Video: Quest for cross-cultural love a family affair

By Reporters and NBC News
updated 10/17/2008 12:45:27 PM ET 2008-10-17T16:45:27

The future of America is being forged at Dumbarton Middle School.

With students from 37 countries, Dumbarton, a magnet school in Towson, Md., near Baltimore, reflects how the United States is rapidly being transformed into a polyglot, multicultural society — not by immigrants, but by their children.

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau paint a clear picture: By as early as 2023, more than half of all children will be members of what are now minority groups, an evolution fueled significantly by a baby boom among recent immigrants. By 2050, they will make up more than 60 percent of all American children.

By 2050, the number of Americans of Hispanic origin will double to comprise a third of the American population. The Asian population is projected to nearly triple, to 9.2 percent of the population. And as those populations mingle, the number of people who identify themselves as being of two or more races will more than triple.

The result will be a United States in which the so-called white majority will, for the first time, be in the minority.

In the process, the children of new immigrants “will not only reshape American racial and ethnic relations but define the character of American social, cultural, and political life,” researchers at Harvard University and City University of New York write in “Inheriting the City,” a landmark study of the children of first-generation immigrants to the United States.

Crossing, assimilating differences
Research suggests that the children of immigrants face special challenges and opportunities that prepare them to succeed in American society. In the homes of immigrant parents, it is the children who cross cultural and linguistic barriers, breaking them down while absorbing the best of both worlds.

In a study of children of recent immigrants in Southern California and South Florida, Ruben Rumbaut, a sociology professor at the University of California-Irvine, and Alejandros Portes, director of the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton University, found that the so-called second generation was better equipped than ever to overcome historical hurdles like racism, economic disadvantage and language assimilation.

At only 17, Oz Contreras of Siler City, N.C., has been learned to navigate the adult world at the same time he goes to class and plays soccer at Jordan-Matthews High School.

“My dad has actually never talked to any person for bills,” said Oz, whose Mexican immigrant parents do not speak English. “It’s always been me.”

As a result, Oz has had to grow up more quickly than many of his peers. “We’re more, like, independent, and my parents are there to motivate us but can’t actually help us,” he said.

Paul Cuadros, Oz’s coach, said many of his players are caught in the middle — trying to respect their parents’ roots while growing up American in Siler City, where the immigrant population has grown by 80 percent in just 10 years.

“To be able to live in both worlds and function in them and have an identity in both of them is really important,” Cuadros said.

Children of immigrants grasp the ring
While “some kids have problems” with the duality, Cuadros said, others thrive, mirroring the experience of second-generation children elsewhere.

“By and large, despite their diversity of class and national origins, members of the new second generation in South Florida and Southern California are doing well: performing better academically than their native-parentage peers, graduating from high school and going on to college (where many are still enrolled), speaking accentless English, working hard at their first jobs, taking steps toward independent entrepreneurship, and beginning to form families of their own,” they write in “Immigrant America: A New Portrait.”

Across the board, the second generation is seizing that opportunity:

  • In the Ivy League, 41 percent of all black freshmen are from African and Caribbean families, who make up only 13 percent of the overall black population, researchers at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania found.
  • Among second-generation Hispanics, education is a priority, according to a nationwide study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Only 10 percent of second-generation adults have not graduated from high school, it found, compared with 38 percent of their first-generation parents. That is better than the population as whole, according to the U.S. Education Department, which said 14 percent of all American adults do not have high school diplomas.
  • While Hispanic immigrants as a whole vote less often than the overall population, the proportion of voters among second-generation Hispanics is rising rapidly, according to a 10-year study of immigrant achievement in California by researchers at the University of Southern California. By 2030, “all other things being equal, the overall share who are active voters would be expected to be substantially above the current level,” indicating a sharp increase in the “influence of the Latino population in the political process,” the researchers predicted.

‘Increasingly ... the mainstream’
In “Inheriting the City,” Philip Kasinits of CUNY and three colleagues argue that children of recent immigrants have a unique opportunity to blend traditional and “Americanized” ways, “keeping some elements and discarding others as they go along.”

“This biculturalism in no way prevents their joining the ‘mainstream,’” they found. “Indeed, in their cultural, economic, and social activities, the children of immigrants increasingly are the mainstream.”

Portes — himself an immigrant from Cuba — acknowledged that “some people may lament” America’s evolution into a blended society. But the success of the second generation could kick-start America's flagging influence in an ever-globalizing world, he said in an interview with NBC News.

“There is no nation that more reflects the globe, the population of the world, than the United States,” he said. “I think it is a source of strength and cultural vigor.”

At Dumbarton Middle School, Principal Nancy Fink said all parents, native and immigrant, should welcome the transformation.

Referring to columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s contention that a globalized society flattens economic and cultural differences, Fink said: “Parents are very aware that their children will be living in a flat world. So the more experiences they have with children who are different than them, the better.”

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