Unmelting Pot

06/15/2010 03:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The most recent measure signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer makes it illegal for public school courses to "advocate ethnic solidarity." It's supposedly meant to challenge programs that teach Mexican-American students about their history and culture in the belief that they produce "ethnic chauvinism," the words of Tom Horne, the state's top education official.

Horne's claim is that these classes lead students to believe they are an "oppressed minority." This complements the state's earlier legislation that requires police to profile suspected undocumented immigrants. The belief apparently is that racism is fostered by the support of group awareness, not potentially eliminated by it; that racism is pretty much history in this country and attention to group identity will only re-inflame it. Instead of promoting the ethnic group and its solidarity, we need to treat "pupils as individuals."

The profiling peccadillo was scary enough. This lean-and-mean pedagogical stripping threatens to remand consciousness to some pre-civil rights stone age. Together they're a lethal weapon indeed.

Learning to think and act as an individual speaks to our cultural identity. America was founded on the democratic challenge of individuals--white males at least--to a repressive state. We should keep this idea alive but also realize that it's less of a fact than a promising orientation toward the world. Individuals rise or fall with a big boost from the powers of association, the quid-pro-quo transactions that make the self-made men. Yet the personal angle keeps us consumed with ourselves and allows power to remain on the periphery.

We've been in a "post-racial" world for some time. The backlash against the civil rights movement gained steam in the Reagan years, culminating in moves to eliminate affirmative action in the 90s. The emerging commonsense was that group catch-up had become sufficiently complete and barriers to success were mainly in the mind. This was evident for example in the changed welfare law, TANF, in '96. The entitlement to support established in the New Deal era was taken away in the belief that institutions were fair vehicles for the upwardly motivated. Poverty and joblessness became the responsibility of the individual who now faced a limited term for collecting benefits.

Even our African-American president sympathizes with this commonsense. Obama rejects policies--just ask the Congressional Black Caucus--that target specific races. In his major speech on race in the run-up to the election Obama appealed to universals, weaving a social fabric where we cohabit as diverse citizens; e pluribus unum, the many in the one. He was hardly suggesting we forget the past, believing passionately in the civil rights struggles that nurtured his life chances, and committed to Martin Luther King's spirit of integration.

But he's no reparationist, insisting we forgive past sins and move on. One of his purposes was to distance himself from those like the Reverend Wright who at least dallied with the idea of redress. The stress should be on the person, the energy of the committed individual to break through barriers of all kinds in a society where they're diminishing. The speech ended with stories that showed personal loyalties trumping collective ones, a very American affectation.

We make believe groups are secondary; racial clusters are temporary. This was spurred by the arrival of immigrants, waves and waves since the beginning who wanted to think of themselves as Americans first in this fabric of the many-in-the-one. Successes made this a valuable goal. Newcomers at the bottom of the hierarchy did jobs no one else wanted while making do among themselves. They moved up and out of their stations as individuals believing they could rise on their own merits, melt into the mass and disperse throughout the larger society.

So holding on to the old ways, or clustering with your own kind, prevents you from embracing what it means to be an American.

The melting pot idea was exactly that, an "idea" which bore some relation to reality, at least during the waves of immigration from Europe, since the Irish, Poles, Italians and others were degrees of white. Getting rid of the accent was the big barrier to overcome before the grand dispersal. Then it was every man for himself in the urban and suburban frontiers.

The melt was supposed to be relatively friction-free once the initiation rites concluded. Color and cultural differences were just spicy variations, a stew of merely other Americans. The limits to this idea were exposed in the 60s when European immigration was mostly complete and the additions to the pot from Asia, Africa and South America were more different than the same. As the "potato eaters" and "organ grinders," who'd already made efforts to assimilate, exchanged recipes and mates, differences were mostly invisible. But for the new immigration, colorful differences were more than slight variations, and brought the potential for friction. Familiarity can breed contempt, and full-blown prejudice and racism.

This partial freeze is an honest adjustment to the realities of assimilation that reveal how striving to achieve the American Dream is hampered by melting into the mass as individuals. Selective assimilation was an answer to the dilemma. The power to challenge the system and rise in it comes from large numbers staying together in networks. Dispersing throughout mainstream society as an individual of a race still experiencing significant inequality is the formula for more of the same.

Teaching Arizona students to view themselves as melted individuals is more than a little ironic since about 30% of the state's population is Latino, and continuing to rise. These numbers suggest that perhaps in the not too distant future whites will be put upon to melt into a quite different kind of pot, and that is one source of the problem: the demographic shift and the balance of power. Though while the numbers benefit Latinos, the migration into the state of white retirees and other conservatives continues as well, fueling anti-ethnic flames (Sonali Kolhotcar, "Uprising," 5/27, KPFK, Los Angeles).

If the balance was even remotely close to fair and equal, if the deficits Mr. Obama wants to ignore were minimal, then solidarity and group awareness would not be such a necessity. If school curricula had included more Latino history in the first place, the drive to develop special classes and programs would not have been so necessary.

Withdrawing the education now that prepares students to close the gap might create a greater demand for what's missing, remind them of past deficits and cause worse resentment. How can the truth be avoided in a state whose land once belonged to Mexico? Despite the curriculum deficiencies, most know how that transfer took place. Dinner table conversations must be quite strained when the oral history gets to garnish the main course from the school textbooks. The kin links that go back generations have to overspill the classroom. The southwest US, witness California, is awash in Spanish labels.

The mid-19th century was a bloody affair out west. That history, which precedes the arrival of the first Anglos, must pose a threat. But it's likely too late. Efforts to trash solidarity and encourage Latinos to see themselves as unaffiliated will backfire once we separate the authentic issues of immigration that need attention from how victims are being scapegoated by another agenda.

A good starting point would be to fix the cause of the immigrant gusher, rather than criminalizing the victims. Illegals are civil violators who've come across the border for reasons of survival to do jobs that in many cases whites won't. But the conditions they confront here make them bend the law, and employers have a stake in keeping them illegal since they're easier to control, and this represses wages. And this creates envy. Many are upset at the illegals who don't have to get licensed to work at the same jobs they do, and for not having to pay taxes. This is hardly conducive to building a unified workers' response to employers.

If employers benefit from the surplus of seekers after the dwindling number of jobs, you'd think we'd still have an open door policy. Come one and all to the land built from immigrant labor! Why not simply make them legal? They do after all contribute to the economy. Employers would have less control but still be able to pick and choose and pay very low wages. This is one of the reasons why many say that since employers are going against their economic interests, they must be racists.

The privatized, for profit prison system excepted, the decriminalization of immigrants would have a very positive ripple effect throughout society.

NAFTA looms large. A unified front against this stepchild of neoliberalism, the Clinton administration's early demonstration that it could outdo the master at Reaganomics, is needed. What this "free trade" agreement set in motion needs to be reversed. It was viewed in 1993, when the long post-73 downturn had yet to lift, as a panacea for job growth and productivity. Just release the corporations, who'd already begun hightailing it to offshore sweatshops in the globalizing 70s, from fealty to country and they'd solve the perennial problem of matching workers to available jobs. They succeeded, finding minimalist wages across borders, particularly in the south. Our heavily subsidized and protected companies out-competed the local ones the old-fashioned way, as trusted monopolies, leading to their collapse and spikes in the jobless destined for the American border and beyond.

This was the beginning of the dumpster towns and makeshift plants along the Mexican border to accommodate workers trying to take advantage of the "free" market. They've now become ground zero in the killing fields of the drug wars that feed off an even more catastrophic collapse of the Mexican economy, as Charles Bowden shows in Murder City.

It somehow seems so right that expendable workers-on-demand who made our Nikes for a pittance would come back to the scene of the crime to haunt the establishment that created the multinational corporations that have such thin patriotic skin.

Another system that's broken; another instance of failed regulation with horrific consequences. Let those with the drills and financial frills and sweatshop wages follow their dreams for the bottom line, and the poker chips will fall where they may. If they bring us down, if Adam Smith's or god's invisible hand fail to deliver us from evil, collect on the best bailout insurance lobbyists can buy. This wild west idea dies hard, but not the fallout from the freedoms of new right cowboys who shaped the republican party in the wake of Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964, Arizona's least-known, but not forgotten, mainstream maverick.

Obama should respond to the "illegals" crisis like he finally has to the BP oil spill. He's getting tough, saying they will have to pay every dime for the cleanup! Make those wielders of power who move the destinies of workers to the bottom pay damages for the market spills that threaten to soak them for generations. Talk them into putting their junk bonds and derivatives to work, plugging the chasm that keeps them impoverished. Call it operation overkill.

Natural disasters have a different pedigree than political-economic ones, even though we tend to view the latter as inevitable, like they're in sync with the blowing wind or torrential downpours. Their ebb and flow is seen as part of the seasonal up-and-down cycles of everyday life (pre-global-warming weather patterns at least!). Bad people come and go and do evil things, so why get hot and bothered about it?

The employment catastrophe engulfing Arizona is not a natural one, and the oil spill is certainly not either, though it requires immediate action. The effects of policies like NAFTA that negatively impact large numbers are far from fully hidden, though the media doesn't exactly go overboard in exposing the causes and effects of policies. Its coverage suggests a natural event about which little can be done. Ups and downs are normal. How often do we hear the refrain that there's Obama can do to fix the job crisis! Causes can then be individualized. The burden is on the victims to act since policies are mostly abstractions--not exactly dinner table subjects--framed long ago.

Blaming policy designers for negligence is futile since their decisions are coordinated compromises executed by many with vested interests. Congress repealed Glass-Steagall in the late 90s to free the hands of financial elites who create wealth and jobs, getting a good chunk of campaign contributions to boot. What could be more natural! The vested get going and reap rewards. If there's a flaw in the design, perhaps related to defective drills in MBA school, that leads to unintended credit spills, it will be drowned out by the obvious positives.

The foreclosure crisis is the grand consequence of these policies. All those good intentions to get more folks in homes and plug into the American Dream notwithstanding, the sum of the parts collapsed the whole. Not one of the super-salaried who bundled these packages of opportunity is liable; they merely acted naturally within the law to make a profit. Though the policy stinks from hindsight, it comes out in the wash as a practical innovation gone south, and therefore deserving of bailouts. And though virtually everyone points the finger at Wall Street, it's blameless. Intentions were good, but no one's perfect. Geniuses make mistakes too, and they apologized anyway. So bailouts are in order, not bail bondsmen.

A policy that acknowledges the guilt, passing the benefits to victims first, is taboo since this would interfere with the individual's responsibility to take charge of their own affairs. Obama said as much, that direct actions for homeowners couldn't discriminate between deserving and undeserving individuals. So let the banks mop up the credit spill, even try to plug leaks in the filter-down technology. Let it all ride out in the up-and-down-cycles of self-correction while individuals fend for themselves.

Neighbors ignore their foreclosed fallen like the plague, who do rapid sell-offs of their belongings alone, slipping into the night with bowed heads as scarred statistics. Victims of the recession, victims of NAFTA policies, have become an othered population, made untouchable and invisible.

There's a new ad on TV for a Wall Street brokerage firm that shows a woman, head bowed, who's clearly suffered an economic reversal from the recession, reflecting about her poor choices and how to prevent them again!

The only answer to cowboy capitalism across the spectrum is to coordinate a sensible policy of fair wages with the cleanup of all labor pool spills. This means facing the technological failings at the core of the setup that's supposed to deliver what the American Dream promises. This would alleviate many social problems requiring cleanup down the road.

We need something like that "correxit" which BP used to clean up the oil, but which actually works. It is meant to absorb and decompose oil, convert it to another substance, which unfortunately might be worse than the disease, leaving daring toxic microbes afloat for generations that kill species of ocean life.

Individualizing the immigrant issue is the correxit that will pollute the pot for generations and kill species of working life. We need a chemistry that preserves the individual but not at the expense of the networks that bond them, links the fate of workers and immigrants to the machine that delivers a decent living, soaks relationships with fairness, and plugs leaks in the wage system. This will help minimize damage from flawed social technologies, and teach us how to spot and evaluate unnatural disasters and their--sometimes unintended--effects.

In other words we need more of the kind of education this law seems intent on suppressing. One of its not-so-veiled targets is "critical thinking," a code for subversion to some on the sectarian fringe. But a critical awareness of the issues and stakes involved is a must to change policies and prevent future spills.

Melt the fear that isolation instills, not the person. As Eugene Robinson said recently in the Washington Post (5/14), this "angry anti-Latino spasm" is only partly about illegality. It's really about fear and denial. But exactly what is needed to cancel these maladies is being denied by this legislation.