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The Palm Beach Post

'Browning' America Still Red, White And Blue

By Max Castro, Special to The Palm Beach Post

June 6, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved.

Samuel P. Huntington thinks the United States is going Hispanic. He fears that there is an ethnic and cultural transformation under way that could spell disaster for the nation. He wants you to be alarmed: "The persistent flow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures and two languages."

Ordinarily, this would not be news. The Internet is crawling with sites warning of the black peril, the yellow peril, the brown peril, the Jewish peril, the immigrant peril and the death of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant "race." But Samuel P. Huntington is not another bigot posting rants on loony Web sites. He is not a demagogue trying to parlay ethnic scapegoating into a political career.

Samuel P. Huntington is a celebrated academic and chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies whose analysis of "the Hispanic challenge" appeared in the March/April edition of Foreign Policy, the journal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dr. Huntington wrote the 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, one of the most influential and controversial works on international relations of the past 20 years. The book, which predicted that the conflict between the West and Islam would be the main struggle of the post-Cold War world, set off a fierce debate in academic and foreign-policy circles. Whatever one thinks of Dr. Huntington's ideas, when he speaks, important people listen.

Now, Dr. Huntington shifts his sights from international threats to the domestic arena. He purports to find a looming "clash of cultures" within and a serious threat to American identity: "the Hispanic challenge." Dr. Huntington expounds this view in a forthcoming book, Who We Are, from which the Foreign Policy article is excerpted.

Dr. Huntington's thesis is simple. The core culture of the United States is Anglo-Protestant: "America was created by 17- and 18th-century settlers who were overwhelmingly white, British and Protestant." Past waves of immigrants assimilated to that culture while enriching and modifying it, but "in the final decades of the 20th century, however, the United States' Anglo-Protestant culture and the creed that it produced came under assault by the popularity in intellectual and political circles of the doctrines of multiculturalism and diversity; the rise of group identities based on race, ethnicity and gender over national identity; the impact of transnational cultural diasporas; the expanding number of immigrants with dual nationalities and dual loyalties; and the growing salience for U.S. intellectual, business and political elites of cosmopolitan and transnational identities."

Amid this frontal assault on American culture, one threat stands out: "In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of those immigrants compared to black and white American natives." Do his views matter, or is this just another ivory-tower debate?

Ideas, in and of themselves, don't drive history or determine policy. But in the context of larger social forces, they can be extremely powerful. Freedom, salvation, class struggle, Lebensraum, democracy, socialism, evolution, jihad and feminism are ideas that have shaken the world, for good and for ill. Ideas about race, culture and national identity are especially explosive. To single out one ethnic and cultural ingredient of a nation as the essential component, as the "real" Americans/Rwandans/Germans/Turks, marks those not included as "others," as "out" groups. Under certain conditions, these ideas can be used to justify targeting such groups for discrimination, oppression or elimination.

Hispanics Huntington's 'out' group

Dr. Huntington's ideas about Hispanics/Latinos, terms I use interchangeably, mark them as the "out" group of the moment. His ideas tap into and threaten to exacerbate public anxieties about the growing Latino presence and the flowering of Hispanic culture in the United States, anxieties clearly demonstrated in numerous public opinion polls and the electoral success of anti-immigrant and "English only" referenda across the country.

Let's be clear about the wider implication of how Dr. Huntington defines America. Although he aims his arrows squarely at Latinos, the group he sees as today's main danger to the ethnic and cultural status quo, his construction of America as an essentially Anglo-Protestant nation relegates a vast universe of other cultures and ethnic groups to the margins of American history. Dr. Huntington makes a sharp distinction between "settlers" -- early WASP arrivals who laid the basic pattern of American culture -- and more recent non-WASP Christian "immigrants" who merely helped to fill in the mold. To the degree that they are not descendants of Anglo-Protestant settlers, all Americans are relative outsiders.

Some are further outside than others: Italians, Irish and Eastern European Orthodox Christians. In Dr. Huntington's reading, their cultures are not constitutive of bedrock American culture. But at least they might be admitted into the fold as a result of what Dr. Huntington describes as a 19th-century process through which the "United States' religious identity was being redefined more broadly from Protestant to Christian." But where does that leave Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans and other non-Christians? As for Africans, who were here at the outset alongside the white Protestant settlers, there is no place for their imprint in Dr. Huntington's account of the construction of American identity.

The point is that the lens through which Dr. Huntington is looking at American identity is a narrow one, and that Latinos are in good company. It is a matter of degree and time. Today, Dr. Huntington is coming for Latinos; in other eras, other defenders of Anglo-Protestant purity might have come for your ancestors, as they did with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1924 National Origins Quota Act, which closed the door to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, with devastating consequences for Jews fleeing Hitler's horrors in the 1930s.

Miami is Huntington's nightmare

If Dr. Huntington is not coming after the Irish, Italians and Jews, it is because he perceives that the threat of these "alien" cultures to the Anglo-Protestant foundational culture long has been neutralized by a combination of exclusion and assimilation. Latinos -- especially Mexicans, who make up more than two-thirds of all Latinos in the United States -- are in Dr. Huntington's crosshairs because he fears that those twin mechanisms will not work as effectively with them.

As a case in point, Dr. Huntington focuses on Miami, which he views as a nightmarish harbinger of what America will become if the Hispanic challenge is not met, a place in which "Cuban and Hispanic dominance... left Anglos (as well as blacks) as outside minorities." That's a distorted and simplistic picture. In fact, although Cubans and other Hispanics have become a demographic majority and have attained unprecedented economic success and political power in Miami, Hispanics occupy much less than their share of public-sector jobs. And most of the top executives in the corporate sector are Anglos. For Anglos, a group used to being in charge, having at times to share power and negotiate issues such as the distribution of resources, culture and language may seem oppressive, but the resulting discomfort does not equate to outside minority status.

Although Dr. Huntington raises the specter of Miami as a scare tactic, his main target is not Cubans but Mexicans. He cites six reasons for arguing that Latino immigration -- especially Mexican immigration -- poses an unprecedented threat to American identity: contiguity, scale, illegality, regional concentration, persistence and historical presence.

Mexico and the United States share the longest border dividing a developing and a developed country. The number of Mexicans admitted legally each year dwarfs the flow from any other country. In 2002, according to the Department of Homeland Security, the number was 217,318 out of 1,063,732 immigrants legally admitted. The undocumented flow is even more heavily Mexican. Latino immigrants tend to concentrate in specific regions and cities, increasing their clout and slowing their assimilation. Mexicans feel a special sense of entitlement in California and the Southwest, which were part of Mexico before the United States took them over as spoils of war.

Dr. Huntington's main fear is that as a result of these forces, Latinos, especially Mexicans in the Southwest, will come to have enough clout and coherence to "do what no previous immigrant group could have dreamed of doing: challenge the existing cultural, political, legal, commercial and educational systems to change fundamentally not only on the language but also the very institutions in which they do business."

Latinization hardly imminent

Is this a realistic scenario, and if it comes about, what are the implications? The Latino presence will produce changes in American culture and institutions. I don't want to offer any false comfort to those who fear all change or suffer from a top-dog complex or Hispanophobia. But for the most part, Dr. Huntington's dire predictions are wildly exaggerated. Even in Miami, the cultural bedrock hardly has been touched. Recently, I attended a conference on South American immigration sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami. The lead presenter, from Uruguay, struggled with her English. While at a video store, I picked up a copy of El Paracaidista (The Parachutist), a Spanish-language tabloid guide for recent immigrants and noticed that the three main ads were for English classes.

The language issue holds a special place in the complaints by Dr. Huntington and others about Latinos. Unlike unfounded fears over the decline of American institutions, language is a real issue. But let's understand what that issue is. It's not rejection of English. There is no Quebec scenario. Even Dr. Huntington acknowledges that 90 percent of people of Mexican origin born in the United States speak English fluently; most of the Latino second generation prefers to communicate in English.

The bone of contention, as many studies and referendum voting patterns have shown, is that most Latinos have a preference for bilingualism while Anglos overwhelmingly abhor the very concept. Latinos see two languages as enriching; Anglos see two languages as divisive.

Dr. Huntington reflects this concern: "If the second generation does not reject Spanish outright, the third generation is also likely to be bilingual, and fluency in both languages is likely to become institutionalized in the Mexican-American community." Such an outcome, feared by Dr. Huntington, would be welcomed by Latinos, and why not? Knowledge of Spanish, a language spoken by millions of people, opens up vast cultural, economic and human vistas. Alas, even here, Dr. Huntington's fears probably are misplaced. Across Latino generations, the research shows that Spanish competence and use is eroding dramatically. And the Bush administration recently did away with the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, while California has outlawed bilingual education.

Cultural charges patently false

Although language is a real rather than a phony issue, it is also an emblem of Latino culture, a larger issue, the apparent object of Dr. Huntington's concern and the target of his thinly disguised prejudices. Careful to quote Latin American and Latino writers in the hope of avoiding charges of racism, Dr. Huntington insinuates that Mexicans and other Latinos suffer among other things from a "lack of ability to achieve results quickly... initiative, self-reliance and ambition; little use for education; and acceptance of poverty as a virtue necessary for entrance into heaven."

Let's see: If Latino immigrants really lacked initiative and accepted poverty as a virtue, millions of them wouldn't be risking their lives crossing forbidding deserts and treacherous seas; they could have all the virtue and poverty right at home. And do American corporations and individuals risk breaking the law in order to hire slothful workers? As for ambition and self-reliance, ask the Miami Cubans.

The patently false nature of these cultural charges raises the question of whether another concern is really at work here: the vexing American question of race. Hispanics are a multiracial population; many Mexicans and other Latinos consider themselves people of color. In a remarkable section in which Dr. Huntington blames Latinos for provoking white backlash, he speaks, apparently approvingly, of a new breed of educated "white advocates": "These new white nationalists do not advocate white racial supremacy but believe in racial self-preservation and affirm that culture is a product of race. They contend that shifting U.S. demographics foretell the replacement of white culture by black and brown cultures that are intellectually and culturally inferior."

The Latino presence in the United States, which will continue to grow for the foreseeable future as a result of economic, social and political forces almost impossible to stop, is not going to undermine bedrock American institutions or relegate English to subordinate status. It will produce changes and conflicts over such issues as language that can be managed through compromise. And it will change the racial profile of the United States, provoking the ire of racists old and new, cultured and untutored. The Latino challenge to America is to resolve the unfinished business of race.

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