The United States is the archetypical nation of immigrants and refugees. Even the nomads who came to this area across the Bering Land Bridge some 18,000 years ago, or on ocean-going rafts that bumped into the west coast, came as immigrants looking for greener pastures. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President (1933-1945) of the United States knew this when in 1938 he reminded the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a pretentious upper class organization, that they too were descended from immigrants. The DAR members were not pleased. They had long since made a collective decision that this was just not true. Their ancestors were the true Americans in that they were the originators of the revolution—the seminal act that made the nation the alleged “God-blessed land” it was and always will be. They had little regard for the immigrants and refugees who came later. The DAR ladies saw them as dangerous interlopers out to pollute and pilfer the patrimony of revolutionary heroes. It was a good example of how skewed perception makes its own history.
Every subsequent wave of European immigrants to the U.S. created a customized version of this story for themselves. Within one or two generations their children melded into an Americanized Western culture, became fluent in English, and thought of themselves as true Americans. Assimilating into American society also meant assimilating into United States history—which now became their history.
The only groups which were not completely successful in this process were non-European: African Americans, Latins, Asians and actual native Americans as well. The social, economic and political restrictions that flowed from a persistent white American racism limited the ability of non-Europeans to assimilate and created a feared and resented “other” for the Western majority. Non-Western groups were more or less ghettoized into ethnic communities that were much harder to break down and meld with the greater society.
However, as time went by, the situation for these ethnic minorities got ever more complicated. They existed, semi-isolated within a greater culture and a capitalist economy that constantly beckoned to them. In spite of not achieving full assimilation, the memories of their ethnic roots began to fade, as did command of the non-English languages of their grandparents. Their status as hyphenated groups seems to be permanent.
Drawing Strength from One’s Roots
One reaction to this predicament was for minorities to turn the tables and urge the importance of knowing and taking pride in their original ethnic culture and history. For example, for the community of Latin immigrants, the goal would be to discover one’s roots not as an ”American” but rather as an American of Hispanic ethnic heritage.
This predicament and the “going back to one’s roots” solution has been laid out by Arlene Dávila, the founding director of New York University’s Latinx Project. “Latinx” is a term that “signals an openness to gender inclusivity and more tacit recognition of our racial and ethnic diversity.” Dávila notes, in a 15 October 2022 piece, “What My Students Don’t Know About Their Own History” in the New York Times, that many of her Latinx students “receive their first formal introduction into their own ethnic roots—Hispanics who have a part U.S. history—in her university classes and ones across the United States only created in the last 20 years.”
She does not think this is satisfactory. She bases part of her case on demographics. “Latinos, who make up 19 percent of the U.S. population” yet “are vastly underrepresented in academia, newsrooms, publishing, Hollywood films, TV and more.” Dávila believes that “investing in Latinx studies programs” is a necessary step in correcting this problem. Presently, she tells us, “there are fewer than 90 programs providing majors in Latinx studies out of the close to 3,000 institutions of higher learning across the nation.”
One might think that 90 programs is a good foundational number except for the fact that “Hispanic Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in American universities.” Under the circumstances, she also faults the lack of Hispanic faculty. “Students of color are more likely to see people who look like them in the ranks of clerical and service positions than in the upper echelons of academia.”
As an academic and a Hispanic, Dávila focuses on the problem of open access for non-European students. “We must challenge traditional disciplines that remain stubborn to change, and we must nourish the interdisciplinary spaces, such as ethnic studies, that have been at the vanguard of innovation in American universities.” While this is, of course, important within the specific context of higher education, it is a strategy that, alone, cannot achieve her overall goals—nor those of other underrepresented ethnic groups in the same situation.
Dávila is up against formidable conservative opposition in just those places that have a sizable Hispanic presence—places like Texas and Arizona, among others. It is here that emphasis on ethnic history has become almost un-American, and teachers are encouraged to avoid it. Conservatives, who control many of the southern and southwest state governments, generally do not want diversification as reflected in ethnic studies. They want unification through the standardized teaching of traditional historical mythology.
In the long run, the conservatives are probably waging a losing battle here. Why? Mostly because of the demographics. Short of disenfranchising all but whites who think as they do, there is no way that a gradual shift in voting power won’t move both law and policy in Dávila’s favor.
But that may be little solace for the immediate term future. The New York Times, for all its many failings, has produced an excellent piece on the psyche of those whites who support the present Republican Party. The title is quite telling: “Their America Is Vanishing. Like Trump, They Insist They Were Cheated.”
The northeast United States, as well as most of the country’s larger cities, have always known demographic shifts reflecting ethnic diversification. Some of this is due to internal population movement, but repeated influxes of immigrants have also been common. Until recently, this has not been the case for the towns and small cities that are spread out through the south and west. As a result, the present movement of non-whites, including immigrants and also refugees, into these venues comes as a real shock and is felt as a real threat. “A shrinking white share of the population [overall white Americans will be the majority of voters for little more than the next two more decades] is a hallmark of the congressional districts held by the House Republicans who voted to challenge Mr. Trump’s defeat, a New York Times analysis found — a pattern political scientists say shows how white fear of losing status shaped the movement to keep him in power.” The demographic details of the discontented white population show that most are of a lower socioeconomic and educational status. The resulting fear of losing political control is so strong that “A lot of white Americans who feel really threatened are willing to reject democratic norms.”
Idle Talk of Civil War
There is a lot of idle talk about another “civil war” coming from some of these disenchanted white Americans. It is hard to give credence to such venting. Why so? The level of armed force that radical conservatives can project is minuscule and their inability to react in an organized way to the suppressive moves of the federal government after the January 6 revolt speaks to their ultimate collective weakness. That does not mean they are incapable of sporadic acts of violence.
Violence has always defined a part of the American character—now more than ever. To date, violent incidents are scattered but growing in frequency. And, it is notable that the victims are almost always innocent and unarmed. If this was to change in the direction of more coordinated attacks on government personnel and do so with neo-fascist conservatives controlling city government, state houses, and the White House, then we would all be in trouble.
So far, things have not reached this point. Right now there is a piecemeal shift to neofascist values and their imposition onto the public sphere in selective states. That is happening and will continue to happen as long as a conservative white subgroup can control the outcome of elections. That ability is being tested across the nation. This process is what makes the U.S. appear as a nation about to break apart.
If the Arlene Dávilas of this country want success for their programs of ethnic diversification, they must concentrate on much more than higher education funding. They must make sure to rally their ethnic communities into organized blocs of voters, then make alliances with other groups with similar agendas. Along with progressive whites, they must sweep the conservative radicals, the neofascists, out of government. At that point there may well be a violent reaction, but not enough to make any long-term difference.
While they are at it, they can reform a host of other government ills. From schools boards, to the electoral college, to the Supreme Court appointments, to gerrymandering and voting manipulations, to elections often bought by the wealthy, our government is corrupt. Yet, Arlene Dávila can win if she and those progressives like her can sufficiently organize. That has always been the case in American politics.