The National Catholic Review

The New York Times recently published a book review about a biography of the writer Neil Bissoondath. The reviewer mentions that Bissoondath dedicated his book, Doing the Heart Good, to his uncle and mentor, who had warned him that race is a trap; to make that the center of your worldview limits you. In reflecting on this, I thought he could easily have said that ethnicity can be a trap, that to make your ethnicity the center of your worldview limits you.

 

Canada, like the United States, is experiencing a tremendous influx of immigrants. In California the ratio of immigrants now exceeds one in four. In our efforts to be welcoming and hospitable, communities, programs and liturgies have been created to form a refuge of sorts that helps newcomers from all cultures ease their transition to this land. The multifarious cultures are embraced and welcomed, albeit at face value and sometimes naïvely, in what is called multiculturalism. The more recent and more encompassing, politically correct term is diversity.

But there is no unanimity in the type of response we are giving. A teacher at Butte College in Oroville, Calif., Jaime O’Neill, for example, takes a dimmer view of this multiculturalism. He described it in an article titled “E Pluribus Pluribus” in The San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 6, 2002, as “a movement that made guilt-tripping Western cultures a regular classroom activity,” one that holds “even the most barbaric practices of other cultures off limits to criticism.”

An inherent feature of our welcoming gesture is the willingness to let our new guests speak uninhibitedly in their own language and live in their own culture. Behind this willingness is the underlying belief that this country is so large and diverse that it can accept the establishment of varied ethnic and racial communities, i.e., the Balkanization of the American landscape, without any major detriment.

In the face of all of this, it is not uncommon to hear older members of the church grouse about such an expenditure of effort and resources to greet our country’s newcomers. Most objectors are second- or third-generation children of immigrants whose families came to this country in the first half of the last century. They grumble that their families made it a point to speak English at home. The language discipline, they contend, facilitated their transition and assimilation into American society. Arguably, the contributions made by the children of these immigrants in the political and economic arenas were significant.

But the challenges and problems faced by immigrants in the first half of the 20th century were much different from those faced by immigrants today. Establishing groups where immigrants can gather, speak and pray in the “old” language, and experience their former country’s culture are clearly helpful in making the transition. But Bissoondath’s uncle has a point. If immigrant groups continue to isolate themselves and linger in their own culture, language and customs, they will be viewed by mainstream America with a cautious, quizzical eye. The immigrant’s refuge in common language, customs and culture can turn into a trap, because immigrant groups risk being pigeonholed, typecast and compartmentalized by mainstream America. (It is not uncommon that someone approaches me while I am cutting my front lawn and asks if I can add another lawn to my schedule and what my fees are.)

If there is no pressure on immigrants to learn English, then their ability to move up the economic ladder will be made more difficult. In my 40 years of business and professional life, I have never attended a meeting conducted in a foreign language, even though many of my employer’s customers are foreign. English is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Every year, new words are added to the dictionary that streamline communications. Some of these are idioms; others are slang; some reflect our entertainment culture; still others reflect the rapid advances of technology. If these immigrants and their successive generations are left to feel comfortable in their culture and led to believe that learning to communicate in English is no big deal, then they will lose out in the end.

Time magazine reported on Oct. 14, 2002, about a growing movement across the country to get rid of remedial education programs, including English as second language. These programs, however, are critical in preparing children from marginal schools for a college education. Sadly, a good number of them are from immigrant families in which there is no strong tradition of seeking a higher education.

Within the next 10 to 20 years, a huge number of baby boomers will reach retirement age. Their retirements will create many lucrative opportunities for those seeking to move up the economic ladder. And having excellent English communication skills will be essential for those who desire to move up. In purely quantitative terms, over 95 percent of the businesses in this country are small businesses. Most of these small businesses are not pursuing or advocating the agendas of multiculturalism or diversity. In today’s tough economic times, they are focusing on staying alive and in business. We will have done the immigrant community a disservice if all we have accomplished is to create ethnic cultural communities that serve as a refuge and raise people’s comfort level, but do not press them to learn English. These immigrant communities will be like ballast on a ship—unseen, below decks and either taken for granted or considered irrelevant by most of society.

Ernest R. Freeman, a deacon in the Diocese of Oakland, works with Hispanics in the Catholic community of Pleasanton, Calif.