The Right Way for Republicans to Handle Ethnicity in Politics

By Unz, Ron | The American Enterprise, April 2000 | Go to article overview

The Right Way for Republicans to Handle Ethnicity in Politics


Unz, Ron, The American Enterprise


AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. Immigration. Bilingual education. Over the past few years, these issues and broader matters of ethnic politics have become the stuff of nightmares for Republican candidates around the country.

On the one hand, ethnic issues are tremendously important to the future well-being of our large and diverse society. They are the hottest of hot buttons for many voters, and several ballot measures on ethnicity-related social problems have turned out to be immensely popular--for instance, Proposition 187 (eliminating public services to illegal immigrants), Prop. 209 (ending affirmative action), and Prop. 227 (dismantling bilingual education), which all won huge victories in vote-rich California. An anti-affirmative action measure did even better in Washington State, and additional referenda on these topics are coming in other states.

Yet these same ethnic issues--including the popular ballot measures mentioned above--are widely believed to have created disastrous problems for the Republican Party by scaring away minority voters and leaving Republicans with a harshly negative image. With the elite national media always quick to espy bigotry when Republicans talk about race and ethnicity, many conservative politicians have recently decided to avoid these issues altogether.

Attempts to bridge the chasm between conservative activists and minority voters have recently caused many prominent Republicans to stammer their way through terminological contortions aimed at avoiding controversy. Thus, presidential candidate George W. Bush may oppose "quotas" and have his doubts about "affirmative action" but he is all for "affirmative access." Governor Bush has similarly announced his support for those bilingual education programs "which work." To most voters, minority or otherwise, these rhetorical flourishes are merely platitudes. Such content-flee symbolism may lessen a candidate's vulnerability, but it eliminates any possibility of developing a mandate on these critical subjects. Such a stance is merely a polite means of saying "no comment."

The conservative tendency to confront these issues on a case-by-case basis, with no overarching framework or broader social vision, further courts disaster. Attacks on prevailing policies seem scattershot, politically opportunistic, and purely negative in tone. Liberal critics are quick to respond, "But what do you offer instead?"

The solution to these political obstacles is a broad social vision which connects various controversial policies in an old and accepted framework easily understood by all: the melting pot. For most of the last century, assimilation and the ethnic melting pot were regarded as fundamental aspects of the American experience, promoted by liberals and conservatives alike. Returning national policies to the principles of the melting pot should become the primary Republican goal on ethnic issues.

A "NEW AMERICAN MELTING POT" would not be a cartoonish one-way street of forced integration into the dominant white culture, as "multicultural" activists charge. Over the past couple of centuries, America's mainstream culture has widely diverged from its original Anglo-Saxon heritage through the ad-mixture of foreign elements. Our language, our cuisine, our high and popular cultures contain important elements from the Germans, Italians, Slavs, Jews, blacks, Asians, and others who today compose well over half our national population. American assimilation has always been a two-way street.

Assimilation is also variable in its speed and extent. A Chinese-born Stanford Ph.D. in engineering with a job in Silicon Valley and a house in the suburbs is likely to assimilate much more rapidly than a poorly educated Chinese immigrant living and working as a short-order cook in a Chinatown. But for most of our history, thorough assimilation into the mainstream has been a process taking generations rather than years, and alarmists concerned about today's ethnic and language enclaves of Mexicans or Chinese should recognize that similar enclaves of Italian Americans or Jewish Americans dominated the New York City landscape for generations following their arrival. …

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