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The New American Identity: The Challenge for Multiracial Democracy in the 21st Century

by Carlos Muñoz, Jr.

The theme of the symposium this year, "Looking for America: Unity and Diversity in the 21st Century" is indeed timely and meaningful. Diversity is certainly one of the most critical issues facing our nation as it prepares to enter the next century. It is important however, to place the issue of diversity in historical perspective. This is not the first time that it has been an issue in American history. Diversity has been a fact of American life since before the arrival of the first Europeans to the Americas. The American experience has never been a homogenous one.

It is unfortunate that diversity and the related issues of muilticulturalism and affirmative action have generally been debated in a historical vacuum. This has led to a critique and a perspective that permeates our nation which defines those issues as separatist or un-American. According to this perspective, those who promote diversity and multiculturalism represent a "cult of ethnicity" which has resulted in ethnic and racial conflict. This perspective is ill founded for at least two important reasons: (1) it fails to understand the multicultural and multiracial realities and complexity of contemporary society, and (2) it fails to address the historical origin of those realities and that complexity. More specifically, it does not address the fact that America has never been a homogenous nation rooted only on European cultures and values. In short, it fails to address the historical fact that diversity has been an American reality long before the arrival of Europeans to this land.

I perceive diversity and multiculturalism as authentically American in nature. The ethnic and racial conflict that currently exists is due to an ignorance of history and lack of appreciation of the cultures of Americans whose origins are not rooted in the European American experience. Multiculturalism is a pedagogy that aims to dispel the negative racial and ethnic stereotypes that nurture racial conflict in our society and throughout the world.

In addition, in my view, multiculturalism is not about blaming all white Americans for racial oppression in our society. The majority of whites are not racists. "White male bashing" has been one of the unfortunate responses to the attacks on multiculturalism and affirmative action. In my view, it is wrong to perceive white males as the "enemy." History teaches us that Americans of color who have struggled for social justice, freedom, and equality, have always had strong support from white Americans, although not necessarily the majority.

It is unfortunately true, however, that racism remains a reality. It is manifested by the continued presence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the rise of "hate crimes" which victimize people of color, women, Jews, and Gay/Lesbian Americans. Most important, it is manifested by the existence of institutional racism that makes it difficult for people of color to get an equal opportunity in employment and education.

Historically, there have been a variety of political responses to diversity. I begin by placing those responses in the context of four broad stages of American Identity formation. The first is the Indigenous pre-European stage.

The original Americans, the Indigenous peoples who were here thousands of years before the Europeans, were a culturally diverse peoples. There were no borders separating the Americas into what is now Canada, the United States, and Mexico. There were thousands of distinct Indian nations populated by millions of people, each with its own language and cultural traditions. Some of those nations had created advanced civilizations long before European societies became civilized. The Mayan civilization, for example, built the first large scale cities and created advanced mathematical formulas and scientific theories. The Iroquois Confederation, comprised of distinct Indian nations along the Eastern seaboard had created a democratic form of government prior to the founding of our Republic.

The second stage of American Identity formation started with the arrival of the Europeans over 500 years ago. Their first response to the existing American diversity was to attempt to destroy it. Wars of genocide were carried out over the years, and coupled with the diseases they brought from Europe, resulted in the near disappearance of the majority of the original Americans and their cultures.

The first dramatic racial and ethnic transformation then took place resulting in the Europeanization of the Americas. The colonization of the indigenous peoples in this part of the Americas, which we now know as the United States, eventually resulted in their assimilation into the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture which became the dominant culture of our Republic. The assimilation process, however, did not preclude the racial mixing that took place between white Europeans, the African slaves they brought, and the Indigenous peoples who survived the wars of genocide.

African slaves made significant contributions to the development of our new nation and its capitalist economy, but slavery generated deep racial divisions between black and white Americans which have continued until today. Many of the "founding fathers" were slave owners and the original Constitution they developed for our young nation defined it as a limited "Patriarchal Democracy" which excluded the original Americans (the Indigenous peoples), African slaves, women, and poor whites without property.

The "founding fathers" envisioned the United States as a new nation that would become the most powerful on the face of the earth. Their vision was centered on a "Manifest Destiny," the God-given right to expand other lands populated with people they considered racially and culturally inferior. American diversity, therefore, became more complex after the Texas-Mexico War of 1836 and the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846 when the boundaries of the United States were expanded to the Pacific Coast as a result of the U.S. takeover of half of the Mexican nation's territory. Mexicans, whose lands became part of the new U.S. territories became citizens and thus new Americans.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 further expanded the American identity into the Caribbean and the Islands of the Pacific. Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii became colonized territories of the United States. The response to this new diversity was the colonization of the peoples of those territories.

Massive European immigration from the early 1900s until the end of World War II contributed to the increasing complexity of the American identity. The Melting Pot theory of assimilation emerged at this time, but it was only applied to the European immigrants and not to people of color. The latter were deemed incapable of assimilating into the dominant Eurocentric American culture because it was believed they represented inferior races and cultures.

The third stage of the American Identity was characterized by the 1960*s quest on the part of people of color to reclaim their indigenous cultural roots and recapture their lost histories. Social movements emerged which generated a politics of identity that rejected the Melting Pot ideal. The Black Power, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Asian, and American Indian movements collectively represented a quest to make America whole again by expanding the American identity into a multicultural and multiracial framework of cultural pluralism inclusive of the cultures of people of color.

Those movements also simultaneously represented other demands for civil and human rights for the racially oppressed of America, for their representation in the political and economic institutions of the nation, and for redefining American democracy to be inclusive of all Americans. Some of the positive contributions collectively made by those movements included public multicultural education, ethnic studies in higher education, bilingual education, and affirmative action programs.

Race in America, however, has largely continued to be defined in black and white terms only. The result has been that diversity and the related issues of multiculturalism and affirmative action have continued to be narrowly defined in terms of the black experience and the African American struggle for equal opportunity. The experiences of other people of color and their struggles have been generally ignored.

As we prepare to enter the 21st century we are now entering a fourth stage in the formation of American identity. It is perhaps the most dramatic racial, ethnic, and cultural transformation in the history of the United States. Our nation's diversity is becoming more complex. It has become imperative to go beyond the outdated paradigm of black and white to redefine race in the context of our nation's increasing multiracial complexity.

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, white Americans will become a new minority and people of color the majority in the next century. The demographic data indicate that today the white population stands at 72 percent but will decline to 49 percent by the year 2040. Latinos, blacks, Asians, Native Americans, and other people of color will collectively become 51 percent of the total population. Latinos will become the largest group within the new majority. They are currently 11.5 percent of the population but will increase to 25 percent and overcome the black population which will grow only modestly from its present 12 percent. Asian and Pacific Islanders will go from four to nine percent. Native Americans will only grow slightly. So not only will whites become a new minority in the new century, but Latinos will become the largest population within the new majority of people of color.

This transformation is taking place much sooner in California. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by next year or sooner, whites will become the new minority and will comprise 49 percent of the population. Projections are that the white population will further decline to 40 percent by the year 2010 or sooner. Latinos have become the largest people of color population at 38 percent and will continue to grow to approximately 48 percent by the year 2040.

In Los Angeles, Latinos are already over 50 percent of the city's population and 70 percent of students in the city's schools are Latinos. Statewide, they represent 37.1 percent of all students in school. All told, students of color now compose 56.6 percent of the total public-school student population in California. In contrast, 82 percent of all of the state's public-school teachers are white. Only 8.3 percent are Latino, 5.5 percent are African American, and 4.3 percent Asian American. California's public schools are well on their way to becoming part of an apartheid educational system.

Our nation's future identity is destined to become predominantly multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural in character. The political implications of the New American identity are profound in nature. Will it lead to the emergence of an authentic multiracial democracy in the 21st century? Or, will it result in the emergence of a neo-apartheid society with whites as the new minority continuing to hold power and control over people of color? Is the future destined to be one of racial and ethnic conflict that divides our nation or will it be a future of a united American people characterized by a common purpose of "liberty and justice" for all?

The response to our nation's growing diversity has been characterized by an anti-immigrant and anti-affirmative action politics. In California, in particular, these politics resulted in the passage of Propositions 187 and 227. The former resulted in anti-immigrant public policies and although it has recently been struck down by a judge in the federal court, those policies have not yet been terminated since supporters of 187 have appealed.

Proposition 227 terminated bilingual education. It was supported in particular by the English-only movement that started in the 1970s in California and has spread nationwide since then. In 1986, that movement succeeded in passing an initiative making English the state's official language. English-only proponents have fought a similar, but so far unsuccessful, battle in the U.S. Congress to make English the nation's official language.

The anti-immigrant racial politics has resulted in a war against immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, in the cities where most live and work, they are daily harassed, arrested and deported without trial. The US-Mexico border has become a war zone. The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker human-rights organization, has documented that upwards of 4,600 soldiers are engaged in day-to-day "counter drug operations" along the US-Mexico border. Special Forces troops provide year round training to local and state police agencies. and the Pentagon is spending $800 million per year on this low-intensity warfare. Democrats and Republicans alike have convinced many Americans, both whites and people of color, that immigrants are to blame for the nation's drug problem. Immigrants also have been blamed as the source of our nation's economic woes and high unemployment.

Two years ago, Esequiel Hernandez Jr., an 18-year-old Mexican American high school student in Redford, Texas was killed by a U.S. Marine. Hernandez was not a drug smuggler or a narco-terrorist. He was not an immigrant. He was an American born and raised where on the land where he was killed. Hernandez became the first U.S. citizen killed by military troops on U.S. soil since 1970, when national guard troops killed several students at a Vietnam War protest at Kent State University in Ohio. The Marine who shot Hernandez was part of a four-person squad of the Joint Task Force Six, a military unit assigned to anti-drug operations under the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol. They were on patrol looking for drug smugglers. They were dressed in camouflage battle fatigues and hidden in the bushes. The Hernandez case is a clear example of how Mexican Americans, U.S. citizens, are victimized by anti-immigrant politics.

Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) has attempted to push through legislation authorizing the deployment of as many as 10,000 Department of Defense personnel at the border. President Clinton has increased the Border Patrol by 25,000 personnel. Armed border patrol personnel now outnumber FBI agents. Clinton has increased the staff of the Immigration and Naturalization Service by 31 percent. According to the Justice Department, the number of armed federal agents with power to arrest immigrants rose to 74,500 by mid-1996. The Clinton administration and Congress have increased the INS budget sharply. During the past three years, the agent force of the INS grew faster than any other federal agency except the tiny Fish and Wildlife Service. The Border Patrol accounted for about two-thirds of the overall INS growth.

Affirmative action has been another example of negative response to diversity. Voters approved Proposition 209 in California in 1996 to end affirmative action programs in the state. This was a tremendous victory for opponents of affirmative action and has generated similar efforts in other states. The struggle for affirmative action is also being fought in the courts. Here in Texas, as you all know, the Hopwood decision resulted in the termination of affirmative action. Lawsuits in several other states, Michigan for example, are currently being fought in the courts. These lawsuits have been filed by mostly white males on the basis that they have been denied admission because of alleged racial preferences to students of color.

President Gerald Ford, a University of Michigan distinguished alumnus, recently defended affirmative action in an opinion editorial in the New York Times. As he put it, "Times of change are times of challenge... already the global economy requires an unprecedented grasp of diverse viewpoints and cultural traditions. America remains a nation with have-nots as well as haves. Its government is obligated to provide for hope no less than for the common defense... at its core, affirmative action should try to offset past injustices by fashioning a campus population more truly reflective of modern America and our hopes for the future."

In California, a consequence of Proposition 209 has been that the state's university system is quickly losing its characteristic diversity. There has been a dramatic drop in admissions of Latino, African American, and Native American undergraduates. A year after its passage, at the Berkeley campus, admissions of these underrepresented groups declined by 55 percent. The school admitted 66 percent fewer blacks, 54 percent fewer Latinos, and 61 percent fewer Native Americans.

Last year, the impact of 209 was even worse when over 800 Latino, African-American and Filipino high-school students with 4.0 grade point averages and high SAT scores were denied admission last fall. A group of civil-rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, and the NAACP, filed a class-action lawsuit against the university, charging that the school violated federal civil rights laws in denying the students admission. As Jesus Rios, one of the high-school students and the principal plaintiff, put it, "As the son of immigrant farm workers, my family encouraged me to work hard to earn a 4.0 grade point average so that I could have the type of good college education Berkeley provides. There is something terribly wrong when qualified minority students cannot attend U.C. Berkeley."

The university's post affirmative action admission policy is profoundly unfair because it gives more weight to those applicants who have completed "advanced placement" (AP) classes. But these are not available to all students. More than half of California's high schools do not offer AP courses. In fact, AP classes are especially hard to find at schools with large enrollments of Latino and African-American students. White students have a 30 percent greater opportunity to enroll in AP courses than Latino and African-American students and a 15 percent greater chance than Filipino-American students. The post 209 admissions process has resulted in the resegregation of U.C. Berkeley. In just one year, the numbers of African-American and Latino students admitted to Berkeley have been cut in half. Berkeley isn't the only school that has lost its diversity. The representation of each group has also declined substantially throughout the University of California system. Latinos comprised 30 percent of all California high-school graduates in 1998, but only 11.9 percent of them made it into the UC system. African Americans were 8 percent of the graduating seniors but only 2.9 percent of them were admitted. The preference given to students who have taken AP courses is one reason for this drastic decline in admissions. Another is that administrators give preference to students who achieve higher SAT scores. But the SAT cannot predict a student's potential for academic success in college. It has been proven to be a culturally-biased test with discriminatory results for many students of color.

Another example of a negative response to diversity in higher education has been the continued marginalization of ethnic studies programs and departments throughout the nation. Ethnic studies has had a dramatic impact on the study of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in our society. Its collective scholarship has positively influenced the traditional disciplines of the humanities and the social sciences. It has contributed to a body of knowledge central to the critical understanding of our nation's multicultural and multiracial realities. Ethnic studies scholars started the national dialogue on race long before President Clinton ever thought of proclaiming it.

The struggles over affirmative action, immigrant rights, and ethnic studies point in the direction of becoming a neo-apartheid society instead of an authentic multiracial society. If we are to turn the tide, it becomes imperative to commit to the development of a new politics that can build on the positives of the growing diversity. It becomes crucial to develop a political leadership that shares a vision of the future that is based on the multicultural and multiracial reality - a leadership that is dedicated to the process of building bridges between all the different races and cultures. A first step in that direction is a framework that captures the complexity of the cultural diversity that permeates our society.

We need to develop a critical understanding of American racial politics beyond black and white. This will be essential in order to organize effective political coalitions and to redefine our nation's limited democratic framework into one that captures the complexity of the cultural diversity that permeates our society. By limited democracy I refer to the reality that our nation's dominant political and economic institutions that are led and controlled by white Americans, largely males. The challenge before us to a large extent lies in the restructuring of those institutions to the extent that they facilitate the representation of people of color and women, and maximize the level of meaningful participation in the political process.

In conclusion, I would like to quote excerpts from one of my favorite poems written by a great American poet by the name of Langston Hughes. The poem is entitled "Let America be America Again."

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

O, let my land be a land where liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars,
I am in the Red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek --
And finding only the same old stupid plan,
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil,
I am the worker sold to the machine,
I am the Negro, servant to you all,
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean --
Hungry yet today despite the dream,
Beaten yet today -- O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

0, let America be America again --
The land that never has been yet --
And yet must be -- the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine -- the poor man's, Indian*s, Negro*s, Me --;
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Langston Hughes' poem makes clear that the new American identity is a work in progress. But it is rooted in our collective past. We are not islands unto ourselves. We never have been. We have the opportunity to develop an authentic multicultural and multiracial democracy that can become the model for the world. Let us therefore embrace the challenge of diversity.