But the greatest Kennedy legacy to Obama isnâ€™t Ted or Caroline or Bobby Jr., but rather the Immigration Act of 1965, which created the diverse country that is already being called Obamaâ€™s America.
That act is rarely mentioned when recounting the high points of 1960s liberalism, but its impact arguably rivals the Voting Rights Act, the creation of Medicare, or other legislative landmarks of the era. It transformed a nation 85 percent white in 1965 into one thatâ€™s one-third minority today, and on track for a nonwhite majority by 2042.
Before the act, immigration visas were apportioned based on the demographic breakdown that existed at the time of the 1920 Censusâ€”meaning that there were few if any limits on immigrants from Western and Northern Europe, but strict quotas on those from elsewhere.
The belief that the United States should remain a nation of European lineage was openly discussed when immigration laws were revisited in 1952. The resulting bill, the McCarran-Walter Act, was notorious for giving the State Department the right to exclude visitors for ideological reasons, meaning that a raft of left-wing artists and writersâ€”including Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, British novelist Graham Greeneâ€”and scores of others were denied visas. But it also had the effect of maintaining the 1920s-era notion of the United States as a white nation. (Congress imposed the bill over President Trumanâ€™s veto.)
A decade later, attitudes were changing, and President Kennedy proposed a new immigration structure that would no longer be based on national origins. After Kennedyâ€™s assassination, his brother Ted took up the fight, pushing the Johnson administration to go even further than it wanted in evening the playing field. Though Lyndon Johnson, in signing the bill, tried to reassure opponents that it wouldnâ€™t do much to change the balance of immigration, its impact was dramatic.
Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN, formerly the New Democrat Network, calls the Immigration Act of 1965 â€œthe most important piece of legislation that no oneâ€™s ever heard of,â€ and said it â€œset America on a very different demographic course than the previous 300 years.â€
By adding so many Asians, Latinos, and African immigrants, Rosenberg says, the act changed the racial narrative in America from one of oppressionâ€”the white-black divide dating to slaveryâ€”to one of diversity. That change was strongly echoed in the Obama campaign, which emphasized the candidateâ€™s mixed-race background as making him representative of a new generation of Americans.
Neat to see it spelled out like that.
It took 43 years to see the effects.
Now the question is:
What kind of nation do we want for the future?