Two news items caught my eye this morning. Firstly this New York Times article describing how a Southern Baptist – and previously exclusively white and American – church is adapting to an influx of immigrants from all over the world and, secondly, an opinion piece in the Washington Post criticising the new Ken Burn's documentary, "The War", for its failure to adequately document Latino American contributions to the Second World War. (A failure that, to Burns' credit, has been at least partially rectified by the addition of new material.)
What both articles have in common is the upturning of previously established cultural concepts. I am old enough to recall seeing Hollywood movies made in the thirties, forties and even fifties as a child and assuming, from those films, that there were next-to-no black Americans anywhere except for a handful employed as maids, train attendants or casual laborers. That turned over as the civil rights movement in the 1960s recast the stereotype of American society to include a vibrant African-American contribution.
Now things are changing again. As the current flap over illegal immigration also illustrates, Americans and immigrants, both legal and illegal, of Latin-American origin are becoming visible and increasingly vocal. Always present in the south and west, you can now find large Latin-American communities almost anywhere in the United States, and some Americans don't like that. Hence immigration has become a hot button issue. But immigration has branched out far beyond that of Latin America. The continued influx of people from Asia, particularly China and India, and Africa, Eastern Europe – we have a very large community of Bosnians here in St. Louis – is continuing to reshape the ethnic makeup of the United States. This is made very clear in the New York Times article.
If I travel into south St. Louis city, I can find myself on or near Cherokee Street, gazing at more Spanish than English shop signs and posters. Heading west down the main street near my house, Olive Street, I will see at least as many signs in Chinese or Korean as in English. My closest bakery is Chinese. Just a little futher west is a Mexican supermarket. These are all changes that I have witnessed happen in my 25 or so years living here. This midwestern city, almost in the center of the United States, is becoming more cosmopolitan than I would have believed possible when I first moved here.
This is very good thing. But, as yet, this increasingly diverse makeup in St. Louis is not represented by a local government that continues to be dominated by white or African American politicians. The same goes for state and national government. Still, only a few decades ago, African American politicians were practically non-existent. The force of demographic change cannot be stopped. We will see more Americans of Latino, Chinese, Indian and other origins gain political power. What that will mean to the United States is yet to be seen.