A History of Hidden Diversity and Control

Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and others all foresaw a continent filled with people speaking a single language and with a single culture. It was called “manifest destiny.” The culture that these men envisioned was English-speaking, white, land-owners.

When Dr. Ronald Takaki went to school in Ohio, he says that everyone kept asking him how long he’d been in America, because his English was so good. Even though his grandfather had come here in the 1880s, Takaki didn’t fit the “master narrative” that defines who is an American; he didn’t look like one. Takaki later wrote books on American history, but as experienced by different cultures.

You’ll probably recognize the basic story. A culture is forced to come to America. Originally, it’s seen as an ideal workforce (but it’s not supposed to become permanent residents). It’s used to break strikes of the previous ideal workforce, it’s enslaved politically and economically, and it struggles to gain freedom (usually by banding together). But would you be surprised to find out that this variations of this story describe African-Americans, Irish, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Russian Jews, the Hispanic southwest, Mexicans, Filipinos, Portuguese, and more. As each of these cultures was introduced to the continent, it further strained Jefferson’s vision, and the government reacted with immigration quotas and laws preventing these groups from becoming citizens. The struggle seemed to peak during World War II when many of these cultures enlisted in numbers that over-represented their proportion of the American population. This was for three reasons.

1) To prove their Americanism.

2) To defeat the countries whose policies would mean the extermination of these cultures if defeated.

3) They hoped that by defeating the German and Japanese racial superiority theories, they would also destroy the application of those theories here in America.

By studying these stories, it can lead us to a modern perspective of diversity. We see that our cultural histories really have so much in common. In fact, the critical aspect of diversity seems not to be culture, but wealth. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French politician and anthropologist toured America in the 1830s to study democracy. He noted American’s inordinate love of material gratification and that the source of this love seemed to come from democracy itself. He wrote “when the reverence that belonged to what is old has vanished, birth, condition, and profession no longer distinguish men … hardly anything but money remains to create strongly marked differences between them and to raise some of them above the common level. When all the members of the community are independent of or indifferent to each other, the cooperation of each of them can be obtained only by paying for it. This infinitely multiplies the purposes to which wealth may be applied and increases its value.”

It seems to me that this class-based aspect of diversity is being kept hidden, and in two ways. First, who is the modern “ruling class?” My 4-year-old boy asked me “are we rich.” Well, most Americans have shelter and enough to eat, and we’re amazingly rich compared to the typical Asian, African, and South American. But that’s not the real question. I think the terminology needs to be changed. We’re part of the “privileged class,” but we’re not part of the “ruling class.” It used to be easy to spot the rulers; the King had the most money, but the industrial revolution made the factory owners wealthier. Sure, we know the names of a handful of them, but most of them seem to hide behind the politicians that they give us and who implement their policies.

Not only do the rulers hide, but they also hide those policies. Entertaining stories replace the news. After Disney bought ABC, the lead story one night was that Mickey Mouse had new shoes. And I feel distracted by sports. Sure, the topic is fun, but it’s truly meaningless compared to the significant topics that we’re missing. And, finally, tragedy stories push aside legislative news. Sure, this is news, but it’s not what affects us personally, day-to-day. I dare you to try to find anywhere in the Houston Chronicle or even in the Houston Press a list of bills in Austin or Washington that were voted on yesterday and how our representatives voted. Or, how about a chart of bills about to be voted on and the positions of our representatives.

I’ve tried to go from the history of diversity to its modern implication. Takaki goes farther and foresees a new manifest destiny: a multicultural nation where everyone is a minority. He’s optimistic about our ability to get along and likes to quote Herman Melville, “spill the blood of an American, and you spill the blood of the world.” But I have to add a warning. If we spend too much energy on cultural understanding and how we all differ, I feel that we overlook our common background. And if we divert our attention from the ruling class, we risk new rounds of sophisticated slavery. And I just don’t think that’s the kind of getting along together that Dr. Takaki would hope for.

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