'Maybe I don't want to give up outsider status'

March 31, 1997|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- If there were no white racism, would there be a black culture?

I once heard that question, raised by a black scholar at a historically black college, cause a stunned silence. Within it was contained an intriguing paradox. Since black American culture -- from gospel to ''gangsta'' rap -- grew out of centuries of racial oppression, would it stagnate if the weight of oppression were lifted?

Or is there more to black culture than our victimization? Is there more for us to hold onto, even as we presumably follow other groups into America's great Big-Mac-and-shopping-malls mainstream?

As one who has quietly pondered these questions for years, I was intrigued to find somebody else in similar agony. I found it in Alan Dershowitz's new book, ''The Disappearing American Jew.''

The famous Harvard-based law professor discusses a growing ethnic paradox. Having pushed anti-Semitism from the center to the margins of American society, Jews are following other ethnic groups into the nation's fabled ''melting pot.'' Since at least the mid-1980s, more than half of Jewish marriages are to non-Jews. Self-identifying Jews have shrunk from 4 percent to 2 percent of the population.

Victims of success

The irony is that Jews, as a group, are victims of their success in a time-honored, all-American way. Where anti-Semites failed, assimilation is succeeding. Slowly but surely, Jewish success at eliminating barriers also appears to be succeeding over time in eliminating Jews.

As Mr. Dershowitz writes, it was easy to stay within the group when you didn't have much opportunity to do otherwise. ''Today,'' he writes, ''everybody seems to want to marry Jews -- except, apparently, other Jews!''

That's OK for various individuals but, again, it threatens the survival of the group. At this rate, Mr. Dershowitz cautions, in TC couple of generations Jews will be reduced to two general types. One will be the most Orthodox adherents to the faith and traditions. The other will be the assimilators and their offspring, melting increasingly into the mainstream as their family's Jewishness fades into some vague family memory.

What happens to the many great Jewish ideas, culture, history and traditions that are worth preserving if proud, self-identifying Jews are not around to preserve them?

Jews are only the latest major ethnic group to face this peculiarly American dilemma. This is a land that in its best moments respects the individual and welcomes newcomers, as long as they respond by ''melting,'' assimilating into the great national cultural pot.

One ethnic group after another has undergone this process of initial resistance from the xenophobes, then eventual acceptance. Today, in the post-'60s era, the pace of assimilation and intermarriage is increasing for nonwhites, too. Like Jews, more than half of today's Japanese Americans are marrying non-Asians. The rate of African Americans marrying outside their race has been just about doubling each decade since the 1960s.

None of this melting comes without some tension between the inviting, yet still foreboding, mainstream and the tug of everything that is familiar and nurturing back in one's home community. As one Jewish friend told me, ''Maybe I don't want to give up my outsider status.''

That tension is why I prefer to think of the ''melting pot'' as a mulligan stew in which the ingredients never quite melt all the way. They just contribute flavor to the pot and absorb flavor. That's the beauty of America to me, even when the pot occasionally boils over.

Similarly, I know many African Americans who don't want to give up their outsider status either, at least not until other Americans do a better job of meeting us halfway.

But then again, what if they do?

What if we black folks actually succeed, as I suspect we will, at the long-fought battle of beating back the monster of racism? Will we stay huddled together in self-defense? Will we be able to offer our children something to celebrate as African Americans besides our experience as victims? Is there something more to black culture that is worth preserving than our history as victims?

Or, to flip the question over, how much does the tug of the black familiar hold us back, even now? How much does our love for the tribal ties we fondly call ''the black community'' actually prevent us from having more success in the mostly white socio-economic mainstream?

Mr. Dershowitz urges massive education as a remedy to keep Jewish culture, history and traditions alive for future generations of American Jews. I suggest the same for African Americans and other cultures that don't want to disappear.

I also suggest that other Americans share the wealth of knowledge offered by this nation's ethnic and cultural diversity. ''Multiculturalism'' need not be a dirty word. It can simply be a better way to understand America -- and keep our ethnic mulligan stew from boiling over.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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