Monday, November 2, 2015


Every so often, I run into someone who decries the phenomenon of "hyphenated Americans" and considers politicians actively campaigning on issues important to ethnic communities to be "divisive." Which raises an interesting question. The United States of America have always had divisions - in fact, they're baked into the nation's Constitution - the individual states have separate governments, and they elect their own representatives to the national legislature. And people campaign all the time on what they are going to do for the people of their state. And in this era of Red states and Blue states, it's become common for politicians to contrast themselves against the way things are done in states they feel their constituents will dislike. So... why don't people who dislike the idea of hyphenated Americans see that as being problematic in the same way? What is it about the idea that, say, the Chinese populations of Maine and California may share traits that make them different from their European-heritaged neighbors that rankles people who are perfectly comfortable with the idea that Maine and California are different from one another?

Here in Washington state, we have the phenomenon of the Cascade Curtain, which is basically an understanding that the people on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains have different interests than us on the western side of the mountains - different enough that there is a general grumbling in some quarters that the two sides of Washington should be separate states. This is a somewhat small-scale understanding of a generally accepted characteristic of American politics - that people in different geographical areas have different interests. But what geographical differences in interests don't typically entail are obvious differences in culture. Sure, there are things in one part of the country that people in other parts of the country consider odd - like how people here in the Seattle area think of the South as a place were people will deep-fry anything edible, but that's considered an eccentricity more than anything else.

What differing, and potentially mutually exclusive, interests tend to bring up is the specter of non-assimilation, and therefore, real cultural change. There are some ways in which Black America, for instance, and White America simply do not meet in the middle in the things that they value and aspire to. And, in my experience, when people think that someone who should share their goals and values does not in fact share them, there is often a sense of rejection. Current demographic changes in the United States have raised the specter of a real cultural shift - but this time one driven by the idea that relative newcomers are bringing a new culture with them, and will supplant the culture that is already here.

One doesn't have to be a particularly careful student of American history to understand how previous culture clashes have ended in the past. And there is a part of me that believes that what is currently "Middle America," what we used to understand as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants when I was younger, is worried that they are going to have done unto them what previous generations of Americans had done unto a lot of other people. There was even a fear in some quarters - and not just Republican quarters - that the election of Barack Obama into the Presidency of the United States would be the start of Payback Time on a national scale. And that makes turning the part of the American story that says the United States represents a nation that has risen above racial and ethnic tribalism from a hopeful narrative into a concrete reality important.

But perhaps what's really missing is an understanding of the differences between tribalism and, well, difference. Different communities have different needs. True, the idea that a Black community had different needs than a White community makes it clear that those two communities have not integrated into each other, but in the end, that's not much difference than Florida having different needs than here in Washington. One size doesn't fit all, and it doesn't need to. That needn't be a wedge.

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