No need to fear `browning of America'

May 10, 2002|By Clarence Page

CHICAGO -- What in the world is going on in the world? Judging by recent reports, Americans have been detribalizing while Europeans appear to be re-tribalizing.

The tulip-lined charm of the Netherlands, for example, was shattered this week by the assassination outside a radio station of maverick politician Pim Fortuyn, who is widely described as a rising star of Europe's anti-immigrant far right.

Europe was particularly rattled that Mr. Fortuyn, 54, met his misfortune just nine days before his party was expected to win a significant bloc in parliament.

Europeans had just begun to breathe easier after another anti-immigrant far-right-winger, Jean-Marie Le Pen, handily lost Sunday's presidential election in France.

A new populist extremism is feeding off population anxieties.

More than a decade of massive immigration from countries across the Balkans and the Middle East has led to friction, especially when the newcomers are less white and less Christian than their new countries' traditional populations.

By contrast, America looks like a model of tolerance and inclusion, despite our turbulent history of ethnic and racial squabbles.

I see immigration anxieties playing themselves out in a national dialogue in the media rather than in our politics. This dialogue is exemplified by two current polar-opposite books by commentators whom I am fortunate enough to have debated on television and off: Richard Rodriguez's Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and Pat Buchanan's The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization.

For years, Mr. Buchanan has bristled in his column and two famously unsuccessful presidential campaigns about the growth of immigration by non-Europeans and "the slag heap of multiculturalism."

In this spirit, his book cites projections that show white Americans becoming a minority by mid-century.

As the book's title suggests, Mr. Buchanan sees Western civilization threatened by what's often called "the browning of America" by new minorities. He doesn't offer many remedies, except to stop all immigration into the United States for an unspecified cooling-off period.

Mr. Rodriguez, a San Francisco-based editor for Pacific News Service, offers a far more hope-filled and, to my way of thinking, realistic view. In lyrically written essays, he glorifies the "brown" that Mr. Buchanan fears. It cannot threaten America's way of life, he tells us, because inevitably and indelibly, cross-cultural sharing and interracial mixing are our way of life.

In hopes of "undermining the notion of race in America," Mr. Rodriguez offers something to outrage racial and ethnic loyalists of all political extremes.

He worries that the political right is not as ready as many claim it is to get rid of affirmative action, but he also worries that the political left is not ready to come to terms with moving beyond a regime of racially based affirmative action.

He is amused and encouraged to meet self-described "Blaxicans," "Hin-Jews," "Negropinos" and at least one "Korean-African-Baptist-Buddhist." Like Tiger Woods, they feel freer than ever to declare and openly explore all of their ancestries.

As an African-American who has seen a whirlwind of cultural and attitudinal changes in America since the 1950s cherished by Mr. Buchanan, I sometimes have to run to keep up with Mr. Rodriguez's forward-rushing vision.

Nevertheless, I feel just as reassured as he is by the eagerness with which newcomers still want to be become American. Just check out the waiting lists at schools that teach English as a second language. Even when the elders resist, their kids eagerly embrace the world of Big Macs and MTV.

In my family, my generation was the first to grow up in schools and neighborhoods with white kids. My son grows up with every kind of kid. He tunes in to Latin hip-hop on our way to have kebab and couscous and rent an East Indian movie. His world is going brown. He and his friends don't seem too anxious about it. I hope that we, the elders, don't screw it up before they get their chance to straighten it out.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears in The Sun Fridays.

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