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Jewish World Review March 22, 2001 / 27 Adar, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

"Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group?" -- AN oddly antagonistic tone infects much of the news and commentaries about how Hispanics may now outnumber African-Americans.

In TV and in print, I have seen reporters ask questions like: "Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group? Will tensions between the two groups increase? Will Black History Month be shoved aside by Cinco de Mayo?

Sorry, gang, but, if anything, the 2000 census only confirms changes that many of us have been witnessing since the 1960s. Just as we were a nation of Jeffersonian farmers in our first century and became more urban and industrial in our second, the American landscape now has become more suburban, less white and more racially and ethnically diverse since the 1950s and '60s.

If anything, it confirms that we have to start adjusting the way we look at ourselves. We also have to adjust the way we talk. For example:

- Melting pot: Hey, you know what? People really don't "melt." In my mind, there's nothing more American than a healthy expression of ethnic diversity like St. Patrick's Day, Columbus Day or Black History Month. Each in its own way celebrates contributions to the pot.

President Theodore Roosevelt helped bring that charming melting-pot metaphor into vogue to ease national anxieties brought about by the wave of immigrants a century ago. Today we need more up-to-date metaphors to help us live comfortably with our new diversity. Among the suggestions growing in popularity around the country are "salad bowl," "mulligan stew," "gumbo" and, as one Asian-American colleague in southern California suggested, "the American stir-fry."

- Race and ethnicity: As the 2000 census forms point out, "Hispanics may be of any race." Yet of the 13 percent of Americans who called themselves Hispanic in the census, close to half checked off "other" when asked for their race. Many of them then wrote in "I am Hispanic," indicating their idea of race is not the same as that of the census takers.

Over the decades, Americans have grown accustomed to talking about "race" in terms of black and white. The growth of Hispanics and, for that matter, Asians, shows how inadequately those labels describe such broad groupings of people.

Relations between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York City's neighborhoods, for example, are not the same as those between Cubans, Haitians and native-born black Americans in Miami. Similarly the concerns of Chinese-Americans in San Francisco are not the same as Japanese-Americans in Los Angeles or Hmong in Minnesota.

Former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill's famous slogan that "all politics is local" could be adjusted now to say that most race and ethnic relations have become local, too.

- Diversity: This word already is beginning to replace integration and affirmative action as less abrasive-sounding or, for some, more politically correct. But as class slowly replaces race as the most decisive factor in opening doors of opportunity, we must come to grips with remedies that target people of all colors who lack adequate jobs, schools, housing, family life and other stepping stones to success.

- Minority: For years this word has meant non-white. That's not so easy anymore. The new census shows that California, for example, does not have a white, non-Hispanic majority anymore. That means every racial group there is a minority. By the middle of the 21st century, non-whites are expected to outnumber whites nationally. Yet most white Californians probably wouldn't know they are a minority if somebody didn't tell them. Like other people, most tend to live, work and play in communities made up of people much like them. Which leads us to ...

- Community: This can mean a town or a neighborhood, but it also describes people who share certain goals and values. The best way for people from diverse backgrounds to move to common ground is through common cause. It warms my heart as an American to see the way we respond as human beings to catastrophes. In the heat of tragedy, color doesn't matter. All that matters is helping your neighbor.

As we Americans look upon our most multiracial and multicultural century so far, we should not wait for a crisis to pull good people together across racial lines in common cause to common ground. We have enough problems in common to deal with right now.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
03/15/01: The census: How much race still matters in the everyday life of America
03/12/01: Jesse is a victim!
03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks

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