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Mary Kenny: Who breeds wins: falling birth rates pose challenges


Barack Obama with his predecessor George W Bush: 'a fitting symbol of a diverse America'.

Barack Obama with his predecessor George W Bush: 'a fitting symbol of a diverse America'.

Barack Obama with his predecessor George W Bush: 'a fitting symbol of a diverse America'.

A remarkable cultural shift was apparent in the US over the past week: the 'New York Times' disclosed that white Americans are now destined to be a minority in the future of the US.

Fewer than half of American births are now to white mothers: more than 50pc are to black, mixed-race or Hispanic families.

For some people, this might seem an alarming change: the US was constructed, historically, on its White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant basis. The founding fathers were white Protestants who pioneered a new democracy with Bible and gun.

And until well into the 20th century, the icons of the US were overwhelmingly white Protestants -- from the great wealth-builders like Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller, to the Wild West legends like Kit Carson (an Ulsterman, by heritage, just like John Wayne, Andrew Jackson and Elvis Presley) and Jesse James. And, until John F Kennedy in 1960, all American Presidents were WASPS.

Blacks, let alone Native Americans (the tribal nations made up of those people we once called Red Indians), held inferior status in American culture -- a theme which can be examined from American movies.

Until well into the 1960s, American blacks were largely invisible, or only featured as servants, as in 'Gone With The Wind'.

Play an old Doris Day film -- take the popular 'The Pyjama Game', for example, a hit comedy made in 1957 -- and not a single black face, or voice, appears among the cast or chorus.

Hispanics -- in the shape of Mexican-Americans -- were seldom seen, except sleeping under a sombrero in the sun. The lack of racial diversity in American films occurred more from a lack of consciousness that America was in reality a multi-racial nation than from any vicious form of racism. Most American whites didn't know any black people, except in the context of service, or, possibly boxing and athletics.

That all began to change with the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and a conscious effort at cultural change by the post-1960s generations.

And now the change is so dramatic that, if culture reflects society, white Americans should be the invisible ones, as their birth rate falls increasingly behind those of different ethnicities.

But why would anyone mind, or care, about the future ethnic composition of the US? President Barack Obama has made the breakthrough as the elected leader of the US (and with a good chance of being re-elected) and his mixed-race background is a fitting symbol of a diverse America -- a composition that is reflected elsewhere in the world too. France is now 25pc non-white, Britain nearly 10pc.

And in a paradoxical way, the higher birth rate of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans is probably good news for cultural conservatives.

Hispanic Americans (who are in the majority Catholic) and African-Americans (who are often Evangelical or Pentecostal Protestants) are more likely to have conservative views when it comes to social issues.

For instance, when President Obama came out in favour of gay marriage, he received warm words of congratulations from George Clooney and generous campaign contributions from wealthy gay donors.

But among American blacks, there was a more muted or even critical response. Leading black pastors argued that Obama was "railroaded" into the announcement by his party. African-Americans are often moral conservatives.

The decline in the white birth rate over a number of developed countries has been ascribed to two main influences: feminism and secularism.

Secular, agnostic or atheist groups always have lower fertility than religious ones: they practise birth control more assiduously, and are more likely to choose childlessness for a number of reasons.

Feminists tend to defer childbearing until later -- automatically reducing fertility -- and highly educated women have approximately 50pc lower fertility than other women.

Religious cultures, by contrast, tend to be pro-natalist -- following the Biblical instruction to "go forth and multiply" -- and to emphasise the family unit rather than individual choice.

All over Europe the same pattern has prevailed: where secularism and feminism have gained ground, birth rates have fallen -- among whites. Ethnic cultures, which tend to be more religious, have continued with higher fertility. France's population is maintained at more than replacement level by virtue of its large Islamic constituency.

Ireland is an interesting example of a balance of cultures: the Irish birth rate continues to be above replacement level, possibly because there is still a strong deposit of faith values (and a tradition of family) among the people, even if secularism has increased its position in the public realm. And I would suggest that Ireland is getting the balance about right: there is more tolerance of secularism, but it hasn't -- yet -- caused a dramatic fall in indigenous fertility.

Despite the polemics about "over-population" the old demographic principle still prevails: who breeds wins. If you don't replace your own population, your tribe will decline.

Doris Day America is no more, and in most ways, that's a good thing. But prepare for surprises among the changing cultural patterns.

Irish Independent