One America?

A conversation between Gregory Rodriguez and Tomas Jimenez about American identity, race, immigration, and ideology.

Photos by Tim LaBarge

Oregon Humanities' May 2013 Think & Drink program, part of this year's How to Love America series, featured Gregory Rodriguez, founder and executive director of Zócolo Public Square in Los Angeles, and Tomás Jiménez, fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavior Sciences at Stanford and the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. The conversation explored American identity, particularly as it is affected by race, immigration, and ideology. Wendy Willis, executive director of the Policy Consensus Initiative and director of research and development for the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University, moderated the conversation.

Early in the conversation, Rodriguez and Jiménez expressed their sense that Americans have traditionally united against a common enemy and, in the absence of one, are finding themselves divided along cultural and ideological lines, not because of race, ethnicity, or nationality. They discussed how race and immigration are red herrings that distract from these other divides, how elusive national cohesion seems, and how the idea of whiteness has come to mean something beyond skin color. Some of their conversation has been excerpted and adapted here.

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Tomás Jiménez: It is human nature to categorize. It's human nature to think of insiders and outsiders. As Gregory's trying to point out, there are lots of ways of thinking about insiders and outsiders. Immigration's been a prominent one. The dividing lines are not necessarily between people of different racial and ethnic groups. We marvel at the diversity in metropolitan America and even in rural America. When you go to these places and talk to people about what it means to belong, they don't necessarily cue in on ethnic and racial markers. They often cue in on the differences between native-born people and foreign-born people. For example, if you live in Cupertino, California—a major high-skilled immigrant gateway, also a place that's majority Asian—and you talk to the people who've lived there a long time, the key distinction is between people who speak English and people who don't; people who've lived in my neighborhood and people who don't. It's not necessarily between Asians and whites, even if they frame it that way. You talk to Asian Americans whose families have been in the United States for a long time, and they'll say, “I don't really identify with the folks who just came here. I feel a lot more like I'm an established person.”

Gregory Rodriguez: We're saying similar things in different ways. ... My wife is German born, and we live in Koreatown in the middle of Los Angeles, which is [mostly] Latino. I'm the only American-born [person] in five square miles. Do I love all my neighbors? Not a chance. Do I try to pick fights with them every day? No.

The first piece I wrote was for the Nation. I was young, I was terrified. I was reading all these New York Times articles about blacks and Latinos in south LA trying to kill each other. Well, the journalists were going to talk to gangbangers; they want to kill anyone! You go door to door with decent people—decent people who work hard and try to raise their kids—and guess what? Just like anyone else, a decent person wants to bring up their kids safe and would rather get along with their neighbor, whatever their color, than not. American journalism has screwed up the story for so long. They've taken the most aberrant, dysfunctional, and criminal elements of populations and used them as representative. That's like me describing the white population by interviewing Timothy McVeigh.

TJ: If you talk to people who come from other countries, one of the things they marvel at is how well people get along here. I know Portland is known for getting along really well. But it's actually surprising how little interethnic, interracial conflict there is given the tremendous diversity. I'm studying a place that used to be majority African Americans, now majority Latino. And they say the same thing as the folks say in Cupertino, where the homes sell for $1.4 million, and a place that used to be the murder capital of the country. They say the same things about what it means to be a neighbor. It means you invite people over. It means you've lived here a while. It means you look after each other's yards and homes when you're out of town, and that can cross ethnic and racial lines. People still lament the fact that there have been all these changes, but the relevant dividing lines for them are “Can I talk to you?” And, “Have you lived here a long time?”

Wendy Willis: Talking about Cupertino and LA is one thing, but how does this play in red America? Is there a different narrative that's taking place in other parts of the United States?

TJ: The media have done the same thing with blacks and Latinos in LA that they've done with rural America. One of the reasons that immigration is such a big deal is because it's everywhere. There's no corner of the national map that is not touched by immigration. You have small carpet-making towns in northern Georgia and beef-packing towns in Iowa that almost overnight become a quarter foreign-born in a decade. Everyone's grappling with these changes. And it turns out that even in red America, after periods of initial conflict, people start getting along pretty well, and lo and behold there are Mexican immigrants being elected to the school board and the city council because they've lived there a long time, because we're used to them. I don't want to create too rosy of a picture. I've studied a town that can't serve as an example for everything, but I studied a beef-packing town in southwestern Kansas, where half the population is Hispanic now, and they've elected a Mexican immigrant mayor. The majority of the city council at one point was Mexican or Mexican American. Rural America is undergoing changes. Red America is undergoing a lot of changes. In some ways it doesn't seem all that different from where we live. ...

GR: And the conflict is between established and newcomer. It sometimes takes on racial forms. One of the first people I ever interviewed was an African American woman who set up Spanish classes in South LA. She was eighty-two and she started this center and she was teaching elderly African Americans how to speak Spanish. I thought she was such a do-gooder. I asked, “Why did you do this?” And she said, “Because I wanted to learn to tell my neighbors to keep their damn chickens off my lawn!” I live across the street from a Korean karaoke place. At 3:00 a.m. do you think I love those Koreans? Can I blame all Koreans? There are clashes but it's not racial, per se; it's newcomer, it's difference.

I grew up in a town, Glendale, California. When I was born, it was the whitest city in LA County. The KKK Party was briefly there, the Nazi Party was there as late as 1965. By the time I graduated from high school, it was the largest Armenian colony outside of Armenia. That informed my whole view of race. I was a kid in an all-white school, and they called me the n–word. But by the time I was in high school, they hated the Armenians and I was cool: “Mexicans? You're in. Don't worry about it.” Talk about WWII for instance. The Japanese were out, the Chinese were in. In LA County there were plenty of old buttons that Chinese Americans would wear in public: “I'm not Japanese.” During times of war, some people are pulled in and some people are pushed out as enemy.

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WW: What are the challenges to social cohesion and to an America that deals with questions of pluralism in a sensible way as we go forward?

TJ: I think it has to do with the tenor of the debate. I'm going to parrot something Gregory said earlier, which is this notion that it's either right or wrong, that you're either for or against, and again, if you look at the immigration debate, that doesn't work out at all: We want to blend in, but maintain our traditions; we should close the border, but we should legalize folks. Clearly people's thinking is all over the map. It's complicated. So if we can have a discussion in whatever form that takes that into account, I think we'll be much better off. It's about the tenor of the debate. Cable news does a horrible job of setting the tone. Our political leaders do a terrible job of setting the tone, so maybe it's left up to people to have good discussions with their neighbors, or good discussions at events like this.

GR: I used to be an optimist. I'm getting less and less optimistic about the country and about its ability to cohere. Forty years ago we saw black Americans as a threat to the whole. There was a movement to secede on some level. Years of rejection had created an ideology of removal, of against, of counterculture. Now we're seeing that among whites. We're seeing the counterculture, the secession talk, is among a critical mass of white Americans. ... That's the core of a lot of the Tea Party activity. It's the core of a lot of the early hatred of Obama. That's really the topic and the real threat to the cohesion of the country.

TJ: I'm going to be super-provocative, but there are some people who'd say, “We don't need [social cohesion].” So if we weren't [already] a cohesive country, then we would have massive chaos. … And one of the primary outcomes would be crime rates. So over the very period where people said we've become less cohesive, we've become more diverse, we have more vague notions about what it means to be American, and crime in the United States has plummeted.

GR: Right, but then we have the sequester. And we have a government that can't pass budgets. That's what I'm talking about. We can't just blame our politicians; they're reflecting a fragmented country. That's where I disagree. Fragmentation is leading to the inability to lead the country in a coherent way. That's my fear. We're not building anything. Look at our education system. You're right: We don't need 100 percent engagement; we don't need to be fully cohesive.

TJ: I don't even know if I believe that. I'm just trying to be provocative.

GR: Well, you got me riled! What's happening on the political level is a bad thing. And I think it's too lazy to blame it on politicians. They're reflecting the people of the United States. And I don't have a good prediction. I think we're at the beginning of this very bad period. …

WW: What's the source of this deep fragmentation that causes such consternation?

GR: I would say it's the confluence of the unending culture wars that started in the 1960s (which already has a fragmented white population, in many cases) hitting the growing nonwhite presence in the country. It's a destabilized segment of the white population that is very upset. … It's too many white folk feeling displaced. People say that Republicans have a Latino problem. They don't. They have a white problem. This is going to sound silly to you, but we have to integrate a not insignificant sector of the white population to make them feel part of the country. Right now, we don't have one white Protestant member of the Supreme Court. Is that smart? Think about it. If you think it's okay we should have a Jewish member, a black member, a Hispanic member, why can't there be a white Protestant member? Politically if you believe that these bodies should be representative, maybe that's an oversight. And maybe white Protestants are beginning to think like minorities. I'm not saying it's right. But there's a lot of people pissed off and our politics is now being driven by those pissed off people.

TJ: There was a poll that came out a couple of years ago, and that showed majority or very close to a majority of whites that believe they suffer from racial discrimination. Part of the dislocation comes from the decoupling of race and class in the United States. This goes back to a theme I've been hammering for the last hour. In many ways, some of the most significant differences exist within racial groups: generational differences, tremendous class differences. That means that when people rely on a basic instinct to categorize, that the old notions of categorization don't really hold. And I don't just mean, “Oh, look at all the multiracial folks in the United States,” though that's part of it. I mean that the leader of the free world is black. And that shocks folks. We are “the man” in some ways now. And that's the sense when people say, “I want my country back,” that's what they're talking about.

GR: Tell them about your Cupertino project. It's fascinating.

TJ: Cupertino has always been an upper- middle-class town that is known for its schools and has been home to early Silicon Valley engineers, professors. In 1980 it was 95 percent white. Today, it's half foreign-born and nearly 70 percent Asian. The Asians who come there are high-skilled immigrants. Their children do exceedingly well in school. They do so well that achievement in school is defined in ethno-racial terms. “Acting white” is a term that kids throw around a lot. They don't say, “Are you doing well or not?” they say, “Are you white or are you Asian?” White kids can act Asian and Asian kids can act white and that is all dependent on how well you do in school. “Acting white” in the school there means you're more likely to sit in the back of the classroom, to not do as well in school, to play sports, to drink and maybe smoke a little dope on the weekends. All things that upper-middle-class kids in Cupertino have been doing for a long time. So the idea of what it means to be white—not in all dimensions of life: we are a people who value education—has been turned on its head.

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