The newest Americans - 'murderous apartness'? Multiculturalism: This centrifugal force is the antithesis of America's immigration history.


On the issue of the Orioles playing in Cuba, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said, "How can I go play baseball in a country I left because of the government? I can't do that. It goes against what I stand for. If I were American, it would be different."

If he were an American? If?

He left Cuba for the United States 26 years ago when he was 6. He is a naturalized citizen. And he still doesn't think of himself as an American? When I read his remark, I thought of a line from my favorite book on immigration and America. That is Oscar Handlin's "The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People." It came out in 1951 and is still in print. The line is: "The newcomers were on the way toward being Americans almost before they stepped off the boat."

A lot has changed in the immigrant experience since 1951, most notably that so many newcomers do not think of themselves as "American" when they first set foot on the this soil, nor do they decades later. They don't look ahead; they look back.

This phenomenon has become so pronounced that in a new book Nathan Glazer, whose writings on immigrant America deserve the same respect as Handlin's, throws in the towel. The book is "We Are All Multiculturalists Now" (Harvard University Press. 179 pages. $19.95). Glazer has argued for the Americanization of immigrants for more than 40 years. Common culture. Common historical perspective. Melting pot. But now he says it can't be done. At least not for most African-Americans and many if not most Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Why? Because America has been unwilling or unable "to incorporate into its society African-Americans [and many Hispanics] in the same way and to the same degree it has incorporated so many groups."

Glazer more or less blames plain old fashioned white racism and Euro-centricity for this sad state of affairs. Those attitudes certainly explain much of the change in the way immigrants (and internal immigrants like blacks) reject old-fashioned Americanism. But they don't explain all of the change.

There's also plain old-fashioned merchandising. One of the most intriguing new books examining the rise of multiculturalism and other manifestations of ethnic and racial rejection of a common American identity is "Breaking Up America: Advertisers and the New Media World" by Joseph Turow (University of Chicago Press. 242 pages. $22.50). Once upon a time, Turow reminds us, "advertisements were helping to create a nation out of a collection of immigrants. [Ads] were squarely in the center of the twentieth-century process through which millions of people of all incomes and [ethnic] backgrounds were transmogrified into a shared sense of themselves as Americans."

That began in the first decades of the century and lasted well into the 1960s. It was probably strongest in the 1950s, in the aftermath of World War II's imperative of cooperation and togetherness. It started to change in the '60s and '70s.

By the 1980s, advertisers were speaking of "versioning," and looking for the best ways to divide people and get them to accept specialized products. Madison Avenue justified this on the grounds that society was split and groups were antagonistic anyway - and "[advertisers'] role was not to challenge this idea but to exploit it for their own purposes."

Turow thinks, correctly, that is unfortunate because "the ad industry affects not just the content of its own campaigns but the very structure and content of the rest of the media. The advertising industry's cash and philosophy provide the principal supports for those explicitly divisive talk shows, cable programs and magazine columns. Whether ad people like it or not they are centrally responsible for images of social division." I'd say for the reality as well as for the images.

Ah, if the only thing we had to fear from the centrifugal force of multi-culturalism were a few loud-mouths and special-pleading journalists. But the stakes are much higher than that.

Think Lebanon. Think Bosnia. That's what Georgie Anne Geyer thinks when she contemplates the growing diversity of the United States. Her new book is "Americans No More:The Death of Citizenship" (Atlantic Monthly Press. 352 pages. $23). She blames the situation not only on the centrifugal force of ethnic and racial rejection of Americanism, which so many newcomers regard as white Europeanism, but also on the centripetal force bringing so many new and different immigrants to America - immigrants who are not interested in and not encouraged to embrace Americanism as immigrants were in the past.

Geyer is a good reporter and this book is at its best when she is describing things she has actually seen. She also does a good job of criticizing academics and special interests who celebrate immigration policies that further newcomers' inclination not to melt into the pot. Her argument is that those who talk glibly of a brave new world's "global village" brought about by the wonders of the new media and old loyalties haven't been out and seen what she has seen: "increasingly a world of the most ancient retrogressive types of villages; instead of the creativity that comes from unity, we witness worlds of ever more murderous apartness."

And it can happen here, she says.

And she might be right, if the diversity craze and multi-culturalism and all the other anti-American social trends continue. As they probably will if enough of us become resigned multi-culturalists, a la Nathan Glazer.

Glazer's is an instructive but painful book to read precisely because there is a chance that he is right. White America may have locked African-Americans out of the central American experience so thoroughly that more and more of them will become something that hyphenated Americans uprooted from European lands never really became: citizens who emphasize the adjective in front of the hyphen rather than the noun behind it.

"The Uprooted" was updated in 1973, reprinted twice since. Oscar Handlin added this worried but optimistic afterthought in 1973: "The revived interest in ethnicity, the pride and petulance that seeped into group life, the fears of the future, the aversion to risk and even rejection of the New World heritage was predictable. I will nonetheless not turn away from the hope that there will be no forgetting the meaning of America that the millions [of immigrants] expended their lives in making."

He told me last month that he still sticks to that view.

My own view is that Handlin is right, and that ethnicity, religion and race will play less of a role in disuniting America as time passes, despite the pressures in the other direction.

Why? Well, despite Nathan Glazer's understandable dismay, I believe that too many American blacks are so determined to enter the mainstream that they are not about to quit trying just because they haven't yet fully succeeded. They have overcome too much to quit trying to overcome the rest.

Then there's something else. Some of you may remember the novelist and essayist Philip Wylie. Much beloved by the pseudo-intellectuals of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. (I was a big fan.) He once wrote that the race issue would vanish in America "when everybody is tea colored."

That day is getting closer. After all, the best known WASP in America, former President George Bush, has Mexican-American grandchildren. A famous Georgia Bubba, transplanted to Texas, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas has Korean-American children. That celebrated Irish-American, Sen. Edward Kennedy, is married to a Lebanese-American. The highest-ranking black public official, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is married to a white woman. Interracial marriage has about quadrupled as a percentage of all marriages since Wylie's remark, according to a PTC recently published study of 1990 Census data. Congress is considering letting people designate themselves as "multi-racial" in the next Census.

The legislative proposal to do that is being called "the Tiger Woods Bill." That tea-colored golf star is Caucasian, African, American Indian and Asian - literally red and yellow, black and white, as in the Christian children's song of brotherhood.

Tiger Woods says he thinks of himself not as a black but as "a Cablinasian." There's a much better word for what he is: "American."

Theo Lippman Jr., a retired Sun editorial writer, covered an commented on the civil rights movement in Georgia, Washington and Baltimore for 40 years. He wrote about ethnicity and race in politics in the biography "Spiro Agnew's America" among other books.

Pub Date: 5/04/97

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