A YEAR AGO, as the 1900s drew to a close, there was the big brouhaha about Y2K. Major computer meltdowns were predicted, as governments and corporations rushed to kill off the millennium bug.
Far-right fear-mongers and end-of-the-world doomsayers urged everyone to stock up on canned food and water. They told us that nuclear power plants and missile systems were poised to go haywire when the clock struck midnight at the turn of the century. Western civilization, as we know it, was about to come to a screeching, apocalyptic halt.
But on Jan. 1, 2000, nothing much happened. Although it turned out to be a big dud, Y2K was a lucrative money-maker for white supremacists, militia hucksters, mail-order survivalists, and fundamentalist preachers.
Now the radical right and the racist movement have seized upon a new date - 2050 - to rally the troops. That's the year demographers say non-Hispanic whites will become a numerical minority in the United States.
White supremacists are yowling mightily about this. They claim that U.S. Census Bureau projections validate what they've been maintaining all along - that "native" whites are in danger of being bred out of existence. What's at stake, they insist, is nothing less than the survival of America's core national identity, its essential whiteness, which is fading from within as the U.S. becomes ever more "mongrelized."
At present, 72 percent of the U.S. population is classified as white. But this percentage is declining due to lower birthrates among whites and the sustained immigration of non-European foreigners in the past three decades. Today, newcomers to the U.S. are mostly Asians and Latinos.
With little hope for appreciable improvement in life in much of the Southern Hemisphere, the influx of immigrants is not likely to abate anytime soon. The gap between haves and have-nots will grow during the next 15 years, according to a recent CIA report on global trends. Chronic financial volatility and social dislocation exacerbated by free-trade policies will continue to foster mass migration.
California, a land built by immigrants, is the most populous state in the U.S. and the runaway leader in the ethnic mixing of North America. In 1970, eight out of 10 Californians were non-Hispanic whites; as of August, the heavy flow of migrants from Latin America and Asia had reduced the percentage of whites to 49 percent. California was the first big state to join New Mexico and Hawaii as states where whites are not a majority.
California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente highlights the positive aspects of the shifting demographics. "If there are no majorities," he asserts, "then there's no minorities." But there are certainly lots of different cuisines to choose from, many languages spoken, more variety and excitement, fresh perspectives, along with other intangible benefits.
Crunch the numbers and you'll find that diversity strengthens a country. Few would dispute that the surge of immigration, legal and undocumented, has contributed greatly to California's recent economic boom. Supplying cheap labor and foreign capital, hard-working newcomers have established thousands of small businesses throughout the Golden State.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the changing face of America. The arrival of large numbers of foreigners has triggered a xenophobic backlash that's likely to get worse as the economy weakens. Oftentimes, nonwhite immigrants are the targets of racial abuse. Reported hate crimes in California have increased 11 percent since 1995, mirroring a nationwide pattern.
Some right-wing extremists prophesy the cataclysmic breakup of the union. Thomas W. Chittum, a New Jersey-based Vietnam veteran, proclaims in his book, "Civil War Two," that the U.S. will go the way of Yugoslavia, splintering into ethnically based national particles. "America was born in blood. America suckled on blood. America gorged on blood and grew into a giant, and America will drown in blood," Chittum declares.
White separatists have set up groups such as Americans for Self-Determination. One of the founders, Jeff Anderson, urges that "the U.S. be partitioned into states for blacks, whites, Hispanics, and so on, along with the multiracial states for those who wish to continue with this experiment. Now is the time to begin such a multiracial dialogue about separatism before a storm of violent racial conflict rages."
Attacking nonwhite immigration as "out of control" has long been a tactic of fringe groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
It wasn't until several years later that immigration became a hot-button issue and mainstream politicians jumped on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. Ruth Conniff, Washington editor of the Progressive, commented on the political sea change: "What were once considered right-wing views on immigration - that the United States is being 'invaded' by the Third World, that immigrants pose a threat to the American economy and way of life, and that the borders need military fortification - have become part of the accepted wisdom."
Xenophobic campaigns spearheaded by far-right activists culminated in draconian legislation enacted during the Clinton administration to sharply curtail federal benefits and legal protection for immigrants and asylum-seekers. Passed in 1996, the laws amounted to "the most sustained attack on immigrants' rights in modern times," according to Lucas Guttentag of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Two years earlier, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had launched "Operation Gatekeeper," which entailed a $300-million technological overhaul in an effort to create an electronic wall along the entire border with Mexico to keep undocumented foreigners from entering the United States. Stepped-up border patrols forced many emigres to seek entry under life-threatening conditions, resulting in over 600 deaths since the operation began.
Amnesty International has condemned abusive practices by the U.S. Border Patrol, charging that many detainees are beaten, raped, and denied food, water, warmth, and medical attention for long periods.
It's a rather sobering testament to how far we've come as a country since the Statue of Liberty was erected to welcome all immigrants.
Martin A. Lee is the author of "The Beast Reawakens," a book on neofascism.