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Only a fool would talk about racism these days. Even the best intentions – even a universal love of and respect for mankind isn’t enough to get you through the minefield. Of course the best of us all have questionable ideas, unsupported notions and such, some of which are subject to elucidation, reconsideration but also misinterpretation. “But these are the days of advance, the works of the men of mind” as Tennyson wrote and what they say goes, what you say, what you mean means less. Anyone whose name we recognize is potential cannon fodder, anything you say can and will be used against you.
Is Tom Brokaw a racist? Is racist “a thing” as they say? Is a questionable phrasing of a benign idea something that makes you a racist just like a chancre makes you syphilitic? Seems that way.
Mr. Brokaw seems off base to me in stressing the need to make immigrant children learn English. I think history teaches that this is what happens – all the time – and that retaining an ancestral language is rare. Sure one might know a few phrases to ask how grandma is feeling today but in America, people become American in a hurry. Is that racism, or an unfamiliarity with many Spanish speaking families?
Teddy Roosevelt, a man of his time but a Progressive man by his own reckoning has been accused of bad things for saying “I stand against every form of hyphenated Americanism” because it created parties and factions along racial and ethnic lines. He was right, in my opinion and it has helped pit all against all in the name of unity in our own time.
If you’ve ever been abroad for some time, you may have experienced, as I have, upon meeting up with people from the US, the warm sentiment at hearing “we’re all Americans here” with people of what would be diverse backgrounds back home. It’s a good feeling. Teddy was, of course talking about Germans and Swedes and the immigrants of 1916, but we know damned well their kids all spoke English well and their grandchildren made this the most powerful country on Earth.
In my experience the children of immigrants don’t often learn their parents’ language well, or at all. He spoke of assimilation too and that’s just what happened and it made us what we are and what we were when we were at our greatest and at our worst.
Is it wrong to think, as Roosevelt did, that it doesn’t matter about your family origins if you were at heart an American? I guess I’m a racist for thinking so, but that’s because I think it’s more a matter of pride to be committed to this country than that my ancestors were this or that or some other thing.
Where Brokaw is mistaken, in my opinion, is in thinking that there’s too much ethnocentrism in America and where his critics are paradoxically wrong is in insisting that’s the way it should be; that we should be more enclosed in our safe places, mistrusting all others and denouncing them for their race or gender or religion or ethnicity.
I believe in fact, that we are still a melting pot, a country that assimilates immigrants and where the children of immigrants learn English and become as “American” as anyone here for ten generations.
I heard a black Basketball player talk about “my people” yesterday as though they were a separate people and he was proud of it. As though he weren’t a hero to kids everywhere of every background and complexion.
It’s not that one can’t partake of some ethnic identity and remain American (although few Americans remain so genetically consistent or were when they came here in the first place.) I love Chinese food, I love the Blues and the food of many cultures, but I’m an American and that has nothing to do with a visa or passport or place of birth or ancestry. I just am and when abroad it’s obvious to everyone.
You can’t take that from me and I’m not going to try to take it from you or tell you your place of birth takes away from my being American too. Your name may be Jesus or Sven or Wong, but we’re all Americans here. So I’m not a German or a Pole, but an American with a German surname. Is that Racist? No it isn’t. E Pluribus Unum, out of many one, and all that.