This melting pot needs open minds, hearts RTC

December 22, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

IN A DIRTY and brawling village of the Middle East -- unzoned, unplanned, choked with the Sons of David returning to be taxed -- the Prince of Peace was born.

Bethlehem was no ''city beautiful,'' surely no ''suburb beautiful.'' Yet amidst its squalor and confusion, it throbbed with life, with a rich diversity of peoples and culture. Into that scene came the new life that would change the world.

For generations now, the United States has been seeking to cordon off and extinguish its Bethlehems. We have tried to zone and regulate each thing in its neat place: industry here, shops there, rich folks here, poor folks there. Too often we have ghettoized our aged, our mentally ill, our people of color.

Two decades later

The paragraphs above started my 1977 Christmas column. They were inspired by the late Msgr. Geno Baroni, the neighborhoods spokesman in the Carter administration, an impassioned advocate for ethnic and racial diversity.

How far have we come in 20 years?

Not very far, many say. While the last census showed Hispanics and Asians mixing fairly rapidly into the mainstream population, most African Americans were as rigidly segregated by neighborhood as they were at the height of the civil rights movement of the '60s.

In the Milwaukee region, where 15 percent of the area is black, only a few hundred black families live beyond the city line. Conversely, where suburbs have turned majority black -- Prince George's County, for example -- they're showing signs of ''tipping'' to all black.

We are, though, racing toward a multiracial society. By the mid-21st century, whites will be a minority in America. In the '80s alone, the Asian American population more than doubled (108 percent), or twice as fast as Hispanics (up 53 percent), eight times as fast as blacks (up 13 percent), and many times as fast as the white population (up just 6 percent).

But will we rub shoulders together more equitably, amicably? Take Orange County, Calif., once the prototype of native-born, white America. It's now 40 percent minority, largely Latino and Asian. The trend is for wealthy Anglos to cluster along the coast and in south county, the poor (largely Latino and Asian) in such central core areas as Santa Ana and Anaheim.

The global economy of the post-Cold War era, for all its new opportunities, tends to marginalize the less trained. Still, millions of entrepreneurial low-income people, especially immigrants, are working themselves into solid middle-class incomes. And from New York and Miami to our Western shores, vibrant new mixed communities are emerging.

Los Angeles, for example, is seen by some as the most ethnically diverse city in the world. As L.A. essayist-novelist Michael Ventura wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

''We speak a hundred or more languages. We are from every country in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, the subcontinent, Africa, Europe.''

Take the Sunset Boulevard bus from East Los Angeles to Beverly Hills, notes Mr. Ventura, ''and you see store signs in Spanish, Korean, Thai, Farsi, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Hebrew, Russian and English. You see Aztecs sharing sidewalks with Celts. You see descendants of the Zulu waiting for buses with descendants of the Ming dynasty.''

But are we kinder, gentler, more accepting of one another? Hate crimes are rising. The president finds a national dialogue on race a necessity. Gated communities are expanding dramatically. ''NIMBYism'' runs rampant as people try to exclude halfway houses or even folks a little less wealthy from their neighborhoods.

Diversity itself is neutral -- the question is whether it leads to community and respect for human dignity, notes Jesuit priest Joseph Hacala, a present-day Father Baroni who is a special adviser in Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo's office.

The Rev. Hacala sees an enormous outpouring of effort by interfaith and community-based groups to foster mutual respect, create housing and jobs and supportive communities. He cites President Clinton's early December trip to a revived South Bronx neighborhood, where presidents Carter and Reagan had earlier seen only devastation.

Of course government aid helped the South Bronx gain new life, Rev. Hacala said. But at a deeper level, he insists, the rebirth is ''a victory for human and religious values'' and proof of what organized, caring local organizations can do -- ''a bottom-up, not top-down process.''

A national conference

Realism says we have far to go. The lively, variegated urban neighborhoods now springing up from Boston to Chicago to Seattle are welcome -- yet await replication a thousand more times across America. It's no accident that the Washington-based Campaign for New Community sees need for 1998 national conference to probe how communities can be made more hospitable to the ''different'' among us.

But as Father Hacala notes, the Jesus born in Bethlehem was a homeless person. The three kings were the diversity symbol of their time. Minds, spirits, communities have been opened before. They can be again.

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

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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