Today there’s an interesting article in the New York Times about the generation gap over immigration. Those who are younger are less forgiving of the tough Arizona law, while those who are older favor such draconian measures. This is attributed to the fact that young people today are growing up in a far more diverse and multicultural world, whereas their parents–many of them aging baby boomers–were shaped by a more segregated, ‘white’ world.
This accords with what I’ve seen and noticed both among my students and living in the suburbs. The suburbs may ‘look’ the same–the sweet little orange buses rolling through leafy streets; the baseball and soccer games filling the green parks every weekend–but they have fundamentally changed. Children of different backgrounds and races are tipping their hat visors as they take the pitcher mound or ringing your doorbell to sell Girl Scout cookies. Even the most insular of suburbs have begun to give way to ethnic and racial demographics that look like what the cities suspiciously used to look like.
I don’t mean to paint a portrait of multicultural paradise on our suburban cul de sacs. The tensions, the exclusivity, the gaps in school districts, the self-segregation among teenagers, are very real. There are some areas of the country that don’t look all that different than they did circa 1954. But undoubtedly young people are growing up with a more live and let live attitude, simply because their towns, their streets, their neighbors have so changed. That’s why the other Arizona law–banning ethnic studies in school districts, for fear that it inspires resentment or exclusivity, is so wrongheaded.
It’s been my experience, teaching at a state university in New Jersey, that most of my students are profoundly grateful for any literature or material around the ethnic American experience. This semester I taught Asian-American literature to a largely, though not exclusively, white class. Many of them were kids who had grown up in suburbs that at one time were homogeneous, or they had watched their neighborhoods, or neighboring areas go through profound changes–Indian grocers, Korean shops showing up in the strip malls nearby.
In our class, we studied the Asian American experience historically, beginning with some of the more brutal history of Angel Island, where Chinese-Americans were detained; to the vigilante violence that plagued Filipino workers in California; to the internment experience of Japanese-Americans; and finishing with the racial profiling of South Asians in a post 9/11 world. Rather than shutting them down, or indoctrinating them in resentment or white guilt, all the students kept talking about how the material, the literature, ‘opened their eyes’ and ‘widened’ the American story. To know the tragic or darker side of American history hardly narrowed their understanding, but broadened it.
After all, they had already seen these subtle and not so subtle changes in their own lives, in their lunch rooms; they had wondered at why there was suddenly an enclave of Indian engineers and their families living among them, and yet no one had offered an explanation of the massive social and immigration flows that were coming to their doorsteps. Most decried the fact that they had learned so little of this history in middle school or high school; that their knowledge of World War II was exclusively focused on Europe and the Holocaust, and they knew so little of the events in the Pacific or the cataclysmic changes of Asia in the 20th century.
Young people, by their very nature, are the vanguard. They aren’t yet hardened into their experiences; they’re not yet nostalgically worrying about what once was. Perhaps we should listen more closely to them–to what they see around them, and what they envision for a 21st America.