I’ve been considering writing a column about immigration lately, but as I began to construct the piece in my head over last weekend, I kept thinking what I had to say sounded strangely familiar.
Looking back at my old columns from when I was editor of the Weekly Calistogan, I found out why – I happened to tell basically the same story back in 2012. Reading it again for the first time in almost five years, however, all I could do is hope that my obvious optimism in those days was not misplaced.
So here, with only a small modification, is that column from 2012:
Growing up in Virginia in the 1970s, I knew basically two kinds of people: black people and white people.
Even within my own white-people world, there wasn’t much in the way of diversity: The question pretty much boiled down to whether you were an Episcopalian or a Baptist (maybe a Methodist in some of the more diverse areas).
It wasn’t until high school that I even got to know Catholics or Jewish people.
Things changed with astonishing speed, however, in the ‘80s, when waves of Central Americans, many of them refugees from the ugly wars of the decade, showed up in Northern Virginia: Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans came and revitalized the sagging older neighborhoods of the inner suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Still, it wasn’t until my wife and I moved to Los Angeles that I found a place where the world was something substantially other than black and white. To my Southern eye, Los Angeles was a dazzling and bewildering explosion of people: Mexicans, Armenians, Persians, Koreans, Chinese, and white and black people of every possible type and living in every imaginable combination.
I loved it. My son went to preschool mostly with Mexicans; our neighbors were Armenian and Japanese. Our grocery store was a riot of diversity: Armenian brandy, Mexican-style cuts of meat, soy sauces of many types, and overflowing bins of produce that appealed to every group that crowded into the eastern end of Hollywood. In the aisles, customers chatted in Spanish, English, Farsi, Russian and Vietnamese.
I know, of course, that LA has its own racial tensions and hostilities, but in my experience it was exhilarating and liberating to live in this patchwork of people living side by side mostly in peace.
I felt like I was getting a glimpse at what the rest of America might be in 50 or 100 years.
Moving back East was sobering and depressing. Unlike the South of my youth, Philadelphia is home to a diverse population, but unlike Los Angeles, those groups keep sharply to themselves and cast a suspicious eye on any outsider of any color. Instead of black and white, it was a jumble of small tribes: Italians, Irish, Russians, North Philly blacks, West Philly blacks, Hispanics, each jealously guarding their neighborhoods and their slices of political power from the slightest incursion from any other tribe.
I heard more crude and overt racism spoken in that city in seven years than I had heard in all my life.
I got to thinking about all this after I attended an interesting presentation at Calistoga High School in 2012, led by educator Deborah McKnight, about the little-known correspondence between Martin Luther King and César Chávez. Although the two civil rights leaders never met, they kept up an admiring relationship by telegram (“The text message of their day,” McKnight explained to the puzzled students).
It was interesting to see the reactions of the students. Although there were a few who seemed well-versed, most seemed to have only a hazy notion of what these two men were about.
At first I was taken aback that they seemed to know so little, particularly about Chávez, who has not been enshrined in popular culture and school textbooks as prominently as King.
It would be a terrible thing for the story of the Civil Rights movement to be forgotten.
And yet, taking a longer view, there is this small ray of hope. It’s easy to forget that the civil rights struggles of King and Chávez were not the first battles to convulse the country in the 20th century. The women’s suffrage movement, for example, was long and contentious and worked a profound change on America. But the leaders of that movement have either been forgotten or enshrined as distant heroes in textbooks.
How many of us know the name of Susan B. Anthony? Lots of us. How many can detail exactly what she did? Not so many, I suspect.
It’s not because Susan B. Anthony and her sisters in the Suffragette movement failed; quite the reverse. They succeeded so well that we now take it for granted that women can not only vote but serve in Congress, as governor, and before too much longer, as president. It is, frankly, baffling to us that there was ever a question about women voting, much less that women had to risk arrest to assert the right.
Maybe I am too optimistic (easy to do from the seat of a comfortable middle class white guy, I suppose) but I’d like to think that we’re moving in the right direction on entrenching the victories of King and Chávez just as thoroughly as those of the Suffragettes.
I hope that one day, maybe not too long from now, the kids in the school will find it puzzling that it was ever necessary for King and Chávez to stand up and risk their lives to insist that all men are created equal.