I’ve been thinking post-election about the genuine human fears harbored by many people that the country they grew up in is gone, or at least slipping away. I spoke with many of those men and women on the campaign trail in 2008 and again this year.
These are good people, mostly older and white, who are unsettled and scared by the pace of social change in America. Same-sex marriage, legalized marijuana, talk of legalized status for undocumented immigrants—that’s a lot of change to accept within just a few years. I met some others, too. Consider the liberal Jews of my parents’ generation who sense—accurately, I think–that the coming generation of liberal politicians can read from the hymnal but don’t sway with the music about Israel the way the generation of 1967 and 1973 once did.
It’s an irony of recent history that the conciliatory and calm Barack Obama exemplifies in his person some inexorable and potentially scary political and demographic trends. Some would exploit the accompanying anxieties by challenging the President’s birth certificate. Most people really fear the “otherness” of our coming 21st-century America, not the alleged inauthenticity of our president’s initial paperwork fifty years ago. Whatever your ideological stance, however you might disdain birthers such as Donald Trump, you’d have to be tone deaf not to sympathize at some person-to-person level with millions of people who feel left behind and a little lost. We liberals would be wise to reach out, not in a spirit of triumphalism but in a more embracing and human way, to simply reassure people that the planet will still rotate despite all the changes we see in American society. Many of our best values and most important interests are being advanced, not undermined, by the coming of a more liberal and inclusive society.
This morning, I had a meeting at 18th and Ashland Avenue in Chicago, within a neighborhood dramatically redrawn by immigration. The street names here celebrate central Europeans whose countrymen are long gone. It’s easy to snap pictures like the one I took here, and to conclude that urban flight killed this neighborhood. It hasn’t.
I arrived an hour early for my meeting. So I had breakfast in a small cafÃ© right underneath this graffiti. The owner of this Mexican-Italian restaurant needed to explain the various offerings since I don’t speak Spanish. Maybe 60 years ago, a restaurant menu at this same address might have been written in Polish. My eggs and sausage breakfast was equally good (and equally non-APHA approved). This immigrant community and others are doing more than survive. In many ways, they thrive.
Chicago and our other great cities display the changing face of America. Every day, they become a little less mainstream—if by mainstream you mean the predominantly non-Hispanic Christian and white America of 1960. Every day, these cities become a little more of everything else. Is something lost along the way? Of course. I wish I knew more ways to show people that much is gained, as well. So much that we might be frightened by turns out not to be so scary after all. Crime, teen pregnancy, and many other social indicators look brighter than they did twenty or thirty years ago.
The 300 square-block area around me faces the usual problems of low educational attainment, unemployment, and crime in our current recession and state fiscal crisis. The neighborhood would face these very same problems—indeed these problems would be much worse–if these immigrants weren’t there. The neighborhood teems with working families, many of whom are moving up the economic ladder. The main threat here is not immigration, but broader economic trends that are tearing the heart out of urban America by curtailing the wages and employment that sustain working-class life.
That’s a problem we must face together. Or it really will tear us apart.
[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]