"English is the language of power in the world -- not merely in the US. Nothing is likely to change that so long as the US, the most populous English-speaking country on earth, remains loyal to the principles in its Constitution. Those principles have been the guarantor of the growth, power, and success of the republic during its short 200 years of history."
These were the words of Eleanor Holmes Norton, Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Washington, in conversation about the effect of the mounting tidal wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants into the country.
Implicit in Mrs. Norton's observation was recognition of what basically had enabled the United States to absorb successive waves of immigrants, different in language, religion, or culture from the mainstream at the time, while maintaining its overall unity.
The question being asked at the outset of these last two decades of the 20th century is: Can this unity be preserved in the face of the upsurge of ethnicity from virtually all segments of American society?
Exaggerated ethnicity can be equated with the worship of tribal gods. Exaggerated worship of tribal gods has throughout human history led to conflict and war.
The uniqueness of the United States in this history is that the American experiment is a revolutionary one in nation building. It subordinates tribal gods (or any eventual American tribal god) to a set of universal principles. Small wonder that Lincoln described the union that he was committed to saving as "the last, best hope of earth."
In her position as EEOC chairman, Mrs. Norton is sympathetic to ethnic sensitivities and supports bilingual education for Hispanics and others. But, as she sees it, the carefully constructed, overspanning arch of the principles in the Constitution must in the last resort take precedence over any special or single interest.
This arch, she explains, is a canopy that has proved to be the protector and guarantor of the republic and its unity. No other nation the size of the US, she says, has ever come together and been held together except by totalitarian force. Special interests are legitimate and acceptable, she continues, but only if those pressing them stop short of overriding the rights of others. If they press on regardless of others' rights, that is the beginning of totalitarianism.
Against this background, mrs. Norton is concerned about what she sees as the excessive zeal of Moral Majority, a political-action group founded by religious fundamentalists. "The politicizing of religion," she calls the
Blacks and Jews share her concern. In fact, among Jews prominent voices have already been raised implicitly calling for a rebuilding of their pre-1970 coalition with blacks and moderate Christians "against the chilling power of the radical right," in the words of the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Alexander Schindler.
Hispanics have so far been slower to voice concern about the influence attributed to Moral Majority, probably because they see it more as a bulwark defending traditional family values than as a movement inherently racist. Ed Marciniak, president of the Institute of Urban Life in Chicago, says the most stable families in that city are the Hispanic ones -- which are predominantly Mexican-American. He adds that it was inevitable, given the overall assault on basic, traditional family values, that family issues should enter the political arena.
Commissioner Norton recognizes that religion in a denominational sense is often involved in today's ethnic revival and in the white backlash against efforts to advance the cause of nonwhites. But she believes that the clear-cut separation between church and state in the US Constitution is the ultimate guarantor against excessive clerical or ecclesiastical influence in US society. "The national character," she says, "has understood why to maintain this separation. And this in turn explains our long tradition of religious tolerance."
Mrs. Norton says, "The day I will really be worried is when you can ask me which is the most influential religious denomination in the US, and in response I am able to name one -- without reservation or qualification."
In discussions of ethnicity and religion in the US with such specialists as Mrs. Norton or Professor Marciniak, the phrase "melting pot" nearly always comes up. It was originally coined by a British writer, Israel Zangwill, back in 1908 . "America is god's crucible," he wrote, "the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming."
Mrs. Norton and Professor Marciniak are not enthusiastic about the melting-pot concept, at least in its most simplistic interpretation. They, together with most others mentioned in this series, accept more readily "cultural pluralism" as being the desired and, indeed, actual nature of American society.
But even "cultural pluralism" is seen by many of its advocates as a phrase too close to current sociological and bureaucratic jargon. So if "melting pot" is out and "cultural pluralism" is not catchy enough for general use, what is the best description?
"Stew pot," says the Rev. Virgil Elizondo, who works among the Mexican-American community in San Antonio.
"In a stew pot," Fr. Elizondo explains, "the ingredients do not lose their individual identity. Yet each contributes something to the whole, thereby making it better. Similarly, in building and strengthening American society, individual ethnic groups have to give up something -- but all are enriched by much more than they give up."
Martin Kilson, a government professor at Harvard, says it has been the genius of the US party system at crucial moments in the country's history to put together coalitions of interests. To translate this into stew-pot terms, these coalitions emerge and take the US forward when enough of the individual ingredients have come to see before joining the mix how much more will be theirs by adding themselves to it.
The successful coalitions assembled by one or other of the mainstream political parties in the short 200-years history of the US have never been narrowly ideological -- in the sense that European political parties often are. But once fashioned, the successful American coalitions offer both a broad consensus and an agreed order of priorities in the national business.
Both Professor Kilson at Harvard and Commissioner Norton In Washington say they believe that the volatility and uncertainties in US politics today reflect the ferment from the twin processes of getting the right balance in a new order of national priorities and of building a new coalition of interests based of them.
Stephen Aiello, President Carter's special assistant on ethnic affairs, says, "If this country is about freedom and justice for all,m its politics and programs must be inclusionary, not exclusionary." But such pure idealism is rarely the conscious motivating force in the building of coalitions of interests sometimes at first sight conflicting.
Franklin Roosevelt brought disparate blacks and Southern whites into the same coalition within the Democratic Party in the 1930s and '40s after persuading both there was something in the party for them. If one wants to see how something no less paradoxical is operating today, albeit not at the national political level, there is an impressive example in Newark, N.J. It is the North Ward Educational and Cultural Center, run by a remarkable Italian-American, Stephen Adubato. He has forged a local coalition between his own ethnic community and local blacks, at first sight a most unlikely mix.
In a city that is now predominantly black, Mr. Adubato has put a brake on white flight from the mainly Italian North Ward. From an impressively restored Victorian mansion on Mount Prospect Avenue, he runs a community center for both Italians and Blacks, with Italians and blacks on his staff.
Of himself and his white co-workers, Mr. Adubato says: "We're not white liberals. White liberals think they mean well -- otherwise they're irrelevant . . . . Newark's white population is about 20 percent of the whole, or about the same as the white population of the entire world. So Newark's whites are having to learn the lesson now that the rest of the white world is going to have to learn sooner or later. The alternative for Newark's whites is to flee to an all-white suburb -- which many have done -- but that is only postponing the day of reckoning."
Mr. Adubato says unabashedly: "We accept the fact that we're racist and prejudiced. We'll make no historical excuse for any group.We'll accept any group as a worthy adversary in the competition for what American society offers -- and cooperate with that group in the struggle for it when it's in our manifest mutual interest."
Yet if this is what is happening at one end of the spectrum -- confrontation, conflict, and occasional cooperation at the group level across ethnic and religious lines -- something less immediately visible and much closer to the original melting-pot concept is happening at the other. This is the synthesis producing a distinctively American culture, going on all the time -- according to Professor Kilson -- "at the level of intellectual and corporate elites."
This synthesis finds expression in the great increase over the past 20 years in marriages across ethnic and religious lines. Current statistics on exogamous marriages are hard to come by. But Philip Perlmutter of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Boston gave some in a recent issue of the boston Herald American under the heading: "American minority groups intermarrying out of existence." According to Mr. Perlmutter, 31.7 percent of Jews marrying between 1966 and 1972 married a nonJew; Italians, Poles, and Czechs were marrying outside their own ethnic groups 50 percent of the time in the late 1970s; 31 percent of Hispanics marrying in 1977 went outside their own group; the rate of Japanese-American intermarriage in San Francisco went up from 18 percent in 1958 to 49 percent in 1971; and between 1970 and 1977, the number of black-white married couples went up 92 percent, to 125,000. As for Roman Catholics and Protestants in the 1970s, Mr. Perlmutter wrote that in the 1970s, 35 percent of married Catholics in the 18-to-29 age bracket had non-Catholic spouses (compared with only 14.4 percent in the over-50 aged bracket), while for white, Northern Protestants the comparable figures for the same age brackets were 24.3 and 10.6 percent married to non-Protestants.
What does all this add up to -- at both the group and individual level? Professor Kilson says it is simply the hitherto successful American process of eventually always including newcomers. The US, he maintains, has always dealt with tensions, even violence, and avoided the apocalypse forecast by the doom-sayers, past and present.
Why have divisions in the past not fragmented the US or (since the Civil War more than a century ago) erupted into sustained open warfare? William McCready of the national Opinion Research Center in Chicago puts the question with the express purpose of providing the answer: "Because this is a land of laws, where everybody has access to the courts and where there is a freedom of opportunity for all -- no matter how imperfect -- unequaled anywhere else on earth."
In that, of course, lies the American hope for the Future today as in 1862, when Lincoln described the way that could not fail to save the union as "plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which if followed the world will ever applaud and god must forever bless."