Transforming a nation

Immigrants: Many newcomers to America find more racism than they bargained for, but their experience may help forge a new racial reality.

May 02, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

After more than 20 years in America, Liberian-born Dorothy Tolbert believes she knows the racial lay of the land. Whites, she says, tend to be standoffish, but African-Americans are often downright hostile. Some ask the Howard County resident whether Africans live in trees, and others blame her ancestors for selling theirs into slavery.

Fidel Andino, a Salvadoran immigrant, says Latino employees at a Charles Village restaurant he once owned sometimes struggled with English. It wasn't unusual for frustrated customers to blurt, "Why don't you stupid guys learn English before you open a business?"

Sergei Khmelevski, who is from Ukraine, recently learned new Americanisms from a co-worker at Meadow Mill Athletic Club in Hampden: the terms "white trash" and "redneck." "People call him this," Khmelevski says of his friend, shaking his head sadly.

Newcomers to the United States are often shocked to discover that their new neighbors are transfixed with race. They find it uniquely American: Every personal interaction, political issue, movie or event -- everything, they say -- is filtered through the prism of race.

Many of these optimistic immigrants fled homelands mired in poverty or torn by wars sparked by age-old ethnic tensions. They embrace a land with protective civil rights laws and abundant economic opportunities. But few are prepared for America's discomfort with its own racial diversity. And most are saddened to find separatism and stereotyping in America more entrenched, random and destructive than they expected.

Says Ana Parsons, 36, a Germantown accountant who emigrated from Venezuela, "In this country, your skin color or your accent is the foremost thing -- that's how people deal with you. I used to think that we should just see what we all have in common, but there's so much [negative racial] history here," she says. "I had to give up the fight and just try to get along with as many people as I can."

The experiences and insights of newcomers offer native-born Americans something rare: an outsider's perspective on the nation's most persistent problem. They tell us something about ourselves. And ultimately, they may change us. The attitudes immigrants adopt will help shape America's racial reality in the next century.

Conversations with dozens of immigrants describe the United States as a land that punishes differences more than it celebrates them, that stubbornly bequeaths its racial pathologies from generation to generation, that seems unprepared for today's increasingly complex ethnic tableau.

Spurred by immigration, people of color are expected to outnumber whites by the year 2050. Within a few years, Latinos are expected to surpass African-Americans as the largest minority group.

Immigration, says Ronald Takaki, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is redefining race relations in the United States.

"In the 21st century," he says, "this will be our brave new world of immense ethnic and racial diversity."

Waves of immigration

This country has been transformed, over and over, by immigrants. But it has always been divided about how much to embrace those who have arrived. The tension, especially with those who weren't white and Northern European, was often over how to benefit from their labor but contain them as a presence.

People of African descent first came to the New World in 1492 on boats led by Christopher Columbus. In the early 17th century, they were brought in larger numbers as indentured servants and slaves, joining Europeans who had settled the country. The two groups lived largely in the South and East. By the 18th century, more and more Spanish-speaking people dispersed across what is now the southwestern United States, which had long been part of Mexico. In the next century, Asians arrived in California, and Europeans -- the biggest numbers from Ireland, Italy, Poland and Russia -- kept coming in huge numbers.

With each wave of immigrants, hostility from native-born Americans began almost immediately.

Though much of the friction was based on resentment that newcomers drove down wages and competed with those already here for jobs, it was often expressed as bigotry. Most of the new immigrants were considered to be members of inferior races -- so-called "Celts," "Mongolians," "Negroes" -- who posed a threat to the American way of life. "The hordes of new immigrants," wrote a Harvard professor in the New York Times in 1913, were "a menace to our Anglo Saxon civilization."

The nation's first comprehensive immigration legislation, which took effect in 1924, was carefully crafted to favor some European immigrants over others, and all Europeans over immigrants of color. For most of this century, America's immigrants were largely white.

Door opened wider

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