In Tribal America

ERNEST W. LEFEVER

August 03, 1993|By ERNEST W. LEFEVER

On July 2, just before Independence Day, in Tucson, Ariz., 75 Mexican immigrants and one Peruvian, all wearing small American flags, became naturalized U.S. citizens. Nothing unusual, except that the half-hour swearing-in ceremony was conducted largely in Spanish at the request of U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez.

This dismayed many earlier immigrants who took pride in learning the language of their adopted country, as will a new, 53-page U.S. Department of Education guide, ''Preparing Your Child for University,'' written entirely in Spanish.

These incidents, and dozens of others that assert ''ethnic pride,'' are disquieting. They, along with institutional manifestations of racial preference, if left unchecked could tear America apart.

Over the past two decades, an increasing number of ethnic groups have claimed victim status. In the name of justice or in compensation for past discrimination, their claims are often honored by preferential treatment in government, business or education.

Most Americans seem to have given up the dream of a serene melting pot -- a harmonious nation of nations -- as both unrealistic and perhaps a bit un-American. Many of us have settled for a less demanding metaphor of America as a bountiful and variegated salad bowl, each group adding its unique color, flavor or texture.

But now even the salad bowl is in serious jeopardy. Majority Americans are reviled as racists and discriminated against by the determined tribalists.

Widespread racial quotas, minority set-asides and race-norming tests, all sanctioned by government, mock Martin Luther King's dream of equality under the law, a dream fulfilled by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

King's call for a colorblind society has been subverted by the new racists who demand not equal treatment, but compensatory privileges for past discrimination.

Unity and civility may be in greater danger than the spotted owl.

The newest example of redemptive discrimination is racial gerrymandering designed to ensure that a favored minority candidate will be elected to office, under the dubious assumption that only a member of a victim group can properly represent the interests of that group.

Speaking for the recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision condemning this practice, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor denounced ''political apartheid'' as socially divisive and ''odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.''

In the name of multiculturalism and oblivious to the contradiction, some black academics insist that blacks can learn only from members of the same race. Afrocentrism, said Arthur Schlesinger Jr., is a ''cult of ethnicity'' that uses history as therapy to make blacks feel good about themselves. On campuses across the country, ethnocentric clubs, study programs and even theaters have replaced inclusive ones.

Invoking the racial victim theme, Douglas Wilder, Virginia's black governor, speaking in Nigeria in 1992, said the West owed billions of dollars in reparations to Africa because of its complicity in the Atlantic slave trade. Earlier, Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., proposed that the government pay descendants of slaves $4 trillion, or $133,000 for every black man, woman and child in America today.

Under pressure from many self-anointed ethnic leaders, the trend to hyphenate America and divide Americans neatly into victims and victimizers moves on with only sporadic resistance. Lobbies purporting to represent African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native-Americans and other hyphenated groups demand, and often get, special privileges not available to European-Americans.

Racism in any form is repugnant, and the new tribalism is clearly racist. Splitting America apart by demanding group privileges over individual rights and responsibilities threatens our national cohesion. A country of hyphenated Americans cannot long endure.

Fortunately, there are ethnic leaders who proclaim that pride and self-respect are earned, not simply asserted or conferred by government edict. They insist on reward by merit and that English remain our official language.

Perhaps Justice O'Connor's condemnation of racial gerrymandering and other voices of reason will encourage many Americans to speak out against discrimination cloaked in the garments of virtue.

If the tribalists prevail here, as they have elsewhere in the world, it will be curtains for e pluribus unum.

Ernest W. Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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