Sunday, 21 March 2010

#2 The melting pot.

It's easy to forget quite how diverse America is. Sure, there are black sports and music stars, but we have those in Britain, too - and we're still over 90% white European. Black people are just better at music and sports. By contrast, a third of Americans are non-white - mostly black (12%) and Latino (15%). There are nearly as many Latino Americans as Britons, total.

Nowhere is this diversity more evident than in Queens, one of New York's five boroughs. Nearly half the population was born beyond these fare shores, and over 200 nationalities are represented. It is the most diverse urban area in the world.

America's attitudes towards race are confused. Historically, this country has been exceptionally welcoming to pretty much anybody. Europeans of all nationalities and ethnicities arrived in their millions at East Coast immigration centres - most famously Ellis Island, New York - in the early 20th Century, and barring major sickness piled in. African Americans, of course, arrived initially against their will, but have since made this country their own.

Mexicans were sent as cheap labour with the complicity of their government from 1907 onwards, following the cessation of Japanese immigration which till then had fulfilled a similar purpose. (The end of Japanese immigration, incidentally, was brought by Californian nativism - so later clampdowns on Mexicans moving into the state is just history repeating itself.)

Throughout all of this, middle America has rumbled with strong nationalist overtones, waxing and waning according to economic circumstance and unemployment rates. So it is in any country. But, of course, this is a nation borne of immigrants, Native Americans excepted. It has coaxed and cajoled foreigners repeatedly, and benefited hugely from their cheap labour. Its constitution is uncompromisingly liberal and secular. Nothing is expected of or promised to anyone, except freedom.

I would be setting up a false dichotomy, if different people had these different attitudes. No nation can be expected to sing as one, nor should it. But this pride in America and all that it supposedly represents - the republican ideals of 'liberté' and 'égalité', if not 'fraternité' - is held by the very same souls who decry the influx of undesirable foreigners. Again, this hypocrisy is not uniquely American - just especially acute here.

Walking around this city, then, and reeling from its diversity, brings high-minded musings about why this country is as it is. I wrote before I left about the the adult American dream is over. Well, maybe for a cynic like me, but not for most. Not for the millions who have come, and will continue to come, to fill Queens, Brooklyn, and the already-brimming melting pot.

In that context, here's an interesting fact: an African American male in the United States is more likely to end up in prison than college.

Cartoon from Punch magazine

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