Keep your tired, poor stereotypes about immigrants

March 05, 2004|By Stanley Karnow

CHAUVINISTS WORRIED that immigration threatens to blemish the nation's "purity" might look at Potomac, the Washington suburb where I live.

It was a drowsy, lily-white stretch of farms, stables and split-level houses when we moved there 30 years ago. Since then, it has burgeoned into a multicultural, multicolored, multilingual enclave - dramatic evidence that the United States, despite its manifold defects, is a beacon for throngs from everywhere.

In contrast to the "wretched," "tempest-tost," "huddled masses" sketched by Emma Lazarus in her celebrated poem, many newcomers are educated, skilled, wealthy and fluent in English. They disembark attuned to the best and the worst of the United States from their exposure to its movies, radio programs and television shows, or from the Internet. Their teen-agers sport baseball caps and Levis, ride skateboards and are acquainted with Coke, Big Macs, Mickey Mouse, Madonna and Elvis.

Others who come may fit Ms. Lazarus' description. But rich or poor, they come eager to work hard for a better life.

My neighbors include a German architect and his Iranian wife, a Palestinian contractor, a Korean scientist and a car salesman from Madagascar. An Indian physician converted her home into a miniature Taj Mahal, replete with bronze elephants on the lawn.

The local clinic employs an acupuncturist versed in the subtleties of yang and yin. Filipinos nurse the elderly. The mechanic at the garage is Senegalese, the attendants Mongolian and Pakistani. My barber is a French-Jewish woman who traces her lineage back to Tunisia. The shop is owned by a Korean. We rely for repairs on a group of Jamaican carpenters, electricians, painters and plumbers. Our part-time gardener is a Salvadoran. Initially he came into the area by bus, but now he has a truck.

The supermarket is staffed by Filipinos, Cameroonians, Haitians, Latinos, Indians, Thais and a Tibetan. It's stocked with borscht, matzo, couscous, mango chutney, shiitake mushrooms, lemon grass, taro and varied herbs. There are dozens of kinds of rices and noodles.

The community center offers classes in tai chi chuan, karate and yoga. Books, periodicals and videos, tapes and DVDs in Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Russian, Tagalog and Vietnamese are available at the public library. At the elementary school, a teacher from Beijing is "immersing" kindergartners in the rudiments of Mandarin. One morning, when I casually dropped in on them, they were perched on the stools and gleefully chanting ditties in rote, reminding me of toddlers in Hong Kong, my base as a correspondent during the 1960s.

This spectacular demographic transformation owes its genesis to President Lyndon Johnson. In 1965, consistent with his sweeping liberal agenda, he persuaded Congress to legislate a progressive immigration law. Among other things, it repealed the patently racist statute promoted in 1924 by jingoists and super-patriots that cut legal immigration by half as a device to curb the admission of "undesirables" from eastern and southern Europe. Today, more than 30 million Americans are foreign-born.

The "melting pot" concept, glorified as the paradigm, turned out to be an illusion, primarily because people sought to preserve their distinct identities. We are closer to the notion of "cultural pluralism" broached in 1925 by the Jewish philosopher Horace Kallen. Dismayed by the thought of dissolving his pedigree in an Anglocentric caldron, he suggested a "loose federation of nationalities cooperating voluntarily through a multiplicity of autonomous institutions." Die-hard conformists vehemently decried his proposal as a gambit for championing "hyphenated" Americanism. But he was remarkably prescient.

The syrupy Norman Rockwell illustration of the country as an exclusive WASP domain has faded into oblivion as we evolve into a land of diverse minorities. The danger, however, is that unum may be eclipsed by pluribus, and we may become a fragmented society. The phenomenon is apparent on college campuses, where student activists, prodded by their politically correct professors, stridently clamor for segregated dining halls, fraternities, lounges and curriculums. Most immigrants are impervious to this trend.

Recently, while paying a bill at the gas station, I noticed that the black cashier was perusing a newspaper in a language unfamiliar to me. "I'm Ethiopian," he explained, then asked me: "Are you Jewish?" Amazed, I replied, "Yes." "So am I," he replied, adding "shalom" as he handed me my change.

Stanley Karnow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1990. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Jules Witcover's column will return Monday.

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