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The New Mainstream

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In The New Mainstream, journalist, novelist, and Internet entrepreneur Guy Garcia attempts to define how the “multicultural consumer” is transforming American business. He begins by writing:

When Christopher Columbus set foot on the shores of the New World, one of his first recorded impressions was of the natives, whom he described as “young . . . well made with fine shapes and faces . . . Some paint themselves with black, which makes them appear like those of the Canaries, neither black nor white; others with white, others with red, and others with such colors as they can find.” Columbus could have hardly guessed that more than five hundred years later his description of America as a youthful, multicolored tribe enhancing and inventing their identity from a palette of countless hues would ring uncannily true.

America is a nation transformed by the fulfillment of its own ideals. Never has its population and culture been more vibrant and diverse, never has it been more reflective of – and connected to – the rest of the world. The new America is taking root in major cities, suburbs, and towns. The new America exists at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and is striving for a better foothold at the top. The new America is defining – and defined by – the urban lifestyle, but it is also moving to the suburbs and smaller rural towns. The new America is transforming life at the office, where managers seek to increase productivity by diversifying their workforce; at the beauty parlor, where Anglo socialites use hair relaxers created for African Americans; and on the Internet, where online communities created for Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, and other groups are competing with major portals for eyeballs and cybercash: it is changing how we look and what we drive, what we eat and why we eat it. Most of all, it is changing how people make money and spend it, where it comes from and where it is going.

Garcia’s clearly optimistic perspective on the ongoing transformation of American culture is largely premised upon demographics. He describes the “new mainstream” as representing a loose but “sweeping” coalition of groups – Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and other minorities – who have long felt that they fell outside the traditional mainstream culture, or that they were not represented in that culture. As he points out, these groups each have significant purchasing power, and that power is only growing. Today the roughly eighty million people who fall within the elastic confines of this “new” mainstream make up approximately a quarter of the population and spend some $1.2 trillion a year. In less than fifty years, however, those traditionally “minority” groups will comprise almost half the country’s population and their purchasing power and income growth only continues to expand.

As a result, the putative dominant culture has to accommodate the newcomers in ways that it had not done previously. Garcia points out that many corporations are changing their image and marketing directly to the “ethnically savvy” sensibilities of these groups and the “new American consumer” in general. It is not just niche marketing, but a growing understanding – and acceptance – of the morphing perspectives of Americans in general. In a very real sense, the shifts taking place in America right now – where European non-Hispanic whites will eventually be outnumbered, where Hispanics have overtaken African-Americans as the nation’s largest minority, and where immigrants of all kinds are reshaping neighborhoods, schools, and churches. Even where I live in the north woods of Wisconsin I see the tip of the iceberg Garcia describes. I can be treated by a Russian radiologist or a Nigerian internist or an Indian general practitioner when I’m sick, while our church features a Spanish-language service,and our family has a number of friends from different ethnic and racial backgrounds (and hey, while my sister in law is of Chinese ancestry her family has lived in Equador for several generations, and now she lives in Oklahoma).

Like many Americans, I probably eat more salsa than ketchup although I enjoy both condiments. I don’t watch Oprah, but I recognize her power as a cultural icon and of the sports-posters that adorn my son’s bedroom walls only a few of the images are white; in his mind, at least, his Dirk Nowitski jersey is interchangeable with his Ben Wallace jersey. That is not to say that there aren’t disparities of income, or that discrimination does not exist in many places across the country. Instead, it is to say that there are significant changes manifesting themselves in the fabric of American life, and Garcia argues that the “new mainstream” represents a sizeable reason for them. Only in his mind, the shifting demographics represented by this collection of foreigners, trendsetters, outsiders, and iconoclasts is not a threat to the American way of life but instead “is in fact its most likely salvation.”

Garcia’s main premise is that America, as a nation of immigrants, has been constantly renewed and remade by the “new blood” that flowed across its borders. He argues that “diversity and dollars have become symbiotic and intrinsically linked.” Or to put it another way, “the mainstream is going multicultural.” Here is the reality behind his perspective: statistics project that by 2008, the combined buying power of African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans will account for 14.3 percent of the nation’s total, or $10.6 trillon, up from 10.7 percent of the total in 1990. Moreover, the projected increases in buying power for all minority groups far outstrips the projected increase for whites. In other words, minority groups are expected to not only have more purchasing clout, but also to see more significant increases in buying power than whites, which means they’ll theoretically have more flexibility in terms of purchase “new” things, and both factors make them attractive customers.

But Garcia’s book isn’t just about dollars and cents, or even dollars and diversity. It’s also about changing perceptions through the concept of “multicultural chic” or the notion that ethic is the new cool. As he notes, a 2002 study of 31 mainstream magazine covers indicated that one in five, or about 20%, depicted a minority; even five years earlier, the figure was only 12.7%. Over the same period of time, fashion magazines almost doubled their use of nonwhite cover models, and Garcia says that “Brown has become the new white, especially to the MTV generation, which was reared on the ethnically and sexually diverse images of music videos and shows like Road Rules and The Real World. And it is also reflected in the success of “new mainstream” toys like David Gonzales’ Homies (including Boby Loco, the bouncer down at the Homie Hot Spot, his friend Hollywood, and Wino, the former dot com millionaire who now has his friends buy him drinks) and the efforts Mattel is making to come up with a multicultural doll that doesn’t carry some of the cultural baggage of Ms. WASP herself, the ubiquitous Barbie.

I was reading this book one night while watching Sunday Night Football on ESPN (yes, I multitask: my wife is just happy the stereo isn’t going at the same time). And I couldn’t help but be struck by the juxtaposition of Garcia’s ideas of intersecting cultures (which ultimately produce something unique, as both the original culture and the new culture are modified through the merger) with what I saw on TV. The game was a blowout, but late in the fourth quarter a defensive player on the losing team hit somebody for a loss. He jumped to his feet and did a little shimmy dance number across the field. The commentators (all white) couldn’t believe it – “Just do your job,” one said. Another said something like, “Your team’s down by twenty points, guy. Don’t do that.”

The point is that there are several perceptions of behavior, all largely cultural. From one vantage point, it’s something along the lines of: don’t draw attention to yourself, just play the game and let the way you play show how good you are. And then there’s the attitude reflected by someone like Terrell Owens doing sit-ups in the endzone after a touchdown. Self-expression, self-promotion, emotional demonstration, whatever you want to call it, ultimately what we’re seeing is a measure of the intersection between the old and the new.

Garcia recognizes that it isn’t always going to be a smooth transition. Indeed, his section on the study of “implicit” bias and his discussion of “how soon” the shifting of mainstreams will occur both acknowledge problems. Nonetheless, his contention is that the transformation is both inevitable and essential. Just as earlier waves of immigrants both adapted to and also reshaped the “new world” they entered, this “new mainstream” is finding ways to express themselves and exert themselves within the context of the overall culture. In that regard, The New Mainstream is a fascinating manifesto of the multicultural transformation.

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About Bill Wallo