More Than Hyphenation: Do We Allow Ethnic-Americans Any Multicultural Citizenship?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jun 2 12:25:49 UTC 2006

More Than Hyphenation:  Do We Allow Ethnic-Americans Any Multicultural

by Kate Bartkiewicz
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Living in California, debates over immigration reform are nothing new to
us. But suddenly, the legislation in the House and its backlash seems to
have alerted the nation to the fact that we have a new kind of immigrant
population--one that wants to embrace both sides of the border, giving
America a true test of its toleration of diversity.  As our country's
demographic grows increasingly diverse, and as waves of immigration change
the size of minority groups, we can expect a need for new, more
comprehensive policy. In his book Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal
Theory Of Minority Rights, Will Kimlicka explains that in order to achieve
and promote a truly diverse society, our construction of citizenship and
identity must avidly protect and preserve differences.  Sociologists point
to tolerance for language and political representation as signs of a true
embrace of diversity--qualities that are legally being abolished.

The U.S. has a long history of politically using language to construct a
cultural identity that does not allow for diversity. Language lines
clearly identify who is in and who is out of the melting pot. Currently,
people of color make up 53 percent of California's population. And
according to the U.S. census, 40 percent of Californian's speak a language
other than English in the home--in fact, 22 percent of San Diegans are
foreign born.  On March 18, 2006, the United States Senate passed the
Inhofe Amendment, which officiated English as the national language. This
bill challenges the legal precedents of Meyer v. Nebraska and Lau v.
Nichols, which established rights of protection and freedom over language
discrimination.  Declaring English as the official language places the
burden of learning the language on immigrants--both illegal and legal. The
bill puts hard-working teachers in low English-proficient districts at a
loss without a solution: parents unable to pay for private English lessons
and a government that doesn't provide assistance. The outcome: poor test
performance and further budget and salary cuts for schools. American
democracy was established on principles that cater to the majority while
simultaneously protecting minorities. The amendment simultaneously
devalues minorities and prevents any other group from becoming the
majority by preventing the preservation of widespread language use.  In
order to protect minorities from these cultural assaults, groups must have
a significant impact on the political process. Unfortunately, this does
not seem to be the case. Nearly 26 percent of the U.S. population is made
up of people of color, but people of color account for only 11 percent of
Congress. Without a meaningful immigrant voice, it becomes convoluted to
tell where immigration reform is really coming from.  I think immigration
is in the news now because the numbers of illegal immigrants is higher
than ever, said John Skrentny, Professor of Sociology of Culture and
Immigration at UCSD. Immigrants are going to new places that they haven't
ever gone before. Undocumented immigration is becoming an issue in smaller

America has a complicated relationship with its huddling masses. I think
the American people tend toward an assimilationist perspective. Look at
how the government grants citizenship: you have to pass a history test,
take an oath of loyalty and sometimes revoke other ties. But, then again,
when you go to vote you can get election materials in a foreign language.
I think America is pretty open to diversity but the key there is that
there has to be a lot of people like you. Someone from Tibet would have a
different experience than a Spanish speaker, explained Skrentny.

There is an issue arising there because Latinos are now the largest
minority, where it used to be African Americans. Unlike ethnic groups
before, Hispanics still have relatively strong ties to their countries of
origin. If we want to have a special relationship with Latin America, or
with Mexico, then that should be an official policy. We have a border
that's hard to get across but once you're in  you're in. We've allowed
this shadow labor force to come into the country and we just exploit the
hell out of these people. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants went and
protested, and there was comparatively only a tiny fraction of people
holding up signs that said 'go home.' I think that the image of Latino
immigrants is a positive one. It's not street gangs and it's not
dropouts--it's hard working people. And that has benefited them, and I think
people want a policy that reflects that.
An April opinion poll by Time Magazine revealed just that. The poll
indicates that 82 percent of Americans think that border security is not
doing enough, yet 72 percent believe that illegal immigrants should be
allowed to stay under a regulated system involving work visas or permanent
residence. Time's deduction? Americans want to let immigrants stay, but
policy should get tough.

In a time where statistics have proven than our nation's children are
growing up more tolerant to difference, their predecessors are embarking
on campaigns of cultural genocide. Eliminating the exploitation of illegal
immigrants implies an extension of our law to non-citizens, work visas
support a freer border exchange, and a sizeable group can cause a de facto
tolerance for multiple languages. A liberalized reform including education
and transparency about the process of naturalization has the potential to
eliminate the culture of fear that dominates minorities. U.S. policy
should reflect the true intentions of its citizens; after all, we're home
of the free and the brave--and perhaps, someday, the diverse. John Skrentny
is a professor of sociology at UCSD, as well as the author of The Ironies
of Affirmative Action (University of Chicago Press, 1996)  and The
Minority Rights Revolution (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
2002), as well as one of the editors for Color Lines: Affirmative Action,
Immigration and Civil Rights Options for America (University of Chicago
Press, 2001).

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