A New Order Means New Tensions

NEAL R. PEIRCE

May 20, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- Aweek after the riots that won it national notoriety, the Mount Pleasant neighborhood bustles with activity. A little United Nations of ethnic restaurants serves up every cuisine -- Latin, African, Chinese, even barbecue. Small shops hawk electronics, clothes, groceries, liquor and fresh bread.

But the signs of recent chaos are unmistakable. Police cars and officers on foot patrol are frequently spotted. Thirty-one damaged stores struggle to get back on their feet. Church's fast-food chicken restaurant, torched by the crowd, is still covered with plywood. Across one board someone has spray-painted the words: ''No police state at all.''

A few blocks to the south, in official Washington, the agonizing goes on about the root causes of the two nights of arson, looting and police tear-gas counterattacks. In a city where blacks hold all the levers of municipal power, astonishment remains high that the city's Latino community would become the flash point of frustration and tension.

The spark for the rock-and-bottle-throwing riot was the shooting, by a black female police officer, of a 30-year-old Salvadoran who pulled a knife while being arrested for public drinking.

Hispanic leaders said that tensions -- over crowded living conditions, layoffs in restaurant and construction jobs, alleged hassling by police who can't speak Spanish -- had been mounting for months. One cultural clash added to the tensions: Many Latinos, accustomed to drinking outdoors in their native countries, can't understand why police tell them to empty their beer bottles as they congregate outside their apartment buildings.

Welcome to multi-ethnic, multiracial America, the nation that added -- through births and immigration -- 8 million Hispanics, 4 million Asians and 3.5 million African-Americans to its population base in the 1980s. More immigrants were accepted by the nation in the '80s than in any other decade. Demographers expect the trend to continue -- maybe even accelerate -- over the '90s and into the early 21st century.

Not by any stretch of the imagination does new immigration translate automatically into chaos in the streets. Most immigrants scurry so assiduously to join the middle class that no welfare office ever sees them.

But the reality is that America will have a distinctively different ethnic complexion than the one we've always known. Already, we're one-fourth black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian. Within a decade or so, trend-setting California, home to one-eighth of all Americans, will have a majority of minorities. Nationwide over the 1980s, white America grew by 6 percent, compared to 53 percent for Hispanics, 108 percent for Asians, 13 percent for blacks, 39 percent for Indians.

And the geographic distribution of minorities is starting to break every regional stereotype. A New York Times reporter venturing into the deepest Old South -- to Bayou La Batre, Alabama -- found that one-third of the inhabitants of the old Cajun fishing village at the head of Mobile Bay are now Vietnamese or Cambodian.

Nor is the new culture invisible. In the pine woods near Bayou Le Batre, Cambodian families have started their own crab-processing plant and have erected a Buddhist temple.

There are 319,459 Asians in Texas, 159,053 in Virginia, 75,781 in Georgia, 41,099 in Louisiana. And when you think Asian, forget about thinking Japanese or Chinese first. Filipinos outnumber all other Asian groups now.

New York City, traditional magnet for immigrants, absorbed 854,000 foreigners during the '80s -- the reason the city's population grew slightly, even while white flight to the suburbs continued.

The immigrant boom is turning suburban, too. Along the New Jersey Palisades, Korean, Chinese and Japanese now make up 20 percent of the population. In Fairfax County, Virginia, outside Washington, Asians outnumber blacks. So many Hispanics have flooded into upscale Montgomery County, Maryland, that the local phone company felt obliged to add bilingual service.

Are we seeing the dawning of the first universal nation -- or simply sowing the seeds of conflict? Probably both. Tensions, sometimes ugly, have greeted every immigrant wave. In 1863, tens of thousands of Irish immigrants, blaming blacks for the Civil War and the draft, rioted in New York, torturing and killing blacks, burning and looting homes.

Mostly, the American genius for inclusiveness and adaptation has won out. Successive waves of earlier immigrant groups, from German, Polish, Italian to East European Jews, have assimilated sufficiently into white, English America. Thorny racial issues notwithstanding, a black middle class has arisen. Its political leaders now face the growing Hispanic and Asian populations in our Washingtons and New Yorks.

But look at America's corporate boardrooms, the halls of Congress, the White House, legislatures and councils and courts across the land: There are few minority faces in the crowd.

What's different for the future is that today's Anglo-Saxon majority is leading and controlling the society on borrowed time. Mount Pleasant disturbances aren't just harsh evidence of shifting urban tensions. They're reminders of a new order coming.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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