How immigration is transforming our society.
The definition of terrorist has drifted far from ground zero.
The return of the culture wars.
The Angolan wars connection to suburban Arizona.
Market Magic's Empty Shell
Days of infamy and memory.
Let's review the tape.
The liberal media strike again.
Israels gravest danger is not the Palestinians.
Bush unilaterally junks the ABM accord.
Washington gives Indians the runaroundagain.
Mumia's death sentence is overturned, for now.
Massey Energy, Inc. targeted by labor and greens.
Phil Radford: Last Call, Save the Ales.
BOOKS: Empires new clothes.
The Empty Theater
BOOKS: Joan Didion vs. the political class.
BOOKS: The Complete Works of Isaac Babel.
FILM: The Devils Backbone of the Spanish Civil War.
December 22, 2001
The New America
How immigration is transforming our society
he tall, white-washed mosque is set back from a busy commercial street that
cuts through a densely populated valley east of San Francisco. On a Friday in
October, five rows of Afghan men pray in the hot, midday sun. They are mourning
the death of an old friend in Hayward, a strip of suburban California that is
home to one of the largest concentrations of Afghans in the United States.
In front of their mosque, on top of a 50-foot pole, flies an American flag.
The flag went up after September 11. Before then, the Afghans felt no need to
advertise their loyalty to America. Things have changed. These Afghans suddenly
have a lot to prove. The U.S. government is fighting a self-styled war
on terror, and President Bush has declared that those who fail to help
in this war are the enemy.
Along with other immigrants, they are racing to keep pace with the reality
of America under threat. The task is complicated because there no longer is
a single criterion, if there ever was one, of what it means to be an American.
In World War II, Americans jailed law-abiding citizens of Japanese descent as
a precaution. Today, Afghans freely criticize the U.S. bombing of their country,
and even complain that Islamic extremists have reason to resent America. President
Bush, though elected on the strength of his fervent Christianity, has visited
a mosque and pointedly says he has no argument with genuine Muslims, only the
phony ones who endorse or defend terror.
In Californiathe first state in which ethnic minorities comprise
the majoritybecause no ethnic or racial community commands enough of a
following, no great pressure exists in the U.S. for subcultures to conform to
a single, national ideal.
As the men disperse, their prayers done, three volunteers from a local civil
rights group hand out leaflets, telling the Afghans not to speak to any FBI
agents without an attorney, which the group will supply as needed. One of the
volunteers, Nadia Olmedo, is herself an immigrant, a social worker whose parents
are from South America. People in this country should feel solidarity
with Afghans, not fear them, she tells the men.
Her words echo an American motto: E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one.
Yet this phrase is deceptively simple. Just how does a society create unity
out of diverse peoples?
he United States once imposed uniformity on its people by actively discouraging
newcomers from maintaining ties with their homelands or speaking their native
languages. Other countries in the world, including Germany, adopted this philosophy
of assimilation. One of the outcomes of the civil rights movement was to discredit
When the landmark Immigration Act of 1965 opened American borders to immigrants
from poorer, developing countries, especially Asia, these newcomers took advantage
of the new laissez-faire attitude toward immigrant lifestyles and values. By
the early 90s, tolerance of immigrant cultures was so ingrained in U.S.
law and social practice that many conservatives and even some liberals complained
about the unraveling of America.
Some unraveling is inevitable, of course. In the past 20 years, more than 20
million foreigners movedlegallyto the United States. While these
newcomers energized the countryhelping its economy, giving its population
a younger, more dynamic castthey carried costs as well as benefits. The
differences among Americans, in short, probably are as great as they were during
the last great wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century. But these
differences seem more likely to endure, as immigrants use the Internet, the
telephone and easier modes of travel to maintain connections with their native
To be sure, there is something wonderful about the new America. At a Catholic
Church not far from this mosque, the congregation consists of people born in
Brazil, Nigeria, the Philippines, Mexico and, yes, the United States. Masses
are held in Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese. Not only are immigrants
welcome to worship at St. John the Baptist Church, the priest says, but the
parishs survival depends on them.
Father John Maxwell walks his talk, too. One recent Sunday, after mass, the
church gymnasium filled up with hundreds of immigrants from Nigeria. They came
to attend mass and celebrate the fall harvest with palm wine, roasted chicken
and rice. Father Maxwell capped the event by donning a native Nigerian costume
and dancing to frenetic Nigerian music.
Such scenes are a staple of U.S. society. The insistence on celebrating
diversity is so routine it has become a cliché. A new TV advertisement
being shown throughout the United States as a public service depicts dozens
of people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, including Arab-looking
men and women, saying proudly, I am an American.
The ad, designed by an industry group, sends a clear message: E Pluribus Unum.
ut there is a price to be paid for invoking a mythical unity where real unity
does not exist. America is a divided society, a fractured nation. This is the
flip-side of the nations diversity. The very breadth of diversity brings
great innovations, but also makes coordination and crisis management more difficult.
It is a testimony to Americas status as a world culture that hundreds
of people from scores of nations died in the attacks on the World Trade Center
on September 11. But the same senseless violence may also have revived a naïve
notion about American unity.
America may be one country, but it isnt one people. The old idea of an
America based on a common identity is an anachronism, but one that politicians
cant surrender. Therein lies a challenge. No war on terror, no matter
how long it lasts, will erase the differences between Americansand these
cherished differences are a chief reason why civil liberties are so valuable.
No manner of social-monitoring or suspension of rights envisioned by the Bush
administration will be enough to revive assimilationist policies.
President Bush has tried to square this circle by invoking the concept of citizenship.
Great diversity will be tolerated among citizens, he seems to say, but not foreigners.
Yet citizenship was never intended to be the legal culmination of American identity.
After all, immigrants are welcomed precisely because they are not Americans.
Their very otherness is what so energizes the United States, economically, socially
and culturally. Immigrant energies are the soil out of which American greatness
This stubborn truth will always intrude on the fantasies of unity that animate
Washington politics. But in the illusion of a unified America, the triumph of
American multiculturalism could be ratified anew. The United States must respond
to its new challengessecurity and otherwiseby drawing on the hybrid
sources of Americans, not by denying them.
resident Bushs challengeyoure either with us or against
usdefines the current political landscape in ways still dimly perceived.
The nation is at war and loyalty is once more at the center of American life.
But who is us? What is it to be a good American in a
country where an estimated 60 million Americans were either born in a foreign
country or have foreign-born parents?
New ethnic, racial and national identities are being born in what was once
called the melting pot of America. Only rather than erasing differences,
like 100 years ago, the collision of peoples from around the world in the marketplace
of America results in, at least for many, a heightened sense of supra-American
identity. The hyphenated American of the past (African-American, Jewish-American,
Korean-American, Greek-American) has given way to a new model of adaptation,
which is for both newcomers and natives to assert multiple identities: to proudly
display their Korean-ness and their American-ness, so to speak.
On the following pages, In These Times asks a variety of writers and thinkers
on the subject of identity to reflect on this New America. Whats new and
enduring in the way immigrants assimilate and adapt to life in the United States?
In what ways do they balance their roots and their new attachments?
What are the long-term implications for politics and society in America?
G. Pascal Zachary is a visiting professor of journalism at the University
of California at Berkeley and the author of The Global Me, on the new world
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