They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain.
There’s hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch.
And I don’t like anybody very much!
But we can be tranquil, and thankful, and proud,
For mans’ been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud.
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away.
They’re rioting in Africa, there’s strife in Iran.
What nature doesn’t do to us, will be done by our fellow man.
– The Kingston Trio
Last weekend I sat down at watched “Gangs of New York”. I am not much one for violent movies and I’m sort of amazed I made it through this particular movie, since it is heavy on the violence. But at the same time it is a compelling portrait of mid 19th century life in Manhattan’s lower east side. The movie suggests that Five Points was the hot epicenter of this nation’s melting pot; and the major activity in that area was one set of ethnic gangs beating up other sets of ethnic gangs. The folks in “West Side Story” were playing with matches compared with these people.
Yes it was a difficult movie but somehow riveting and hard to turn off. But it did get me thinking and hoping that maybe in this country most of these ethnic tensions are behind us. I hesitate to declare victory too early but maybe, just maybe, we are finally figuring out how to live with each other despite our differences. This is a marked difference from much of the rest of the world.
It’s not like, God forbid, that we are living in one giant diverse multicultural neighborhood. Here in Northern Virginia we have our ethnic enclaves. The Vietnamese and Koreans are in Annandale. Hispanics have clustered in Herndon. African Americans are pretty hard to find here in Fairfax County, but you can find pockets of them along Richmond Highway in Alexandria, and here in Reston in places like Dogwood. We WASPs fill out much of the rest of the county, with heaviest proportions in the higher income neighborhoods like McLean and Great Falls.
So we are not quite yet a melting pot. But there are signs we are getting along with each other. I live in a bedrock, largely Republican bedroom community, an exurb of Herndon called Oak Hill. But it’s not hard to find people of different colors or ethnicities around here. African Americans are hardest to find, but there are lots of people who are oriental, Indian or Persian. What we don’t have a lot of are people with modest incomes. To own one of the many McMansions in our neighborhood, you can’t do it working at the Walmart. But in spite of some major cultural differences, we do have a number of similar values including a deep appreciation for the importance of education, commitment toward our children and safe and supportive neighborhoods.
As a federal employee I am surrounded by diversity every day. Among the federal employees I know in my agency, a majority might actually be African American. Among all the people in my agency (there are a lot of contractors) we WASPs are a distinct minority. But it doesn’t seem the least bit weird to me any more. As I ruminated in this entry it is seems weird now to be away from it.
I read a lot of news and I’ve been struck by the ethnic and religious conflicts of late. India vs. Pakistan is one such example. Inside Pakistan itself there was recently a huge terrorist bombing of a Shi’ite Mosque killing dozens of people. It is assumed that terrorists from the Sunni minority were responsible for the incident, mainly because the Shi’ites have been persecuting them for a long time. To put this conflict into terms we can understand, the difference between Shi’ite and Sunni is like the difference between Catholic and Protestant. Apparently there is still quite a ways to go before they can learn to coexist in peace and Pakistan is beginning to resemble Northern Ireland.
But of course the world is rife with ethnic and religious conflicts. We haven’t done the best job of managing these conflicts in our own country either. I think it is becoming clearer that we are getting better at learning to live with each other.
It occurred to me recently that while the melting pot metaphor is not really an accurate one for those of us living in the United States, we are a fairly unique laboratory (Brazil being the other one) where lots of ethnicities are learning to live together in peace. In fact, over time this may be our greatest strength.
As “Gangs of New York” makes clear it has not been a pleasant journey at times. Nonetheless it is fascinating to look at historical trends at work. By the time I pass on it is likely that Americans of European ancestry will no longer be in the majority and may not even be in the plurality. Current trends suggest that a hundred years from now if any ethnicity predominates in this country it is likely to be Hispanic. But just as likely is that there will be a rough mixture all of us.
I feel good for my daughter’s generation. She has known nothing but diversity since the day she came into the world, and she has learned to appreciate and respect the diversity around her. It is not just ethnic diversity that she has learned to respect, but religious and political diversity as well. Recently the Washington Post ran an article suggesting the post ethnic age was at hand. It may well be that to my daughter’s generation it won’t really matter what someone’s color, or ethnicity or religion is. We will all share enough of the same culture and lifestyle where these things will recede into the background. Instead perhaps we will live Martin Luther King’s dream where we will all be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.
If I could design the ideal America I would do my best to select equal numbers from all ethnicities and religions. No one group should predominate. In such a society we have no choice but to work through our problems together. I feel sorry for the Sunnis in Pakistan, who are very much a religious minority and will likely always be a religious minority. But I feel good about the diversity in our own country. When our soldiers fight in places like Iraq the locals are seeing a multicultural hue of colors, and people of all faiths and ethnicities. This in itself can seem like a threat to foreign eyes, but I hope it is also a wake up call of what the world can and should look like.
We are modeling the future of the world here and now in the United States. I hope we are getting it right this time.