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Commentary: What Olympic gold says about diversity in America

  • Story Highlights
  • Navarrette: What it means to be an American is changing
  • Census bureau says minorities will be a majority by 2050
  • Navarette says Hillary Clinton adviser suggested exploiting fears of change
  • Olympic gold medal wrestler gets what it takes to be American, he says
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says it's good Hillary Clinton rejected a suggestion to question Obama's American roots.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- With the 2008 Olympics in Beijing coming to an end this weekend, it's as good a time as any to think about what it means to be an American.

And to help us do that, let's turn to a pair of recent and seemingly unrelated stories that fit together, as Latinos say, como anillo al dedo (like a ring on a finger).

First there was the disappointing news that Hillary Clinton's former chief strategist, Mark Penn, urged Clinton to attack Barack Obama for not being "fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values" because -- according to Penn -- his "roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited."

How about that. Before Republicans were accused of playing the race card, it was a Democrat who proposed playing "the American card."

Fortunately, Clinton rejected the advice. Some of her other advisers feared it could backfire.

So what have we learned? Apparently, Penn -- a white male -- isn't enamored of multiculturalism and the view that America is less a melting pot than a salad bowl whose ingredients preserve their uniqueness. In fact, Penn insisted, Obama's background could be used against him in the court of public perception.

"All these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared toward showing his background is diverse, multicultural, and putting that in a new light," Penn wrote, according to an article by Joshua Green in Atlantic magazine. "Save it for 2050."

Save it for 2050? Why Mark, whatever do you mean?

Probably this -- last week, the Census Bureau reported what demographers, political consultants, and marketing strategists have known for years: Minorities will be the majority in America by -- wait for it -- 2050. The whole notion of what it means to be an American is about to change. Again.

Right now, non-whites make up about a third of the U.S. population. But, by 2050, 54 percent of the population will be minorities. The Hispanic population is expected to triple between now and 2050, going from 46.7 million to 132.8 million. And by 2050, more than one in four Americans is expected to be Hispanic.

The Asian-American population is projected to increase from 15.5 million to 40.6 million making almost 10 percent of the population of Asian background by 2050.

One reason is birthrates. They are higher for minority groups than for whites. According to other Census figures released this week, white women in the United States now have an average of 1.8 children. Hispanics and African-Americans have an average of 2.3 and 2.0 kids, respectively.

That is the reality creeping around the corner. Immigration restrictionists know it. Inflammatory radio and cable personalities know it.

Barack Obama knows it. He was ahead of the curve last month when he told supporters: "You need to make sure your child can speak Spanish." And, judging from the panic-stricken reaction, it wouldn't hurt to also teach a little tolerance to adults -- especially the culturally insecure.

And of course Mark Penn knows it. He seems to have figured out that many Americans are anxious about changing demographics and worried about having to adapt to new surroundings. No wonder he was ready to rail against multi-culturalism -- and a multi-cultural opponent.

The year 2050 will be here before you know it, and all too soon for some people.

Those folks need to calm down. America's face is constantly changing. But its heart and soul are rock solid. And so is its spirit.

Just ask 21-year-old wrestler and Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo. The U.S.-born son of illegal immigrants, Cejudo was raised in humble surroundings by a single mother who worked two and sometimes three jobs to provide for her children. His father died when he was a child. A longshot to win any medal since he had so little world-level experience, Cejudo credits his mom with teaching him how to become a champion.

"I never played the victim," he told reporters. "My mom taught us to suck it up. Whatever you want to do, you can do, and that's what I did."

And those skittish uni-culturalists needn't worry about this one.

"I'm proud of my Mexican heritage," Cejudo said. "But I'm an American. It's the best country in the world. They call it the land of opportunity, and it is."

The kid figured it out. Many will object to how Henry Cejudo's parents came to the United States. Some might say that as the child of illegal immigrants, he doesn't deserve U.S. citizenship and shouldn't be allowed to stay here. But I can't think of a better place for him. Just listen to his words. There is no doubt that he is -- to borrow a phrase -- "fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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