Monday, December 5, 2011

December 5, 2011: Defining Diversity

I ended Friday’s post with a series of questions that I’ll repeat here and then take up, one per paragraph: “So did the Immigration Act of 1965 not really change anything? Was America always just as diverse as it is in the 21st century? Have we not lost any unifying elements?” One the first question, I’d have to be a pretty terrible AmericanStudier not to note that the 1965 Act represented a hugely significant change, first and foremost as the first immigration law (since the initial such law, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act) that expanded rather than limited the communities and individuals who could immigrate under its aegis. Similarly, the Act’s move away from explicit restrictions in national origin (especially for all Asian nations, but also for various Latin, Caribbean, and African ones) and to other kinds of preferences (skills, family relationships with current Americans) made it significantly more possible for immigrants from places like Taiwan, South Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Jamaica, and South America (among many others) to come to the US in meaningful numbers, and new communities of immigrants from these nations sprang up in major American cities (and around the country) as a result of the change. While I refuse to see as anything other than rank bigotry arguments like Buchanan’s about the negative effects of these changes, they most certainly were made possible by the Act.
Yet to address my second question, I would nonetheless describe America’s late 20th and early 21st century diversity as different in degree rather than in kind from our earlier eras and identities. I would argue that in part because I want to define America in a significantly more inclusive way from its origin points—to see, for example, early 17th century American identity as including not only the English in colonies such as Massachusetts and Virginia but also the African slaves in Virginia, the Dutch in New Amsterdam, the Spanish in Florida and the Southwest and California, the French in the upper Midwest, the Russians in what would become Alaska, and the countless numbers of Native American nations and tribes throughout those areas and the rest of the continent. Through that lens, diversity has always been one of the most central elements of our national identity, and adding more nations to the mix only amplifies that longstanding reality. And yet even if we focus on the particular nationalities and communities that were most affected by the 1965 Act, a more accurate understanding of American history and identity recognizes that they too had often been part of our national community for more than a century (if not much longer): from early 19th century Chinese Americans like those at the heart of my still-favorite blog post to the multi-century Creolized interconnections between the Caribbean, the Hispanic Americas, and the US about which Edouard Glissant has written so powerfully, and even to the ways in which nations whose inhabitants had been stolen into slavery could now send voluntary immigrants much more easily, the reality is that the 1965 Act just made it easier for core American communities to build on those longstanding historical identities.
On the third and final question, of whether we as a nation have lost any unifying qualities—to respond directly to the narrative of decline that truly defines arguments like Buchanan’s and Ferguson’s—my own argument, the idea at the heart of my second book, is quite literally the exact opposite of theirs. To my mind, the most fundamental origin point for America is not only diversity but hybridity, not only the significant number of distinct cultures and communities that have always inhabited this land but the idea that America itself is constituted out of the cross-cultural, transformed product of the encounters and conversations and intersections between those initially different but ultimately inseparable cultures and communities. While Buchanan and Ferguson have a certain culture in mind for their “us,” and while multiculturalists might argue that there have always been many different “us”-es that have combined to form the larger American “us” (e pluribus unum, after all), I would agree with the latter position but also and most significantly argue that there has in fact always been a unifying “us,” one that is comprised out of exactly the kinds of hybrid and cross-cultural identities that Buchanan and Ferguson worry have eaten away at their mythic founding community. It’s pretty ironic, I’ll admit, to find a defining national unity in precisely what the purveyors of our most traditional national narratives see as a threat to national unity—but on the other hand, if we could all come to understand just how cross-cultural America has always been, it’d take the threat of contemporary (or post-1965, or whatever) hybridization and turn it into a promise fulfilled.
More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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