Diversity: virtue or vice?

The melting pot has been America's defining symbol and its cultural crown. Without it, the millions of immigrants who came first, the millions who were then born here, and the millions of immigrants who came later, could not have fashioned and maintained this nation's social contract.

In earlier times, when people identified themselves as "English," "Scots," "Welsh," "Germans," "Irish," "Poles," "Italians," "Ukrainians," "Jews," it was always understood that the melting pot had made them all Americans, whether they came off the boat in 1635 or 1935.

But now, new concepts of separateness, new feelings about diversity, and new government-sanctioned definitions of ethnicity threaten both the melting pot and the social contract.

To be politically and legally correct in the 21st century, one is supposed to categorize and label Americans, even for such constitutionally mandated statistical purposes as the 2000 Census.

I'm curious, then, how one would categorize and label some of my own acquaintances who all are naturalized or native-born Americans:

*A blond, Jewish, Kenyan-born woman, whose parents were born in South Africa. Her grandparents were born in the Netherlands.

*A Muslim man born in Libya whose parents were born in Egypt and his grandparents in Ethiopia.

*A Catholic woman born in French-colonial Algeria. Her parents were born in Tunisia and her grandparents in France.

*A fifth-generation Argentine-born couple who are Sephardic Jews.

*A Japanese-American man who was a student of mine when I taught at Temple University Japan, in Tokyo. He could easily be taken for a Japanese-Japanese, because he's fluent in the language. Born in Philadelphia, his parents were born in Hawaii. His grandparents are natives of Japan. He's a Buddhist.

*A Spanish woman who was born in Madrid, as were all the members of her family except her children. She considers herself to be of European stock, with no ties to, or interest in, Spanish America. She calls herself a lapsed Catholic.

*A man from Rio de Janeiro whose slave ancestors were from West Africa and whose modern ancestors were all born in Brazil. Like many of his erstwhile countrymen, he thumbs his nose at the rest of Latin America. He hates the designation Latino and never refers to himself as a Latin American. And if he has any cultural ties to the Iberian Peninsula, they are to Portugal, not Spain. He professes no religion.

*A Pentacostal Protestant man from the Bronx whose parents were born in Haiti and his grandparents in the Dominican Republic.

*A fourth-generation Jamaican-born woman who is an Anglican.

*A woman from Harlem, who migrated to Manhattan from the Florida Panhandle. Her parents were born in Alabama. She belongs to the Nation of Islam.

I should include myself: an Ashkenazi Jew from Brooklyn. I've often been told I look less Jewish - whatever that means - than the average Italian-American. My parents and grandparents came from Russia. Because I have epicanthic folds, I was taken for Asian in Tokyo.

No longer a numerical concept, "minority" has been redefined in the last 30 years. It's now more of a qualitative indicator of a person's or a group's socioeconomic status. A host of government, business, union, and university programs are based on this redefinition.

Thus, the Japanese-American is not a "minority," because he belongs to an educationally and economically gifted ethnic group. Never mind that there are only about a million Japanese-Americans in the US, and that not all of them are well-educated or well-to-do.

Neither am I - the Jewish Brooklynite - a "minority." For I, too, belong to a group of educational and economic overachievers. Never mind that the 5.6 million Jews comprise only 2.5 percent of the US population, and that not all of them are well-educated or well-to-do.

Because their names end in a vowel, Alberto and Maria Socolski, the two former Argentinians, fit the currently fashionable definition of Latin or Hispanic.

But they aren't Christians, have no Indian, mestizo, or Spanish ancestors, don't celebrate the Da de la Raza, and never call themselves Hispanics.

How do we properly categorize and label the former Libyan, Algerian, or Kenyan? All were born in Africa. But we can't call them African-Americans, because that's now exclusively a synonym for American blacks. On the other hand, we have to refer to the former Brazilian, Haitian, Jamaican, and Floridian as African-Americans, even though they were not born in Africa, nor have they ever lived there.

Diversity is a worthy concept, and classification is a necessary tool. But they can be overdone, especially if they lead us back to balkanization and toward resegregation. Isn't it time to dispense with overdiversification and overclassification, so we can all be just Americans?

*Edward Bernard Glick is a professor emeritus of political science at Temple University, in Philadelphia. He lives in Portland, Ore.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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