Who’s Afraid of Diversity?

19 04 2008

In December of 2007, the fire breathing conservative writer Pat Buchanan penned an op-ed entitled, “Can Diversity Destroy Us?” As the provocative title of the opinion piece implies, the former Nixon speechwriter set out to attack those who promote diversity as a democratic good and portrayed those defending the interests of the historically marginalized as those actively seeking to balkanize America.

To Buchanan the threats to our national identity are numerous.

For one, he laments the spike in the number of immigrants and people of color in the country. Apparently, their numbers alone have made his longing for the tranquil pastures of Mayberry all too unreachable. Buchanan warns us that “….in the last seven years 10.3 million people, almost all from the Third World, entered the United States, more than half illegally. The nation that was one-tenth minority in 1960 is now one-third minority. European-Americans will soon be a minority in the nation, as they are today in California, Texas and most large American cities.” Lock your doors. Close the borders.

He also abhors the proliferation of multilingual speakers and media outlets that catered to them, “No longer are we united by a common language, as the fastest growing radio and TV stations are Hispanic,” he laments.

And as if invoking the spirit of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Buchanan underscored the perceived threat American religious and moral values posed by certain groups. “For the last 40 years has seen a large influx of Muslims, the rise of a rabid secularism and the break-up of Christian churches — the Episcopalians most recently — over issues of morality: abortion, civil unions, homosexual bishops, assisted suicide, stem cell research, Darwin, creationism.” He also goes on to solemnly declare, “This generation is witnessing the Deconstruction of America. Out of one, many.”

Perhaps this is even more proof that paleo-conservatives of the culture warrior variety have effectively married the “war on terror” at home paradigm to the ‘moral clarity’ of the anti-science, anti-gay marriage, anti-feminism efforts of the 80’s and 90’s. Or perhaps its just another sign of conservatives groping their way through the political wilderness only to embrace the worst of their tradition. Whatever the status or genesis of the sentiment is, it is not dead.

Consider Rep. Russell Pearce in the Arizona state house.

According to the Arizona Republic, Rep. Russell Pearce (picture right) recently introduced an amendment to a Homeland Security bill in the Arizona statehouse that would withhold state funding for schools that encourage “dissent from the values of American democracy and Western civilization.” Funding would cease for colleges and universities that have student associations that are based “in whole or in part” on racial affiliation, such as local chapters for historically black or Hispanic engineers or business associations for students of color. It should be noted that nearly all such associations on college campuses throughout the country permit anyone of any race to join.

If signed into state law, educators must submit their course plans and syllabi to school superintendents or a designee to ensure compliance with the measure. Ironically enough, judging by the language of the amendment the purpose of the proposal is to inculcate values of American citizenship and promote democracy, pluralism, and religious tolerance.

Rep. Pearce’s amendment not only infringes on the First Amendment rights of Arizonians by limiting their freedom to associate with whatever group they choose, their freedom of speech to criticize the gulf between American practice and ideals in the class room, but its also counter productive.

Diversity can serve to strengthen a society, but its not an unalloyed good. In any given society there will be demagogues eager to exploit the unthinking prejudices of others. But that’s precisely why a diverse society needs to have its laws and policies reflect genuine a commitment to tolerance and inclusiveness. This means not merely telling other people what to think and how they can socialize, but actually allowing them the freedoms to decide that for themselves. It also means learning to be accepting of the traditions and perspectives others bring to table and how they can improve our society, even if it comes in the bitter pill of dissent.

Despite being widely heralded for his work as a civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King was frequently decried as an anti-American rabble rouser closet communist. But it was through his efforts, and those of many others, as a dissenter and critic of America that he exposed American racial contradictions, and yes changed the country. Before Congress mustered the courage to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 Dr. King was jailed and brutalized for because of his profile acts of civil disobedience and dissenting opinions.

Taylor Branch writing in the New York Times noted that the movement’s ripple effects touched other segments of society too.

The movement also de-stigmatized white Southern politics, creating two-party competition. It opened doors for the disabled, and began to lift fear from homosexuals before the modern notion of “gay” was in use. Not for 2,000 years of rabbinic Judaism had there been much thought of female rabbis, but the first ordination took place soon after the movement shed its fresh light on the meaning of equal souls. Now we think nothing of female rabbis and cantors and, yes, female Episcopal priests and bishops, with their colleagues of every background.

Branch also observed that newly enacted civil rights laws yielded unexpected fruit too:

The movement spread prosperity in a region previously unfit even for professional sports teams. My mayor in Atlanta during the civil rights era, Ivan Allen Jr., said that as soon as the civil rights bill was signed in 1964, we built a baseball stadium on land we didn’t own, with money we didn’t have, for a team we hadn’t found, and quickly lured the Milwaukee Braves. Miami organized a football team called the Dolphins.

Who knows how much the civil rights and social justice movements would have achieved much if people were prohibited or strongly discouraged from associating with one another based on race, religion, and so on and had their criticism of America muzzled? Probably not much. Organizing among people of the same interests is crucial to building critical mass for a movement to even take place. Sometimes that takes place on college campuses, and churches, among other places.

But let us not be coy about why certain forms of intolerance can now operate in the open. Anti-immigrant sentiment is as high as it has ever been in a generation. States seeing a surge in immigrations, and border states ones such as Arizona, and have enacted draconian enforcement only laws in part to contain the change in way of life associated with the change in demographics of the state. The Grand Canyon State has led the nation with some of worst anti-immigrant racial profiling practices, and deportation and employer sanction laws. Now the recent tide of hysteria has reached a point where lawmakers are finding new ways to threaten the rights and liberties of citizens and non-citizens alike. Proposals like Rep. Pearce’s seek to squash criticisms of these efforts.

The gnawing fear of losing the fictional Mayberry of yesterday is now endangering the very same rights and liberties that can help us narrow the chasm between American ideals and our lived experience.

(H/T Pic:Jeremiah Armenta of The Arizona Republic)

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