Stirring the melting pot

The Thinker by Rodin

They were out there in force again today. You know, they who should not be seen. The janitors. The day laborers. The dishwashers. The construction workers. Today was after all May Day, a day which most of the world celebrates as the real Labor Day. May Day commemorates the strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, which began on May 1st, 1884 and culminated in the Haymarket Riot of May 4th, 1884. Eleven people died that day, and eight anarchists were later executed for allegedly throwing bombs into the crowd. It was an early but memorable skirmish in the labor movement, not just here in America, but also across the world. The strike was the catalyst for the eight-hour workday that Americans take for granted. (Perhaps I should say, “took for granted”. In our current economy, the eight-hour workday, like company pensions, is becoming obsolete.)

Today hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters, many of whom are here illegally, brazenly marched again through the streets of Los Angeles. Immigrants marched in many cities nationwide. 400,000 marched in Chicago, where May Day originated. Tens of thousands also marched in Houston, Florida and New York City. Many marched with oversized American flags and chanted “U-S-A!” You can bet the strikers at the Haymarket Riot were not acting quite so patriotic.

Today’s march follows on the heels of massive marches by immigration activists in March that attracted millions of people. It began in earnest on March 25th when over a million supporters of immigrants rights marched in Los Angeles. Tens of thousands also crowded the national Mall in Washington on April 10th to press a similar cause.

In truth, the face of America has been changing for a long time. Until recently, we could pretend it was otherwise. Illegal immigrants who live on the margins of society, who have learned the art of not being seen, are easier to put out of mind. Now this sleeping giant in our midst has woken up. It is clear as we move forward in the 21st century that the America of this century will look quite a bit different from the one most of us remember during the last century.

This is not news to me, for I am a Washingtonian. Comedian Stephen Colbert at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner called Washington a “chocolate city with a marshmallow center”. However, the greater Washington area feels more ethnically diverse than any other area of the country that I have ever been. It is fitting that the area I choose to call home is in many ways modeling how the rest of the country will be by 2050.

It is all a bit startling to my father, age 79. He is by no means a racist, but mostly he has known only the white middle class suburban life. In 2004, he and my mother moved from Midland, Michigan to Silver Spring, Maryland. They went from perhaps the most Wonder Bread city in Michigan to a retirement community that was overwhelmingly white but serviced by a people of darker hues. (How Wonder Bread is Midland? The Chinese restaurant we went to had white waiters.) Even my mother, certainly not a racist either, was never quite comfortable during her final days in the nursing home in Silver Spring, for she had a black physician and mostly a black staff taking care of her.

Her physician came from Ghana, where she had left her husband and family. She is in this country on a five-year contract. Her job is to ease very old and chronically infirm folks from old age to death. Talking with her during those dark days when my mother was languishing there, I learned that she was here because there were no American physicians willing to do her work. This is the way it is throughout much of our country. Those of us who have wealth can squeeze our dollars so well because of the cheap and often illegal immigrant labor that comes across borders.

Now the immigrant community is realizing they do not have to take it anymore. They understand that they have achieved a critical mass. They are no longer content to languish in the shadows of society. They came to this country to have a better life. While in most cases their new lives are better than those they left behind, the difference between their lives and ours is jarring. In many cases, they arrived here illegally. In many cases, they also pay employment taxes. However, the taxes rarely buy them anything. They contribute taxes into a system they cannot draw from unless they become either citizens or permanent residents. The closest they come to getting some return for their Medicare taxes is if they do not have insurance and have to visit an emergency room.

Some of us will wish that they would go back where they came from. Aside from the fact that it will not happen, our economy is intricately dependent upon their continued presence. However, even K-Marts blue light specials do not last forever. It is time, they are saying, for a more just share of the commonweal.

Ask any demographer and they will tell you the same thing. Whites will eventually be a minority in their own country. Here in the greater Washington region, in less than a decade, whites will be in the minority. In other metropolitan areas like Houston, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the day has already arrived.

Perhaps what we are experiencing now in our Republican controlled government is the last gasp of a dying era. For Republicans are overwhelmingly white. Perhaps Republicans sense that their end is near. The solid red South and West is likely to look a lot purpler in the next decade. Hispanics and many other minorities are moving from the margins into the full-fledged citizens, and they will be voting. It is not a given, of course, that they will be voting for the Democrats. Nevertheless, they are likely to carry different values and choices with them in the voting booth.

The U.S. Census Bureau has made its own estimates. Hispanic and Asian populations will triple in size over the next 50 years, while the population of white Americans will decrease by 19 percent. By 2010, 35% of America will be minority. By 2050, we will all be minorities. For a while, whites may retain the status of the largest of the minorities, but no ethnicity or race will be able to claim majority status.

I do not think this is a bad thing. America has long claimed to be a melting pot. However, in truth a melting pot has meant that immigrants assimilate traditional white Protestant European values. By 2050, we will become a melting pot in fact.

Virginia to gays: share our values or get the hell out

The Thinker by Rodin

Today’s Washington Post brings more sad news that I am living in the wrong state. If it were not for this wonderful job three miles from my house and twenty years vested as a civil servant I would probably be living across the Potomac River, or heading to any place where the good citizens have some sense of justice and proportion. I will likely get there soon after I retire.

Because it looks like Virginia voters (courtesy of our legislature) will have an opportunity to enshrine in the state constitution once and for all that, you guessed it, marriage is between one man and one woman only. Knowing my fellow citizens as I unfortunately do, I am afraid this is a slam-dunk. For I live in the great homophobic state of Virginia.

I have written about gay marriage before. I have no illusions that, barring a U.S. Supreme Court decision, it will happen in Virginia during my lifetime. Naturally, I feel that laws discriminating against homosexuals like this are deeply wrong, hurtful and anti-American. But what really pains me today is I know that, just like the Jim Crow laws so plentiful throughout the South at one time, this constitutional amendment will someday either be stricken down by the U.S. Supreme Court or simply excised altogether by some future generation of ashamed Virginia voters. If Virginians are unwise enough to vote in this proposed constitutional amendment, they or their children will rue the day it passed. It is simply mean spirited. It is sadly just another big f— you to those citizens of the Commonwealth who happen to be attracted to their own gender.

As reprehensible as this amendment is, I already know that Virginia has a sad history of showing contempt for homosexuals. Entries like this one will refresh your memory. The Washington Post Magazine also reported sad stories like this. Make no mistake: in Virginia, homosexuals have under the law essentially become second-class citizens. Unable to legally discriminate against the people we used to hate, like Jews and African Americans, my fellow citizens deeply repressed feelings of rage must be channeled somewhere. So now it is chic to make life increasingly miserable for those who don’t happen to share our heterosexual values. The message is simply: emulate our values or get the hell out.

Therefore, as The Washington Post Magazine article sadly points out, gay couples increasingly simply get out. They know they are not wanted. For Virginia law will not allow gay couples to pass to each other even a nickel of their inheritance to each other. Should they want to be there for their spouse when they are in the hospital, they can be refused. For gays and lesbians, their partners are not legal relatives, and consequently not next of kin. It is the equivalent of spitting in their faces. It is simply mean.

Who are the people who are passing these laws? Mostly they claim to be Christians. It is a good thing Jesus does not live here. If he is the man depicted in the New Testament, it is clear he would be choking on his matzah right now. Jesus was after all someone who spoke of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Negroes of Palestine at the time. He hung out with the lepers and the prostitutes. He avoided the moneychangers in the temple. Jesus was not about exclusivity. He was about inclusiveness. He told us to do to others, as we want them to do to us. If the homosexuals were running the world, would good heterosexual couples want them to void all their marriage contracts? Would they want to be stripped of their simple human right to pass on their inheritance to the person they love, or to be prohibited from giving their beloved comfort in a time of great stress?

It is not likely that they would. Nevertheless, modern Christianity, at least as practiced here in Virginia, has become so twisted and perverted that it has become 100% righteousness and 0% compassion, unless, of course, you model a life very, very close to their lives. Then they can identify with you. Then you become a member of the club. As for the rest of you: go to the back of the bus or better yet, just get the hell out of the commonwealth. If this cannot be done legally because of those darned liberal judges, well, find any legal way you can to turn the screws on those whose values and morals you personally do not agree with.

In addition to causing needless hurt and distress in the lives of good American people, such attitudes only serve to divide us more as a nation. Therefore, at least for a while, the citizens of Virginia are likely to get their wish. The bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender community will increasingly cross the Potomac River to live in Washington D.C. or Maryland or any place where the people have some compassion in their hearts for those with different values. The sad result: red states will get redder and blue states will get bluer. The culture wars will grow. Rather than trying to become a more inclusive nation, these misguided laws will simply drive us into increasingly hateful and xenophobic behavior.

I wish that the citizens of my state could find some compassion in their hearts for those unlike them. Instead we have this constant stream of mean spirited laws and now this reprehensible constitutional amendment. Yet the time of their repeal will come eventually. It may take 50 years. It may take a hundred years. Yet it will happen in time, yes even here in Virginia. Just as we once hung our heads in shame for tolerating evils like slavery, just as we flagrantly hung on to white and black only schools as recently as 1964, the time will come when we will look back on these sad modern times wholly aghast that we could have ever been so shallow, intolerant and mean spirited.

Our Emerging Post Ethnic Society

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Color Expectant

The Thinker by Rodin

Why should the lack of diversity in a setting bother me?

This is one of those unsettling questions I have been asking myself for which I have no ready answer. It was triggered this time by a brief overnight foray into the Shenandoah Mountains with my wife. With our daughter Rosie in Canada on an extended field trip, we had an opportunity to escape to a B&B. Because we hadn’t done much planning in advance our selection was somewhat limited. We ended up in the Rose Room at the Cross Roads Inn, in downtown New Market, Virginia.

I knew where I was going and felt prepared. This is God’s country. Off came the antiwar bumper stickers that were now pretty pointless anyhow and might well cause a brick through my car window. The further you get from D.C. the more you feel the old South surround you. Maybe it is every highway seeming to be named after General Lee or General Jackson. Maybe it is grits on the menu. Maybe it is the churches every few miles on even the most remote roads. Or maybe it is the way the people become more and more Wonder Bread the further west you go.

New Market is not a large town nor does it have much in the way of diverse dining experiences. A frozen custard stand and a Godfather’s Pizza counter wasn’t quite what we had in mind for dinner. However there was the Shenvalee Country Club (a play on “Shenandoah Valley”, no doubt) down the street that offered casual dining and decent food. So we went there, although it was hard to find a parking space because we were dodging golf carts.

We were shown to a large dining room and elected for the buffet dinner. At $15.95 it was a pretty good deal: the food was better than average and the guy at the carving board was generous with the cuts of prime rib he was handing out. Our waitress was very attentive; I couldn’t take more than a few sips of coffee before she refilled my cup. And it certainly was a pleasant place with quiet and lovely green grass to look at outside the dining room window.

Still, I felt like I had hives. And it took me a while to figure out why. I was back in the 50s. I was in Leave it to Beaver Land. At first it was the lack of African Americans I noticed. But the more I looked around the weirder it got. There was no one of ANY color here at all. Not one of the hundred or so patrons. Not one of the waitresses. Not one person on the course or driving range. No blacks. No Hispanics. No Americans of oriental ancestry. Just lots and lots of WASPs, many right off the course, many with large nice white Wonder bread families in tow.

I only remember feeling this way once before, some seven years earlier when I was in Salt Lake City. Except actually I saw a little color there. There were a couple Native Americans hanging around the street corners in Salt Lake City. Otherwise it was Wonder Bread City: a whole city full of happy, prosperous, family-oriented white largely Mormon types.

At the Shenvalee Restaurant it was Jarhead City. Crew cuts were in. Most of the people looked retired, military or ex-military. Some of the golfers were reasonably svelte, but most were overweight or obese. On the other hand they all seemed to be good people. There were no crying brats. The kids were well behaved. The people were friendly.

So why was I getting a case of the hives? After all I grew up in Wonder Bread land too. Endwell, New York in the 1960s was just like this country club. Maybe people didn’t make as much money. But I was in tenth grade before I recall seeing a black person. There were no Hispanics. There were probably a couple Orientals but I don’t remember any. (I will note that in 2000 I returned to the area for a short visit and did find some diversity; the people who ran our hotel were Middle Eastern.)

I’ve been out of Kansas too long, I guess. The Washington D.C. area is nothing if not culturally diverse. Now I do live in a predominantly WASPish sort of community, but we do have at least a large smattering of people of color. It’s not unusual to go running and see some woman in a sari walking down the street.

And it’s not like I don’t generally hang around with my own race. I have African Americans here at work I work well with but at the end of the day we go back to our separate communities. The UU church I attend has exactly one black member. (Hey, at least the man heading the denomination is African American!) But I don’t feel I am prejudiced on the basis of race, sex or religion.

I do wonder though if I am prejudiced against my own race. Or maybe I am prejudiced against those with strongly conservative values who look like me. At the Shenvalee Restaurant I felt in the minority, but I also felt cloaked. Here I was a liberal, agnostic anti-war liberal in the midst of a group I perceived to be conservative, military, rich and overly Republican. Maybe that’s the issue and it’s not an issue of race.

Maybe. Or maybe it is also that I am “color expectant” now. It seems weird to me to be any place now where people of different colors and ethnicities are not intermingling. I would have bet that in the dining room of the Shevalee Restaurant there was not a Jewish person there either. I even wondered if it was a private country club that restricted membership based on race. I don’t know. It is probably not that kind of place but I suspect a person of color might have a hard time getting a membership there.

If I were colorblind then it would make no difference to me if 100 people in a restaurant were all WASPs. So I think I must be color expectant now. I want and expect people of all sorts and from all backgrounds to be wherever I am. And when I don’t have it, it seems as weird to me as it probably did when the first African Americans were bused to the local all white schools.

Am I showing some sort of reverse prejudice? Am I leaping to conclusions that I should not leap to? Your comments are appreciated.