© Flashpoint: tensions flared during riots sparked by the Rodney King case in 1992 Photograph: John Gaps III
Hispanic influx threatens to change face of America
Matthew Campbell, Washington
THE year is 2100. America is in ferment. The second civil war has ended in defeat for English-speaking whites, encircled in their heartland in the Midwest. The southwestern states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have broken away from the union to form provinces in the new, Hispanic country of Aztlan.
Unlikely as this vision of the future may seem, the break-up of the United States within the next 100 years is regarded by some people as an entirely plausible consequence of a new wave of immigration.
The speculation has been prompted by startling population estimates published last week. Within the next year, demographers say, whites will no longer form a majority in California, a state that until 1970 was 80% white. Within 100 years, the Hispanic population of America will have exploded from its present 32m to 190m, just 40m behind the white population. It will leave black Americans, at an estimated 86m in 2100, in the dust.
To advocates of the great "melting pot", the arrival of 1m legal immigrants a year in a country of 250m is no cause for anxiety. From the Europeans who poured into the country early in the last century to the Koreans and South Americans who followed, immigrants have traditionally been happy to swear allegiance to a noble ideal - that America's strength is unity in diversity.
Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state, is a notable symbol of the "American dream" in which an impoverished immigrant can scale any height - other than the presidency, for which an American birth certificate is required.
She arrived in New York from Czechoslovakia as a little girl. "I looked at the Statue of Liberty," she recalled last week, "and my eyes filled with tears, my heart with hope."
Yet increasingly in today's America, the "melting bowl" may have its limits. "These days they want us to see it more like a salad bowl," says Ward Connerly, the black chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute. He argues that, instead of being persuaded to integrate themselves into one happy family, ethnic minorities are being to encouraged to cling to their roots - with potentially disastrous consequences for the vision of national unity.
Education policies under the administration of President Bill Clinton are largely to blame, he says. Hispanic immigrants are entitled to be taught in Spanish in most states. They can even opt for separate graduation ceremonies at universities, as can black and Asian students.
Not only that. Ethnic groups are encouraged to pursue "ethnic studies" to fortify their sense of cultural identity. While blacks are encouraged to delve into the tragic history of ancestors sold into slavery and to press for reparations from white government leaders, Mexican Americans can sign up for "chicano studies".
The course is credited with instilling a militant belief in young Mexican Americans that California and other southwestern states - once known collectively as "Aztlan" - were stolen from Mexico and will one day be reconquered.
The emphasis on ethnic identity risks encouraging what has been called the "Balkanisation" of America - a reference to the rivalries that plunged the former Yugoslavia into bloody ethnic wars in the 1990s.
"Many of these ethnic studies programmes are more political than scholastic and tend to Balkanise us rather than bring us together," says Connerly. "I don't quarrel with the idea that people should be able to maintain allegiance to ethnic background, but there's a fine line between pride and prejudice."
Some Californians are pessimistic about relations between ethnic groups, despite evidence of rising intermarriage. "We're being colonised, essentially," says Glenn Spencer, a white activist lobbying for tougher immigration controls. He points to inflammatory statements by Mexican American politicians to support his thesis.
Mario Obledo, president of the California Coalition of Hispanic Organisations, is cited as an example. "California is going to be a Hispanic state and anyone who doesn't like it should leave," he said.
Even Gray Davis, the non-Hispanic Democrat governor, has raised eyebrows with some of his rhetoric. "People will look at California and Mexico as one magnificent region," he has proclaimed. A blurring of political borders between California and Mexico seemed to have occurred last week when a Los Angeles resident became the first person living abroad to be elected to the Mexican Congress.
Peter Brimelow, a British immigrant and author of Alien Nation, a book advocating immigration reform, argues that America should close its borders, at least temporarily, if it is to maintain social harmony and national identity. He predicts that the present course will lead to the break-up of America.
"People will begin to question the union again," he said, foreseeing the creation of a whites-only "heartland" in the Midwest and a breakaway Hispanic region in the southwest. "We'll see huge population shifts. The component parts of America will be as different as separate countries."
The process is already advanced in California and statistics spell the decline of whites in the home of the Beach Boys, Baywatch and Ronald Reagan: they account for about 75% of the state's deaths, but only a third of the births.
In Los Angeles, whole districts sport signs in languages other than English. The city has the largest population of Koreans outside Korea and the greatest concentration of Iranians in the western world.
The Hispanic community, however, is growing faster than any other and is poised to eclipse the black population of 35m nationally. The loss by Californian whites of their majority status can be expected to be repeated within the next few years in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.
Already the political consequences have been felt. In California, the surge in the Hispanic population has fuelled bitterly fought initiatives by the disappearing white majority at the ballot box to cut government services for illegal immigrants and to end "affirmative action" on jobs and university places.
Hispanic voters have been registering as Democrats in droves, complicating efforts by George W Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, to make inroads in a state where his credentials as a Spanish-speaking southerner with a Mexican-born sister-in-law might be expected to serve him well.
A poll last week showed Bush trailing 11 points behind Al Gore, the vice-president and Democrat candidate, in California, the most important electoral prize. More significantly, Bush was down by 39 points among the state's Hispanic voters, who make up 14% of its electorate.
In his home state of Texas, Bush has always been considered a strongly pro-Hispanic governor. His pandering to Hispanics, say Republican critics, has involved turning a blind eye to the 1,000 illegal immigrants who flood over the Rio Grande from Mexico each night.
Gore has been fawning just as energetically over the Hispanic vote. "The government is afraid that if they do anything about it, this 800lb gorilla known as the Latino vote is going to turn against them," said Connerly.
Traditionally a Republican issue, the need to control immigration is being ignored by conservative politicians at a time of unprecedented economic prosperity and low unemployment if only, says Brimelow, because "these Hispanic immigrants keep 'country-club Republicans' supplied with servants".
That could change, however, if the economy takes a downward turn and Americans find themselves competing with immigrants for jobs. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said: "There is a powderkeg of public animosity just below the surface." His group is lobbying for an 80% cut in the number of foreigners allowed in.
For his part, governor Davis prefers to look on the bright side. "There's no question that a more diverse population creates some potential discomforts and even potential conflicts," he said last week. "But it also brings great strengths."
Future generations of American can only hope he is right.