By Mark Cromer
President Barack Obama’s sparing but masterful use of gilded rhetoric on the Washington Mall was indeed a powerful exemplar of what inaugural addresses are mostly good for: speaking to the unity of the nation and highlighting the bonds that connect us, like an epoxy that fills the deep fissures that transect our young democratic experiment.
To that end, Obama offered the now obligatory tip of the ideological hat to “diversity,” summoning forth a ringing affirmation of the cultural mosaic of America.
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” Obama said. “We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
Those are powerful words to be sure, but they belie a harsh reality that is more plainly visible around the country today, perhaps more so than at any other time in our modern history. And that reality is that as cultural diversity has increased in America—so has unvarnished ethnic tribalism.
And the most compelling examples of the cultural fissures in the United States can be found where immigration—and particularly illegal immigration from Mexico—has hit the hardest. Throughout the American southwest and in many of our big cities across the country, the waves of immigrants fleeing the imploding state south of our border have created what many freely acknowledge is “a nation within a nation.”
Those who conflate the powerful impulse to migrate here for economic reasons with the desire to become American in every sense of the word—through willful assimilation and a proud adoption of our customs and language—are confusing, often intentionally, the visible facts on the ground.
Like so many others before him, Obama evokes the immigrant history of America in the richest of terms, speaking to what we’re told are our “better angels” when it comes to welcoming the stranger at our door (or the one already in our house). In some respects it’s a commendable approach that our national leaders must employ to prevent demagoguery and scapegoating.
But his sweeping platitudes become potentially dangerous when they conveniently ignore historical fact, the present reality of illegal immigration and its impact on working Americans. And the fact is that the sustained wave of mass immigration from Mexico differs dramatically in both scope and context from any other large-scale migration to our shores in the nation’s history.
Stanford historian David Kennedy noted that the sustained growth of largely insular communities of Mexican nationals in the United States provides them greater opportunities, if not incentives, to not assimilate. “They will have sufficient coherence and critical mass in a defined region so that, if they choose, they can preserve their distinct culture indefinitely,” Kennedy writes. “They could also eventually undertake to do what no previous immigrant group could have dreamed of doing: challenge the existing cultural, political, legal, commercial and educational systems to change fundamentally not only the language but also the very institutions in which they do business.”
Kennedy’s prognostication is in fact now a reality throughout much of the southwest, where the institutional infrastructures of the educational, business, political and social systems have changed to accommodate the Mexican way of life. The reality is now you can live in America, work in America and still be, as the popular bumper sticker advises: “100-percent Mexican.”
The gravitational pull of this parallel culture is expanding as multi-generational American Latinos are increasingly pressured to “return” to their roots and wear their ethnic heritage on their sleeves. Thus actress Jessica Alba has been vilified in Latino circles for not speaking Spanish and boxer Oscar de la Hoya was ridiculed as a ‘pocho’—a wanna-be American.
Given that Obama spent two decades in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church and, by his account, never heard any racially polarizing rhetoric or brazen ethnocentric appeals from the good pastor at the pulpit, well, perhaps our new president just isn’t familiar with the deepening cultural divisions that mass immigration is fueling.
But given that the country now faces a lengthy economic depression just as Mexico’s slide into debilitating corruption and violent chaos threatens to push millions more immigrants across our border, it’s a safe bet Obama won’t be able to talk around this issue for much longer.
On the steps of the capitol, Obama declared that a new age and a new paradigm has dawned.
“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them,” he said. “That the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
Perhaps, but what President Obama and the rest of America’s political leadership had better understand is this simple, enduring truth: soaring rhetoric and fine feathered speeches might fly high on the campaign trail; but they will suffer a hard meeting with the cold terra firma of reality if at the end of the day that’s all they have to offer.
In that case, Obama may well find that shifting ground has turned into an electoral earthquake and he is standing at the epicenter.
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