Posted on June 16, 1997 in Washington Watch
The Latin expression e pluribus unum appears on the “Great Seal of the United States” and on most U.S. currency. It means “out of many, one” and defines the vision of what America intends to be—a unified nation of immigrants from all over the world.
This is the promise and power of the American ideal and there are countless stories that can be told of how this promise has become a reality for Americans of every race, ethnic group, and religion.
And yet despite the gains that have been made, there remain serious challenges in the continuing effort to bridge racial and ethnic differences and make American truly “one nation”.
Economic data demonstrates clearly that gaps exist between the races in employment and income. Statistics on education and treatment by the criminal justice system, show the same disparities.
Recent polls show both the progress that has been made and the challenges that remain. On the one hand, attitudes of white America toward black America have changed significantly and positively in the past thirty years. Three decades ago, for example, only 4% of white America indicated acceptance of interracial marriages. Today, over 60% show acceptance. In 1969 only 63% of whites stated that they would vote for a black candidate, today that number has risen to 91%. Both whites and blacks indicate that they feel real progress has been made in the quality of their lives and in relations between the races.
Along with signs of progress, however, the polls also show serious gaps remaining between the races. Blacks do not believe that the law enforcement system has been fair and unbiased. And black Americans in large numbers still point to real instances of discrimination in employment, housing, and economic opportunity.
It is especially worrisome that signs of this racial divide are greatest in U.S. cities and on some major college campuses.
The effort to bridge the gap between the races is but one aspect of the effort to build a unified America. The presence of large numbers of Hispanics, Puerto Ricans. and Native Americans who have become Americans because their lands were added to the country by the 19th century conquests, coupled with substantial increases in immigration from Central and South America, Asia, and Africa are also contributing to the growing complexity of the American community.
It is estimated that given the rapid increases in Hispanic and Asian populations in California (the U.S.’s largest state), that in less than two decades the majority of Californians will be Asians and Hispanics. Whites will only be slightly more than 1/3 of California’s population. And that pattern will be repeated with some variations in many other states and major U.S. cities.
The pressures created by continuing racial divisions and the growing ethnic and racial diversity of America has created a hostile response from some quarters. While some militant racist and anti-foreign far right groups have surfaced, the greater danger is coming from the mainstream right. Anti-immigrant legislation and efforts to ban all programs designed to aid blacks and recent immigrants have actually passed in some states and have even made headway on the national level.
It is in response to the persistent gap between blacks and whites, the continuing demographic changes that are reshaping the very face of America, and the threat to American unity posed by the racism and nativism of the right-wing that prompted President Clinton to act last week. The President has announced a year-long initiative on race that has three essential components:
Â· a national dialogue which will engage Americans across the country;
Â· a national study of the problems that currently exist and those that may develop in the next century; and
Â· a national program of actions and policies that will promote and strengthen American unity.
According to the President the initiative will include five general goals:
1. to articulate the President’s vision of racial reconciliation and a just, unified America;
2. to teach the nation the facts surrounding the issue of race;
3. to promote a constructive dialogue to confront and work through the difficult and controversial issues surrounding race;
4. to recruit and encourage leadership at all levels to help bridge racial divides;
5. to find, develop, and implement solutions in critical areas such as education, economic opportunity, housing, health care, crime and the administration of justice—for individuals, communities, corporations and government at all levels.
Overcoming the racial divide and celebrating American diversity has long been a commitment of this President. These themes were a cornerstone of his 1992 Presidential campaign and of his decision to appoint an ethnically and racially diverse Cabinet that “looked like America.” The President sees diversity as part of the great strength of America. Last month, speaking at a college graduation, he said, “Our diversity is our greatest strength in the world of today and tomorrow.”
But to guarantee this strength we must work, he said, to insure that diversity “brings us together rather than driving us apart.”
Developing this theme earlier this year the President noted,
“In the end, more than anything else, our world leadership grows out of the power of our example here at home, out of our ability to remain strong as one America . . . We are the world’s most diverse democracy, and the world looks to us to show that it is possible to live and advance together across those kinds of differences . . . Building one America is our most important mission . . . money cannot buy it. Power cannot compel it. Technology cannot create it. It can only come from the human spirit.”
At stake then is this national effort to insure American unity is the future not only of a stable and secure country but the ability of America to continue to provide leadership in the world.
Last week I was invited to join the President and Vice President in a discussion at the White House. A small group of representatives from diverse ethnic and racial communities spent over two hours in the White House residence hearing the President describe his initiatives and sharing our views with him.
He made it clear to us that he felt that this issue was the most important question facing America today. He shared with us the enormous pain he has felt and he has witnessed countries and regions of the world torn apart by ethnic or racial strife. That is why he has been so troubled by the Oklahoma City bombing, by instances of anti-immigrant violence and by the burning of black churches in the South. We must, he said, as a nation, resolve to come together. At stake is whether or not American unity will be preserved into the next century.
I had the opportunity to give the President an Arab American view of this issue and the problems experienced by our community in recent years. Specifically, I called his attention to:
Â· the negative role played by Hollywood and the creators of popular culture who are in large measure responsible for the propagation of negative stereotypes;
Â· the instances of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence that have occurred in times of national crisis;
Â· the crisis that exists in our inner cities where Arab American grocers’ lives are at risk—with dozens killed each year; and
Â· the general fear that Arab Americans share with other new immigrant groups as we see the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Both the President and his staff responded positively to the issues and concerns I raised. It is clear that Arab Americans will be involved and play a role in this important national dialogue.
The President’s initiative is a significant and promising one. It represents only the third time that the issues of race and ethnicity have been placed prominently on the national agenda. Abraham Lincoln confronted the question during the Civil War and Lyndon Johnson dealt with this issue in response to the riots that had engulfed most U.S. cities in the 1960’s.
What is significant is that President Clinton is challenging the nation to confront the issue of race in the absence of a crisis, but in an effort to avert such a crisis.
In an editorial previewing the President’s plan, the Christian Science Monitor commented, “Nothing is more worthy of a national leader’s time and effort than harmony among people. Success in this realm could give President Clinton a legacy overreaching his second-term sea of troubles.”
It is a noble effort which must be supported, because only good can come from this initiative to strengthen the vision of e pluribus unum and make it a reality in the 21st Century.
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