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Tribalism's Testy Reach

Tribalism's Testy Reach

By Edward Schumacher-Matos - June 18, 2010

BOSTON -- Non-Hispanic whites are increasingly copying minorities and becoming one more American ethnic interest group -- for good and for ill.

The good can be seen in Miami, where a thoughtful debate has opened up over the recent use by a Miami Herald columnist of a mildly derogatory racial term referring to whites. I serve as the Herald's ombudsman, and many readers were rightly offended but still able to parse racism in all its forms.

''Racism is not a white man's disease. It is a human condition,'' one reader, David Johnson, wrote. Others suggested that it opens your eyes to have your own ox gored, but I prefer to see the hopeful spread of empathy.

The bad side of white tribalism is seen in a campaign ad by Sen. John McCain that is either unwitting or cynical. I want to believe the former, but surely McCain knows he is playing with fire in ethnically explosive Arizona.

In the television spot, McCain is walking in the desert near the border town of Nogales with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, a leading supporter of Arizona's harsh new immigration law that has angered Latinos nationwide. The law subjects Latinos and others who look like they might be here illegally to prove if stopped by local police that they have the proper documents.

In the ad, McCain highlights his border security plan. At the end, Babeu looks at McCain and says, "Senator, you're one of us."

As Peter Robinson, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for President Reagan, wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal: "One white man to another white man -- speaking the very words most likely to alienate every Hispanic voter who hears them? Not in any advertisement in which Reagan would have appeared."

It's not that controlling the border and illegal immigration aren't important. Even Hispanics favor tighter controls by more than 70 percent in polls. But how you do the control is crucial. The Arizona law, which invites racial profiling, and a baseless sense of panic spreading among whites in the country about immigrant violence are demonizing Latinos and all immigrants, something Reagan likely would never have done. He was an outspoken supporter of immigration and a Hispanophile who insisted in being sworn in as governor of California on the Bible of early Spanish missionary Juniper Serra.

Current enforcement measures are already working. The number of illegal immigrants in the country is declining, border apprehensions are at their the lowest level since 1970, and immigrants commit felonies at a rate that is only a quarter or less than that of Americans. Comprehensive reform efforts stalled in Congress offer better solutions than the Arizona law to complete the job through workplace controls and legal alternatives for immigrant workers.

The last thing we need is a senseless return to the sort of racial explosions we had in the 1960s and the decades of black-white tension that we are only now overcoming. The ethnic slaughter this past week in Kyrgyzstan, as in Iraq and so many other parts of the world, is a reminder of the worst evil that lurks in all of us.

Demographics partly explain the white tribalism. According to the Census Bureau, non-Hispanic whites make up 66 percent of the population today but will decline to 46 percent -- or less than half -- by 2050. Whites already are less than half the population in California, Texas, New Mexico and Hawaii.

Before World War II, each new European wave of immigrants self-identified with its religion or ethnic origin -- Catholic, Irish, Swedish, etc. -- and white was only a race. But culturally, non-Hispanic whites have been melding into a single ethnic group, too. The demographic pressures of no longer being the majority will add to this. Call it insecurity, or a sense of just being different.

In world history, the United States has been a rare example of a multiethnic nation that works. Belgium, for example, just this week moved closer to splitting in two. The U.S. success is due to a constitutional liberal base created by our Protestant Anglo-Saxon founding fathers. Succeeding waves of immigration and the civil rights movement added a value and respect for diversity.

But nations are delicate organisms. The evolution of the white ethnic minority will be the crucial next step in the national odyssey. Nothing preordains success. Our current leaders would do well to appeal to our better selves and move cautiously in handling inter-group relations.

 

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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Edward Schumacher-Matos

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