Will the forces that divide U.S. conquer?

Melting pot seems headed toward meltdown

Published: Oct. 23, 1996

BY ELIZABETH WASSERMAN Mercury News Staff Writer

The Los Angeles riots. Abortion-clinic shootings. Southern church arsons.Waco. Oklahoma City.

Is Americacoming apart at the seams?

As the electorate prepares to choose leaders to take the country intothe next century, the sense of identity that held us together through twoworld wars, the Great Depression and the nuclear arms race is fading.

In a nation once called an ethnic melting pot, there is growing oppositionto immigration. In a society that dreamed of being colorblind, a majorityof Americans now say race relations are poor. And in an economic systemthat promised success to anyone willing to work, Americans now believe thereis a widening, maybe irreparable gap between rich and poor.

Worried about where all this may lead, a few prominent Americans -- scholars,religious and moral leaders -- are calling for a campaign of reunification,for new emphasis on commonly held principles like freedom of speech, religioustolerance, democracy and equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream.

But many of the politicians who could lead such an effort instead are fanningthe flames. Later this week, Republicans plan to unveil a multimillion-dollarTV campaign that uses the divisive California Civil Rights Initiative --which seeks to do away with government affirmative action -- as a club againstPresident Clinton. Black leaders have decried the ad, but Republicans arguethat it is affirmative action, not their strategy, which is divisive.

Which leads to another question: If not our political leaders, who thencan unite America? And what happens if our divisions don't heal?

Sarajevo metaphor

Some scholars predict the worst. ''The metaphor could be Sarajevo,'' saidClaire Gaudiani, president of Connecticut College, who lectures nationwideabout the need for unity.

''A few years ago, the city hosted the Olympics, and the eye of the worldwas peering into its face with admiration and enthusiasm. It once had world-classtelecommunications. It had a peerless library and educational institutions.Ethnic diversity was one of its strengths. Now it lies in rubble. Anytimewe think it's not possible, we need to move our eyes to Sarajevo -- fromOlympic moment to 1996 -- and understand it's possible anywhere.''

And while it is difficult to imagine the U.S. as the next Bosnia, there'sno question that tensions between Americans run high.

Issues divide us: The question of Social Security pits young against old;abortion sets Christian conservatives against more liberal religious groups.

In polls, racial groups disagree bitterly about events ranging from theRodney King beating to the O.J. Simpson trial. And in February, 78 percentof those surveyed by U.S. News and World Report said they thought peoplehad become less civil to one another in the past 10 years.

Simpson trial reflected divisions

''Unfortunately, the O.J. Simpson trial was a reflection, not a cause, ofa rift in society,'' said Allan Winkler, history professor at Miami Universityin Ohio. ''I don't think things are going to get better quickly. When Clintonwas first elected in 1992, he spoke a lot about communitarianism and theneed to create community. But that rhetoric got lost. It was never actedupon.''

The rifts that run through society like faults in the Earth arise from acombination of political, social and economic factors.

Technology has so eased long-distance communication that it is actuallyweakening geographic ties that once provided common ground. As citizensband into smaller interest groups -- religious, professional, social --membership in the broad-based service organizations and civic groups isas little as half what it was in the 1960s.

Perhaps more important, the economy is growing more slowly than it did inthe 1950s and '60s, and the wealthy are enjoying a larger portion. That'sincreased the frustration at the lower end of the scale -- and fueled resentmentover immigration and affirmative action, which invite more people to sharethe economy's benefits.

Trends more obvious in California

The frustration has been particularly evident in California because of itsethnic diversity and economic extremes. In 1994, the state's voters approvedProposition 187, which significantly strengthened enforcement of immigrationlaws. The issue still burns.

Although they are close in age and live in Sunnyvale only a few miles apart,Irene Barrera, 65, a retired county worker, and Ronald Baird, 73, a retiredsalesman, could not have more different opinions about immigration.

''The reason I'm against those immigration policies is that it's not beingdone fairly. Mainly now they are really attacking the Mexicans,'' said Barrera,who was born in the United States to Mexican parents. ''Mexican workerspay taxes and leave a lot of money here. They're not taking jobs away fromnobody. These kids here are spoiled. They wouldn't take those kinds of jobsanyway.''

In a recent Mercury News poll, almost 60 percent of Santa Clara County residentsagree with Barrera that legal immigrants strengthen the country becausethey work hard and contribute to society. However, more than 50 percentof respondents believe the federal government should sharply limit legalimmigration for economic reasons. That may indicate that they view the problemas an economic one, not a social one.

Baird certainly does.

''They're just forcing open the floodgates,'' said Baird, who lives in amobile-home park and still has to work part time to make ends meet. ''(Immigrantsare) taxing our schools, health programs, and overburdening welfare programs.Mr. Average American is paying for it. I fought in World War II. I servedmy country. And I feel that I'm being left behind.''

Common concerns

The Mercury News poll did find some common concerns among local voters,regardless of race, age or sex. Almost 80 percent are concerned about awidening gap between rich and poor. An overwhelming majority said they wouldbe willing to pay more in taxes to better the state's education system.

But the poll also offered disturbing evidence that demographic groups aredivided even on issues that don't pit them against each other.

Women were twice as reluctant as men to suggest that the federal governmentcut programs like Medicare and Social Security. Older people were less likelythan the young to advocate workplace policies such as unpaid family leaveand tax subsidies for day care.

As alarming as the divisiveness is, group conflict in America is nothingnew.

In San Jose in 1887, arsonists torched the city's first Chinatown, and cityofficials refused to let residents rebuild. (Now it's the site of the FairmontHotel.) In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy vs. Ferguson, approvedracial segregation under the ''separate but equal'' doctrine. Women weren'tallowed to vote until 1920. And while the 1950s may be recalled by someas a peaceful decade when families were valued, the frustrations of blacksand women were simmering then, and exploded onto the nation's streets onlya decade later.

What seems different about 1996, quite simply, is that so few people eventalk of a unique American identity any more.

While a majority of Santa Clara County residents believe a president caninfluence racial and ethnic harmony, this year's campaign is conspicuousin its avoidance of such notions.

While Republicans use the affirmative-action wedge, Clinton has targetedChristian radio stations with an advertisement boasting of his oppositionto gay marriage and late-term abortions -- at the same time that he toutshimself to gay America and the pro-choice movement as a champion of theirissues. In an attempt to discredit the strategy, Republicans bought radiotime in the Bay Area to broadcast that Clinton ad.

Non-governmental bridge may unite

If there's any hope of uniting America in the 21st century, the bridge maybe built by some organization other than government -- associations, religiousinstitutions, academia.

Some polls suggest there are forces that could serve as a foundation. InMay, 71 percent of those polled told ABC that they ''think it's still possiblefor most people to achieve the American Dream.'' And an astonishing 83 percentagreed that ''whatever its faults, the U.S. still has the best system ofgovernment in the world.''

There are also some encouraging social trends. Newfangled ''communities''are sprouting up all over the Internet, discussing the need to preservethe rights of free speech. Teamwork is increasingly being emphasized incorporate America.

Many of the country's newest immigrants are proving to be its most devotedpatriots -- people who view melting-pot metaphors and economic opportunitywith an utter lack of cynicism.

''People have to understand in our society there are differences among ethnicgroups,'' said Tommy P. Baer, president of B'nai B'rith International, aJew who fled the Nazis in Germany in 1939 with his parents. ''The greatstrength of the United States is we can see all of these great differences,not as weaknesses, but as strengths. Each group can add to the richnessof this country.''

How might this realization take hold? Connecticut College's Gaudiani travelsthe nation suggesting that civic groups focus 10 percent of their time discussingrights, civic virtues and the future of democracy. That may be a lot toask. But some very surprising groups have begun to wrestle with the issue.

''Divisiveness is the most destructive phenomenon in our country, and it'sgetting worse,'' said Sara Divito Hardman, head of the California branchof the Christian Coalition.

''We are maturing as a Christian organization. At one point, we deservedthe word "mean spirited' or "hateful.' I now have a platform thatGod is love. Jesus went with all the others. If you're a soldier in a foxholeand someone offers you help, you won't care if he's black or white or liberalor Christian or conservative.''

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