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Richard Rodriguez: Race Poll Sign of Hope and Despair

New America Media, Audio, Interview Posted: Dec 12, 2007

Editor's Note: Sandip Roy interviews essayist and commentator Richard Rodriguez about the results of the newly released NAM poll on race relations and what this means for changing notions of race in America. Roy is host of "UpFront," New America Media's radio program on KALW-91.7 in San Francisco. Rodriguez is author of, most recently, "Brown: The Last Discovery of America" (Viking, 2002).

Listen to Richard Rodriguez discuss the NAM Poll on UpFront


The poll found that 80 to 90 percent of blacks, Hispanics and Asians had no friends from other groups, and a majority had not even dated outside their own ethnic group. So instead of America turning brown, is it really turning black, brown, yellow?

Looking at this poll, I keep remembering what Saint Augustine famously said about the crucifixion of Christ. He was crucified alongside two thieves, one of whom was promised heaven by Christ, and the other was presumably sent to hell. And Saint Augustine I think it was Saint Augustine maybe it was Aquinas that said, One thief was saved, do not despair; One thief was damned, do not presume.

There is, in this poll, reason for despair and reason for some reassurance, it seems to me. Especially if you look at the poll in chronological terms.

The African-American population that is polled is largely native-born and has a longer experience of America, its inequality, its brutalities, its harshness. The younger populations of immigrants, particularly the Hispanic which is the youngest group polled tends to come to the country with more optimism, and infuse, as immigrants always have, the country with this new buoyancy, Hard work will win the day, The country is fair.

About these other groups, suddenly, there is this mutual suspicion among all three groups. I kept remembering when I was reading this poll, which is a national poll, that two years ago the New York media with the same research operation, Bendixen and Associates, conducted a poll among California youth in which they found a very high incidence of interracial, inter-ethnic group dating.

So we can say that right now in Kansas, things are not good among the racial communities. Or we can say that something will happen. That something will progress, and that these groups will begin to rub up against one another, because clearly they are rubbing up against one another.

If these groups need to rub up against each other in more intimate ways, as opposed to just across the counter, or at a store, what is the necessity for that in order for America to progress along racial lines, in its quest for whatever it wants to become in terms of race?

Well I think already they are rubbing up against one another in more abrasive ways than the counter, although thats a significant one too. Theyre aware of one another, and in that fact already is an advance. Theyre not so segregated that they dont know that the other exists. And Ive always argued that it is better to know that the other community exists than not to be aware of them at all. Theyre aware of each other as rivals, and even that rivalry it seems to me I have this rather paradoxical view of history that people sometimes borrow from each other as they come into conflict with each other. And theres a sign of that in this poll. There is on the one hand a suspicion, but on the other hand, for example, there is a sense that African Americans, by Hispanics and Asians, there is a sense that African Americans have been the pathfinders. That they have, through the civil rights movement, they have led the way. Well this is a remarkable idea that the Hispanic newcomer and the Asian newcomer would see in the African American the future for themselves.

But is it enough for the Hispanic and the Asian newcomer to acknowledge the role that African Americans have played in paving the way, if you juxtapose it against the finding that only 44 percent of African Americans believe in the American dream and a huge majority have little faith in the criminal justice system? In a way, is the experience of African Americans also serving as a warning to these newcomers?

To some degree, yes. Whats so interesting about the poll, of course, is that its not a poll from black and white America; this is a poll from a multi-hued America. And in some way, the question for the future is: We know how African Americans regard themselves in the judicial system of a black and white society, but how will they regard themselves now as increasingly the judges are Asian, or on the jury there are Hispanics? Thats the question for the future.

Because clearly we belong to each others America, and while its clear that African-American realism, or pessimism, is well-wrought in this poll, whats not clear yet is whether or not the Hispanic and the Asian will change that pessimism. As a Hispanic male, whether I will give African Americans some optimism at the same time that they will give me some realism about this country.

The curious paradox in reading the poll is that at the same time, each group, pretty much by huge majorities, has maintained that having more people who are African American, Latino, Asian in positions of power would be good for the country, and would be good for the future of race relations in the country.

Thats a very important idea that as an Asian, I would see the advancement of blacks as an advancement for me, and thats a very sophisticated notion that it doesnt only have to come from my own group.

Notice too, in this poll, that these categories that you and I are using so freely
Hispanic for example. Hispanic is not a Latin American concept; its something that people from Latin America get when they come to the United States, rather like Europeans learned when they came to this country that they were white.

I didnt know I was Asian until I came here.

Thats right. Youre gathered by this country, rather brutally and rather simplistically, into these large categories. Already the assimilation processes are beginning, within this poll, particularly with Hispanics: the Cuban is not distinguishing himself within this poll from the Puerto Rican; the Puerto Rican not from the Colombian; the Colombian not from the Mexican. They see themselves within this poll as Hispanic. Already that is the first step toward this Americanization which this country is both brilliant at and very simplistic about.

But traditionally its been said that the first step towards Americanization is for the new wave of immigrants to set themselves apart from African Americans to be not black in this country as a way to get ahead.

African Americans are horrified by that history. It begins with the Irish in this country, in the 19th century, who become the first major European immigrant group to the Anglo-Saxon country, and the determination by the Irish, who are nothing if not pragmatic. It was not clear to the Anglo-Saxon country that the Irish should be called white, should be considered white, should be given the freedoms of whiteness. The way the Irish become white in America is by brutally distinguishing themselves from black, often harshly, often savagely. There is in African American memory this sense that every European immigrant group that comes after does the same thing: We will prove to America that we are not black. And African Americans will tell me right now that what they fear most from the Hispanic is that they will essentially advance on the backs of African Americans, and African Americans will remain solitary and excluded.

It is certainly the case that Hispanics have been very silent in their leadership in this ridiculous notion that as a population we now outnumber African Americans, that we have become the largest minority. That is utter nonsense, because we are not a racial group, so we cannot exactly be compared to African Americans. We are an ethnic group, and within our number are many people that America would consider black: Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans who are in part African. So that to compare us to African Americans is in some sense already a confusion, and already isolates us from African Americans, whereas the real import of Hispanicity or Latinismo is that its an ethnicity and already it moves away from racial categories. That was not touched on in the poll, but nonetheless its a way out of this morass that American social history has had, this pattern of using African Americans as the excluded other, and African Americans are wise to be suspicious of the Hispanic pattern.

Do you look at this poll and see any signs of anything changing here? Because 53 percent of Asians who were polled and 61 percent of Hispanics said that they were more comfortable doing business with whites than with any other group. Does that imply that these groups are setting themselves up as well to be not black or should we not be reading too much into that?

No, I think we should read exactly Do not despair, do not presume we should be reading exactly into that the harshness of the situation that were facing right now. This is not a pretty picture that this poll establishes. These groups are living separate from one another.

But, there is reason for optimism, it seems to me, if one sees this poll not simply as a description of the dialectic that now is, but in a historical frame, as a beginning of a narrative. Where are we going? When questions are raised about the future, it seems to me that the poll suggests that all of these groups suggest that theyre going to living more closely and interrelatedly.

This poll does establish in some sense the interdependence of each group upon each other. So in that sense would you say historically that this generation of immigrants has definitely been assimilating into America differently from their forbearers?

To some degree yes. Theyre coming into a country where my optimism about this movement away from the black and white dialectic is that its not possible in this country, in the generation of Tiger Woods, to speak of ones self as racially mixed. There are some people who say that that comes from the Hispanic influence, but I dont think it does. I think it come from the freedom that Tiger Woods has, that say Barack Obama does not have. Tiger Woods, because he comes at the dialectic from a non-European point, can say that Im black and. Whereas the black and white paradox is much more difficult: the white one-drop theory where if youre one drop black, you cant be white. So Barack Obama cant exactly say Im both. Its harder for him. Whereas Tiger Woods can say, You know Im not black, Im African. But to say that Im black would dishonor my mother from Thailand. I am Thai and African and also American Indian and also white. You notice with this enlargening of the possibility that people are beginning to talk of mixture in a new way. And it seems to me that thats the gift that I think that Asians and Hispanics can possibly give to African Americans, which would free all of us from this perplexion of being either or; we will be both and more, it seems to me.

So when we talk about these oft-quoted terms like melting pot, do you think they even apply any more? I recently was naturalized as a citizen, and the person from Immigration and Customs gave the welcoming speech. She said, Well, before there was the melting pot; then people talked about the mixed salad; I dont think those apply anymore I think its more like a stew. She meant that people do mix, but great clods and clumps of themselves remain distinguishable. What food metaphor works for America now?

Im not sure that food is exactly the point. It seems to me that when I look around what I hear is music. The most popular form of music right now among Latinos is largely a brown stew, but not with clumps, but with melded tunes. Reggaeton, which is Jamaican dance hall, salsa, hip hop thats what the kids are listening to and it seems to me that that appetite for more than ones self is very much brought into the lens right now. And literally so, where fusion on the plate has become the new American recipe. It seems to me that stew doesnt get at the complexity of the Vietnamese/Mexican restaurant. Beef stew is not exactly the recipe there. It something much more daring, as these spices meet on the tongue.

So looking at this poll, do you think that there is, in fact, a shared destiny, and is that the color-blind society that everybody keeps talking about?

One thief was saved, do not despair. One thief was damned, do not presume.

I believe that we are advancing and I believe that we have problems. One of the problems that you havent pointed to is the wealthier the African American, the more, in some sense, pessimistic. Ive certainly seen that in higher education. You go to Harvard University and the darlings there are all in their separate little dormitory cubicles, talking about their little separate destinies.

So there are all kinds of little pitfalls all along this path, and Im not an eager optimist, but I also know that what happens in history is that when people start moving against one another, within one another, alongside one another, they start borrowing each others voices; they start borrowing each others food; they start walking like one another. America has this biological aspect which is all around us now. And the children begin to buy each others music and slap each others hands in ways that mimic one another and it becomes something magnificent.

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