As groups go mainstream, ethnic interests wane

April 26, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- In this era of political correctness, it's hard to keep up with all the changes.

At a time when it has become chic in some circles to simply stop thinking about race, it is ironic to see a white, European-American voting bloc suing in federal court to preserve its "ethnic interests."

That raises an intriguing political question with national ramifications: What constitutes a "community" of "ethnic interest"?

The Chicago-based Polish American Congress has joined Democratic Alderman Michael Wojcik in a federal lawsuit challenging the city's new ward map. They say the map will "diminish and even eliminate" the fair representation of Polish ethnic interests in the Chicago City Council.

In its efforts to maximize representation for Hispanics, the lawsuit contends, the city is penalizing "representation of the needs of the Polish ethnic community."

A Polish-American voting bloc once contained in two wards on the city's northwest side has been splintered into four wards, the lawsuit alleges. This reduces voting strength and, by dividing local business zones, makes it harder for community candidates to raise campaign dollars.

But Chicago's Polish-American community, like old European immigrant communities in other American cities, has been losing its cohesion as its members have assimilated and scattered into America's cultural mainstream.

In that sense, its new political problems are an ironic sign of its continuing economic and social successes.

For decades, Chicagoans boasted more Poles than any other city outside Warsaw. But in recent years, as younger members of the community have scattered deeper into the suburbs, it has become increasingly difficult for the city's Polish-American voters to pull a strong enough bloc together to elect their own anointed candidate.

Community leaders watched in dismay while three candidates of Polish descent lost major races for state and county legislative posts in March. The most widely watched was Nancy Kaszak, who lost handily to Rahm Emanuel, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, in a contest for the 5th Congressional District.

In the 1960s, the Chicago area had as many as four Polish-American congressmen. Today it has only U.S. Rep. William Lipinski, a Democrat on the party's conservative wing.

This is the sort of saga that has been repeated throughout America's port-of-entry cities, where immigrant populations and their voting blocs shaped local politics.

As those ethnic groups assimilated into the country's proverbial "melting pot," their ethnic political interests melted, too.

That's how ethnic succession traditionally has worked on America's success ladder: One group moves up and that makes room for the next group.

Nowadays it is the families of Hispanic immigrants, followed by Asian immigrants, who are the fastest-growing populations in Chicago's old Eastern European neighborhoods.

As historical targets of racial discrimination, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans are protected under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since voting rights laws were not written with ethnic Europeans in mind as an oppressed group, the Polish-American remap lawsuit probably has an uphill fight.

Which brings us back to the earlier question: What constitutes a "community" of "ethnic interest"? As the members of a particular group become increasingly hard to distinguish from the rest of mainstream America, its community of interests fades, too.

As an African-American who awaits, filled with hope, for the day when we can all just be "American," I am encouraged by the way other ethnic groups have worked their way into America's mainstream, despite sometimes painful moments of transition.

Every group must determine its own formula for holding onto old values and traditions that are worth preserving as they drop their hyphens and become simply "American."

Black and Hispanic Americans have yet to reach that day, but, despite occasional setbacks, we're moving in the right direction. The more welcome we are made to feel by the mainstream, the more easily we can all swim in it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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