—flows in many ways from what LBJ did then. His conflicting language on that October day, meanwhile, underscores the nation's occasionally wary view of the changes wrought by immigration. We like to say we love the new, but the familiar, come to think of it, is awfully comfortable, too. So which will it be in the coming years: the America of the melting pot, or the America of resentments? The America of Lincoln's better angels, or the America of Nixon's Silent Majority?

The answer is almost certainly that we will be one or another of these Americas at different times depending on different circumstances. One reason to think that we might find ourselves with Lincoln more often than with Nixon, though, is that the "we" is getting ever trickier to define quickly and easily in terms of race, ethnicity and religion. We the People of 2009 are not the We the People of 1959 or 1969 or even 1979. And that is because of Lyndon Johnson.

There is something quintessentially American about a lumbering white man from Texas—a complex, gifted and ultimately tragic politician—transforming, however inadvertently, a largely Anglo-Saxon nation into a country which, in roughly the same amount of time that separates us from John F. Kennedy's inauguration, will have more people of color than whites. (The shorthand for this milestone, projected to take place in about 2050, is the arrival of a "majority-minority" country, but if the minorities are actually the majorities, we should probably find a cleaner linguistic way to talk about the coming reality.)

Stories about demography tend to be prospective and general, and it is all too easy to exaggerate this turn in the statistics or that tick in the projections. But this much is clear and certain: the nation over which Obama will preside is changing, rapidly, and history is likely to connect his political rise to the shifting nature of a country that was largely one thing in the wake of World War II and through the Cold War and into the opening years of the 21st century, and quite another as the Obama era began.

In the understandable thrill of the inaugural season, all eyes are turned to this single man, all ears attuned to his voice. Whatever your politics, the election of the 44th president represents a kind of redemption from the long and tragic history of blacks in America since the first slaves arrived in Jamestown, Va., in 1619. Ever since, as the biographer Taylor Branch once wrote, color has defined American life as it defines vision itself.

Yet the Obama victory is about more than Obama, and about more than black and white. In a democratic republic like ours (a product, in large part, of Madison's insight, Jackson's energy and Lincoln's genius), the president is both a maker and a mirror of the manners and morals of the electorate that has invested him with ultimate authority. We have not reached the promised land in which race and ethnicity no longer matter; history tells us that racism, tribalism and nativism will be always with us. The America of 2009, though, is not the America that Johnson felt coming into being the year before he spoke at the Statue of Liberty. After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told an aide he had just handed the South to the Republicans for a generation. (If you count a generation as roughly 21 years, he was off the mark, since the racially inspired backlash shaped politics for more than 40 years.)

For the moment—and it could be a very brief moment—the division of voters into us and them along racial and ethnic lines is at once more difficult and less effective. As the electorate changes, voters themselves are more likely to come from diverse backgrounds or live in a world in which diversity is the rule, not the exception. Not every part of the country is like the Bronx, where there is a 90 percent chance that any two people chosen at random will be of a different race or ethnicity. But there are now Hispanics, for instance—the country's fastest-growing population—living in practically every county in the country.

The roots of this new America—for it is quite new—can be traced to our long-running debate over immigration, a debate Johnson was trying to shape. Immigration boomed in the first decade of the 20th century, too. Waves came from Italy (1.9 million), Russia (1.5 million) and Austria-Hungary, which included Poland (2 million). All told, by 1910 there were about 13.5 million foreign-born people in the United States, according to the U.S. Census, and 87.4 percent of them were European.

Nativist Americans, though, thought many of the Europeans who were being admitted were inferior, and the Immigration Restriction League was formed to argue against the undesirables, most of whom were Southern and Eastern Europeans. In 1909, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge proposed a literacy test to restrict the influx of "Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, and Asiatics." (Lodge liked "English-speaking [immigrants] … Germans, Scandinavians, and French.") The test, along with other restrictions, passed in 1917. In the 1920s, amid difficult economic times and fears of communism in the wake of the Russian Revolution, America passed quotas that favored Lodge's preferred region of Europe. Jews and Asians were particular targets.

Then, in 1952, Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, which essentially made naturalization colorblind. In other words, anyone admitted as an immigrant could apply for citizenship. "By eliminating racial discrimination in naturalization, it helped change the whole pattern after that," says Roger Daniels, professor emeritus of history at the University of Cincinnati and author of several authoritative books on immigration. "Not a lot of Europeans came immediately after the 1952 act, but many recent immigrants, especially Asians who had not been able to naturalize, were able to become citizens."

The 1965 bill was intended to reward the Southern and Eastern Europeans (chiefly the Italians and the Poles) who had been loyal Democrats. It completely abolished national quotas and allowed naturalized citizens to send for relatives—thus rewarding initiative and family stability. "Johnson thought that he was getting payback for the things that had been done to the new immigrants of 1920, the Italians and the Poles, and he thought this would take care of them," says Daniels. "If this had passed soon after World War II, when Europe was a mess, maybe that would have been true. And if it had not been for the Iron Curtain, it would have been something else. But in 1965, immigration from Europe was down to 10 percent." Asians, Mexicans and other Latin Americans began flowing in. Four decades on, Census data estimate that of the nearly 40 million foreign-born people in the United States, the largest percentages come from Mexico, China, the Philippines, India and Vietnam.

The tension between assimilation and separation is eternal, but there is no doubt that this flood of immigration and the breaking down of barriers between previously estranged groups within the country has created a much more fluid culture than previous generations might have thought possible.

The new reality is reflected in the NEWSWEEK Poll. Sixteen years ago, in the wake of the recession of 1991–92, anti-immigrant sentiment ran high, with 60 percent of Americans saying that they thought current immigration to the United States was a bad thing on the whole, and only 29 percent saying it was a good thing. Now the public is evenly divided, 44 percent to 44 percent. The percentage saying there are too many people coming to America from Africa has dropped from 47 percent in 1992 to 21 percent. Closer to home, public approval of interracial marriages (like the one between Obama's parents) has risen significantly in the past decade, from 54 percent in 1995 to 80 percent today. The percentage of Americans who say they know a mixed-race couple has risen from 58 to 79 percent since 1995, and more than a third (34 percent) say they or a close family member have married or live with someone of another race or who has a very different racial, ethnic or religious background, including a quarter (24 percent) who say it is specifically an interracial marriage or live-in relationship.

By and large, the younger you are, the more assimilated you are in this new tapestry of daily life. The key cohort is the 75 million-strong generation known as the millennials (those born roughly between 1980 and 2000). To state the obvious, the experiences of the younger generation—now voting and beginning their adult lives—are not the experiences of their parents or of their grandparents. Vietnam seems as distant as Saratoga; Roe v. Wade as far off as Dred Scott. That much is self-evident, and perennial. (Every generation is shaped by unique forces; that is part of what makes them a generation, aside from the accident of a birth date.) What was less than clear until the election of 2008 was whether the experience of younger Americans would produce a shift in political attitudes, and would such a shift be felt beyond Facebook and Starbucks? Could Obama count on them to show up?

Yes, he could. The disparity between older and younger voters was greater in 2008 than at any other time since exit polling began in 1972, according to the Pew Research Center. Obama won 66 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote, 12 points more than John Kerry attracted in 2004. The younger cohort is more diverse than the general population, more female, more secular, less socially conservative and more willing to describe themselves as liberals. Note to the ghost of LBJ: 20 percent of this crucial group are children of immigrants.

And 2009 is only the beginning of the story. According to Pew, if current trends continue, the U.S. population will rise from 296 million in 2005 to 438 million in 2050. Eighty-two percent—let me repeat that: 82 percent—of the increase will be attributable to immigrants arriving after 2005 and to their descendants. By that point, whites may make up only 47 percent of the country, ending centuries of a majority-white America.

Will the journey be smooth? That is doubtful. Politics can quickly turn mean. In hard economic times there is often a search for an "other" on which to blame the problems of life. In the wake of a possible terrorist attack, fear could easily lead to tension, resentment and discord. The good news about America, though, is that for all of our nativist fevers and periodic witch hunts, we tend, often after having exhausted every other option, to do what is right.

Johnson closed his remarks in October 1965 by alluding to nearby Ellis Island, "whose vacant corridors echo today the joyous sound of long-ago voices." The voices of the new America, of Obama's America, are just beginning to be heard.