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New benchmarks of social change

So you think we Americans know ourselves? New census numbers reveal that a lot of our 20th century racial and ethnic assumptions are overdue for an overhaul.

For example, the South is rising again -- in terms of mixed-race marriages, one of the most dramatic yardsticks of racial change.

North Carolina's mixed-race population doubled since the 2000 census, according to the New York Times. It grew by more than 80 percent in Georgia and by almost that much in Kentucky and Tennessee. Even Mississippi, infamous in the 1960s for terror killings of civil rights workers, saw a 70 percent increase in mixed-race marriages, matching Indiana, Iowa and South Dakota.

African-Americans also have become less northern and more suburban, the census reports. The percentage of the nation's black population that lives in the South is higher than it's been in 50 years -- and higher than ever in suburbs.

News media tend to treat these new census findings as if they were a big surprise. In fact, they continue trends that began to appear in the early 1980s, largely as a consequence of seismic changes in anti-discrimination laws, immigration policy and the nation's industrial economy two decades earlier.

Black flight soon followed white flight to suburbs and economic opportunities in the Sun Belt. Economically hard-hit Detroit may be the worst victim of such changes. The Motor City lost a fourth of its population in the past decade alone.

The biggest surprise may be the growth of the Hispanic population, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis. If the Hispanic population had not grown in Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island since 2000, Pew says, those states' overall population would not have grown at all.

Reactions to those demographic changes predictably fall largely along generational lines. We older folks are more prone to diversity anxiety, while our children and grandchildren tend to see opportunities.

The hyperventilating I hear from some of today's alarmists reminds me of the immigrant anxiety in past generations of Americans, including young Benjamin Franklin who sounded editorial alarms about immigrants from Germany. He thought they would never make good Americans. But they did.

Today, the rise of Obama-generation Republicans like Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Indian-American Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina symbolize how well America's melting pot is working.

What keeps it working are families, schools and communities that maintain healthy, achievement-oriented values from one generation to the next. Our challenge today is to help make those values work for everybody. That includes our least-fortunate under-achieving households that have been left behind while the more fortunate neighbors moved away.

In that pursuit, we need to pay serious attention to two tough and touchy issues: national immigration reform and long-term poverty, including the one-fourth of black Americans left behind by the exodus of the new black middle class.

Bill Cosby in 2004 put his enormous star power to good use by calling attention to the role that poor people need to play in taking charge of their own social and economic destinies. But they can't do it alone.

Cosby launched a city-to-city crusade to recharge achievement-oriented values -- beginning with hard work, strong families and delayed gratification. Those are values that make the melting pot work.

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