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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Peace through diversity?

April 6, 2001

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— After lo these many years, I have finally come up with a plan for world peace: immigration.

Is there an Irishman and a Brit who still can't see eye to eye? Come to America and you'll become a couple of white guys.

Is there a Tutsi and a Hutu still not getting along? Welcome to the land where you will both become shazam! African-Americans.

Koreans and Japanese holding old animosities? Tamils and Sinhalese at war? Give us your tired, poor, huddled masses and before you can say "my country 'tis of thee," we'll have transformed them into one bloc of Asian-Americans.

I offer this peace plan after reading the new Census Bureau reports. The big news is the increased diversity of these United States. Not only has the population increased some 13 percent in 10 years through procreation and, yes, immigration, there has been a vast increase in what were once called minorities.

The best example is California, home to one of every eight Americans. As of now, no single ethnic or racial group makes up a majority. (What do you call a minority when it's not?)

But in the midst of increased diversity, no one seems to have marked or at least remarked upon a mirror-image of decreasing diversity.

I think of this having grown up in a town where neighborhoods were as defined by ethnicity as the border between Serbia and Bosnia. If an Italian Catholic dated an Irish Catholic there was a family crisis.

In Boston, moreover, many of Irish descent were raised with memories and experiences of being shunned as outsiders No Irish Need Apply by a Yankee establishment. Somewhere along the way many of the sons of Ireland found themselves recast into another category: white male establishment. To some this is a sign of success, but others still find it an identity shock.

Indeed, many of us carry both internal and external identity cards. There can be a real disconnect between the way Americans see themselves and the way they are seen by each other. Especially when we are asked "what are you?" Not who are you, but what.

The prime example is still Tiger Woods, who describes his own background as Thai, African, Chinese and Native American. But he is more likely to be labeled as black. On the other hand, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court was born in South Africa and is African-American by any literal definition. But Justice Margaret Marshall is white.

America seems to morph from one view of diversity, one set of labels, to another. Poles, Russians, Germans, French not only intermarried but magically had their differences bleached white. The categories that define diversity today from Pacific Islander to black to white tell us less about their members than about what the country thinks is the important difference. And in America, it's still largely race.

But even here there is change in the census. The two fastest-growing categories are not distinct racial categories, but overlapping. One is Hispanics. (Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans! Come to America and be Hispanic!) This is a group that ranges across color as well as culture.

The other is the new check-off identity: multiracial. Remember when census-takers in the bad old days used to define "octoroons" as members of the Negro race? Any drop of black blood turned a person black, although a drop of white blood never turned a person white.

Last year, some 7 million Americans took the first chance to describe themselves by multiple backgrounds. This upset some ethnic leaders worried about political clout, but it comforted those looking for psychological reality.

America is not a melting pot. It's a set of melding pots. We are defined by labels between our personal identity as an individual and our shared identity as Americans.

I am a census-defined "non-Hispanic white," but also a German-Russian-Polish-Whatever personality. I wonder if it's possible to arrive at a more accurate identity by acknowledging a multiple one. An identity defined by ourselves rather than by others.

I know there's a flaw in my international peace plan. The enemy immigrants who come here may escape their tribal warfare only to confront our own prejudices and divisions. But somewhere deep in the numbers of the Census Bureau, there's an outline for domestic peace.

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