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"Leadership, Commitment, and Slogans,"

by Bill Ong Hing January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

Beginning at an early age, we encounter a good deal of discourse about the virtues and strength of our pluralistic society. Consider my daughter's fifth grade social studies textbook America Will Be. Chapter 1 is titled "A Nation of Many Peoples," and the first paragraph contains this passage: "From the earliest times, America has been a land of many peoples. This rich mix of cultures has shaped every part of life in the United States today." The authors continue, as a "pluralistic culture, life is exciting. People work, join together, struggle, learn, and grow."

Few would deny — at least publicly — the aspirations and optimism contained in this sentiment. The public face of American pluralism— dominated by politicians, professionals and community leaders — is mostly positive. Certainly one can point to high-profiled separatists who have become disenchanted with this vision for ideological reasons that we all must come to understand if we are to ever win back their followers. However, most leaders talk proudly of our diversity and the strength it brings to the nation.

The problem is with the private, off-camera face of American pluralism. Time and time again in recent years. American leaders and the public have acted in ways that demonstrate that the flowery language of pluralism is mere rhetoric. The sweeping manner in which complex issues related to undocumented immigration and affirmative action are handled, as epitomized by California Propositions 187 and 209, jeopardizes any progress toward peaceful co-existence. At the same time, the overwhelming popularity of such propositions illustrates the challenge we face as a society. In both instances, as the election neared, polls indicated that the gap had narrowed between those favoring and those opposing the propositions. Yet when the election results came in, support for each proposition was overwhelming. While the polls had been seriously wrong about the propositions, they were quite accurate on how the candidates would do in the very same elections! It seems that many people lie to pollsters about how they will vote on issues related to race and ethnicity. Their public rhetoric of pluralism is quite different from their private sense of pluralism.

Attitudes about immigration reveal much about racial attitudes. When I speak at public forums on immigration policy, the fervor and rabidness of many of the restrictionists in the audience remind me that race continues to play a prominent role in the debate. Certainly not all people who are opposed to current levels of immigration are racists. Many are people of goodwill who sense a change with which they are uncomfortable or who are concerned about alleged economic effects they have heard. Most of them realize that many of the allegations about immigrants are overblown, that our jobs and wages are affected by the increasingly global economy and world money markets, that resources and environmental degradation are borderless issues, and that our society has always changed and can continue to change in positive ways if everyone takes responsibility and practices tolerance.

But racists in the anti-immigrant camp reveal their true colors when they express themselves irrationally or ignore empirical evidence. What becomes clear is that they use economic, environmental and social arguments as a pretext for their concern about the Asian and Latino domination of current legal immigration. While they may also have objections about the class of new arrivals, the fact is that they complained about too many Southeast Asian, Haitian, Central American and Chinese refugees over the past generation, yet not about those from Eastern European countries before the breakup of the USSR; they whined about the increasing numbers of Mexican, Chinese, Filipino and Korean immigrants in the 1980s, but supported special quotas for Irish nationals; they disdain the Latino barrios, Little Indias and Little Saigons, but view as quaint the continued enclaves of Italians, Poles and Russians. These are people who are not simply deeply troubled by racial changes; these are people living with palpable hate.

The neo-nativist and Euro-conformist forces have been incredibly successful of late, since, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, propaganda is much more effective when it stirs up hatred than when it tries to bring about friendship. The critics of immigration are well-organized. Indeed, their ability to whip up hysteria from exaggeration, thin air and overstatement is frightening. Less than twenty-five years ago, little in the way of an environmental movement existed in the United States. Yet with leadership, planning, commitment and persistence, we have become an environmentally-conscious society. Schoolchildren are taught about the environment. Local governments push recycling and waste reduction plans. Many states make water conservation a high priority and set up counterparts to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Many of us do not act (just think of our soft drink containers) without considering the possible impact on the environment.

The same kind of commitment is needed for inter-ethnic connections. We need to promote constant awareness of group relations, elimination of conscious and unconscious racism, and social acceptance of people of color. We must reach a new level of consciousness, strive to develop a new inclusive vocabulary, explore new ways of being American and recognize the variety of racial and ethnic issues that face our society.

Not long ago, while driving in Los Angeles, I noticed banners on light poles every few blocks extolling the virtues of recycling oil. The banners have simple slogans like "Recycle Now" and simple artwork. I am all for this campaign, but I wonder: Where are the slogans and banners advancing better race relations? Wouldn't it be marvelous to see pennants counseling us to "Just Get Along," streamers reminding us "Respect for All People: The First Step" or flags seeking to "Unite Us, Don't Divide Us"? Although we are not all environmentalists, and we are committed to the environment in different degrees, even that level of awareness in a new commitment to inter-ethnic relationships would be much better than what we have today, when interracial dialogue is minimal and positive discussion even within communities about other communities receives low priority.

Of course, beyond the need for leadership and slogans, we each must make a commitment to a new respectful form of pluralism. A respectful pluralism must be one of inclusion rather than exclusion. Our commitment must respect the history, the traditions, the culture, the literature, the values, the language and the music of Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans and others as those cultural qualities have distinctly evolved within our borders. This modern vision recognizes that the Navajo's respect for the earth and its natural resources is an American value; that the African American-led civil rights movement of the 1960s represents a powerful movement in American history; that the folklore and labor of Mexican farm workers is an American experience; that the continuing nightmares of torture, death and heartache endured by Cambodian refugees and survivors of the Holocaust is a component of the American psyche. It recognizes that the American experience is broad and diverse. In short, it recognizes not only that being an American can mean different things to different people, but also that each experience contributes to the national story and each achievement in inter-ethnic relations leads the nation forward.

Bill Ong Hing is Visiting Professor of Law, U. C. Davis, and Executive Director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
 
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