Immigration and American Society

David Brooks, the smartest conservative on the planet, had, as he so often does, a compelling idea. In a column titled, "A Nation of Mutts" he analyzes the effects of the current wave of immigration on American society. The main impact, he argues, will be a move from a binary racial divide to a far more complex amalgam of cultures, none ascendant. His provocative comparison is to the end of the Cold War, with its shift from two great blocs to a multi-tiered world, with endless players on every continent. Continuing the analogy, Brooks argues how, because of immigration, in the racial sociology of this country, "Soon there will be no dominant block, just complex networks of fluid streams -- Vietnamese, Bengalis, Kazakhs." This is the monumental change America will have to deal with. Very, very smart, fundamental idea, with a compelling contrast to the superpower struggles.

Say whah? If we want to analyze immigration and the future of American society it will require a far, far more nuanced discussion of how this country makes changes. But if we take this path, we can garner hints of who will do a better job adapting to today's immigration shifts, and who will be left behind, though catching up in time.

Brooks' notion of "complex networks" will bring noting but a yawn from generations of Americans who have, and still do, live in major cities. At one time any Chicagoan who was going to survive life in the neighborhoods understood pretty quickly that Poles and Lithuanians didn't get along and neither did Czechs and Slovaks. If you moved anywhere around St. Stanislaus Kostka parish, you'd better not call a kashub (a Pole from the German section of the homeland) a gorale (a hillbilly, mountaineers from the Tatra Mountains region of Poland). Jews in New York were litvaks or galitzianers. When an Italian boy in Milwaukee came to an Italian girl's house on their first date, he could veritably count on her parents asking the ominous question, "Where does your family come from?" (i.e. what province of Italy). Along these lines, when I was growing up in the Bronx there was no simple dividing line between two great population clusters. Instead our neighbors were Jews, Germans, Blacks, Puerto-Ricans, Irish, Italian, and Greeks. Though it won't be quick or painless (it never is), big cities -- be it New York or Cleveland or Boston or Seattle or Las Vegas -- will readily make the adjustment to a new mix of ethnic groups. Coming to grips with the notion that America actually is a mixture, on the other hand, will earn you just a dismissing wave off and "so what's new?"

Instead, who will have problems with this? Two regions of the United States.

One of my closest friends (we're both too old to refer to him as a "bud" or a "bff") is an African-American who grew up in North Carolina. Segregated North Carolina. With two water fountains and places a black could never go. It was only when he was in college that the civil rights movement started changing things.

Life in that world was truly black and white; that was it. Everything developed along that line. Since then, he has traveled far and wide, lived in a fine California suburb for 40 years, yet still marvels when he discovers that in this country, yes, we have other kinds of social relations. He loves to tell me about when an Eastern European Jew he was working with let loose, putting down Russian Jews. Who knew? People used to a bipolar world like that are going to have a longer learning curve.

The other area is white, monochromatic rural America, running from the mid-section of Pennsylvania down through the Great Plains states. Their burden will be double, in that the world will now be more varied and harder to understand for them, with no prior experience to provide perspective or guidelines; and they will no longer be dominant in their own country. Expect this adjustment to take even longer.

Still, I remain hopeful. Very hopeful. Unlike past immigrant waves, the members of this generation's will not remain just in coastal and upper middle-west cities. America has a national economy, and jobs are everywhere. There are Hispanic enclaves in the packing plant towns of the Midwest, and throughout the South. Texas boasts about its record of job growth, but is only starting to deal with the consequences: 90 percent of its new population is Hispanic, Asian, or Black. Georgia's Hispanic contingent nearly doubled in the first decade of the twentieth century alone. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, accurately observed, "The South is going to start looking more like California eventually."

This reality will make the changes work. Nothing is a more powerful incentive to adjustment than the physical presence of a new neighbor. You can't just rail against those people, over there (far away) who are ruining the country, not when you're sitting next to one of them at the American Legion Hall's pancake breakfast, or at the Little League barbecue. Not when your child comes home with a new pal.

America is changing. It is here, now, and we are going to be a far better and far greater country as a result. It's just that some regions will do it faster or slower, with winners and losers. But sooner or later, most of us will get there.