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American society has been slowest in absording into its mainstream its two biggest ethnic groups usually classified as minorites: blacks and Hispanics. Of the 211 million people in the United States (according to the 1979 estimate of the Bureau of the Census), 187 millionare white, 25 million are black, and 12 million are "of Spanish origin" -- the majority of the latter being the generally physically distinctive Chicanos of Mexican origin.

But these figures do not tell the whole story. There may be an additional 7 million Hispanics in the US illegally (or "undocumented"), and the birthrate for Hispanics is double that for whites and 60 percent higher than that for blacks. It is virtually certain that Hispanics will overtake blacks and become the biggest "minority" in the US by the end of the century, if not considerably sooner.

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The latest Bureau of the Census figures for the ethnic origin of other major groups within American society -- most of them well into the mainstream -- are for 1972. (Interestingly, an indication of how fast the Hispanic component is growing is that it had shot up to 12 million for 1979 from the 1972 figure of 9 million.) The 1972 figures for these other major groups were: British (i.e. English, Scottish, and Welsh), 30 million; German, 26 million; Irish, 16 million; Italian, 9 million; Polish, 5 million; French, 5 million; and Russian, 2 million. The number of Jews in the US in 1979, according to the American Jewish Year Book, was roughly 6 million.

Blacks and Hispanics, the two major ethnic groups least into the mainstream, are the earliest and the latest, after the arrival of the first English-speaking colonists, to make the US their home.

For clinical accuracy, it must also be said that the first blacks were brought to American shores against their will as slaves, and that Hispanics had established themselves in the Americas (including what is now part of the US) before the founding of the first English-speaking settlement at Jamestown and the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.

American blacks and Hispanics, in their separate ways,a re conscious of these facts about their early history. Perhaps understandably, this awareness -- when roused -- makes heavier for them the burden of prejudice under which they feel they live in American society. For parallel reasons, the few remaining, often overlooked original Americans, the Indians, have a special bitterness in their hearts.

Yet since the 1960s, the rest of American society has made greater efforts than ever before to assuage the grievances of first blacks and then Hispanics -- so much so that many in American society now grumble that too much has been done for blacks and too much is being attempted for Hispanics. It is generally accepted that these sentiments have been translated into votes for President- elect Ronald Reagan in the recent election. This in turn has caused apprehension among blacks and Hispanics about the Reagan presidency.

But whatever progress has been made, both blacks and Hispanics still feel there is a long way to go. Harold Fleming, president of the Potomac Institute in Washington, D.C., and himself white, says a litmus test for those whites who think too much has been done for minorities is to ask how many of them would now prefer to be black.

Over the past two decades, the first of which saw the civil-rights explosion, the US has resorted to or dallied with many devices to carry forward the process of redressing black and, more recently, Hispanic grievances. Most of these devices are still with us. All of them have proven controversial and have tended to provoke a white ethnic backlash. But each in turn has become a symbol of commitment to a fairer society and equl opportunity within it. Thereafter, to be against it has meant risking the label "racist."

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The devices, often classified under the generic heading "affirmative action," include:

* Community control -- initially meaning control by black ghetto communities at the ghetto level of public funds and programs directed toward helping them.

* Fair-housing laws -- preventing, on paper at least, blacks and members of other minorities from being denied access to available housing.

* Busing -- court-ordered transportation, usually in big cities, of white and black children out of their immediate neighborhoods to achieve racial balance in schools.

* Bilingual education -- federally funded programs for children not proficent in English to receive initial elementary education in their mother tongue. Initiated in 1968 primarily to help Spanish-speaking children, bilingual education is now being given in no fewer than 75 languages, including American Indian tongues.

* Quotas -- the establishment of fixed percentages for designated minorities in employment patterns or in college admissions, perceived as, or in fact, giving them priority over better-qualified applicants outside those minorities.

In one way or another, these devices strike at the imprisoning triangle of housing-education-jobs within which blacks and Hispanics have felt more cruelly and inexorably trapped than others at the bottom level of society. Signs that under the incoming Reagan administration, the pendulum could swing against affirmative action have already caused alarm among many blacks and Hispanics.

The three sides of the triangle, which these two groups see as still holding them captive, are inevitably interconnected, but the one that causes the most pain and resentment at the family level is education. This is because blacks and Hispanics believe their children continue to be denied quality education in today's big-city public school system.

During the first two centuries of US history, the public schools were the nationally accepted and speediest channel into the American mainstream. But boston and Chicago offer examples of the present rundown, if not breakdown of the system in big cities.

In Boston, the opening term of the 1980-81 school year has seen: the firing by a 3-to-2 majority on the school committee of probably the most professionally qualified and imaginative school superintendent the city has had since World War II; the subsequent but unconnected federal indictment of one of the three voting to oust him, on charges of attempted extortion in connection with a school-bus contract; a three-week strike of school-bus drivers; revival of racial violence within city high schools; and continued overall control of the schools by a federal judge because of the school committee's delinquency in implementing desegregation.

In Chicago, the shortcomings of the public schools are reflected in the size of the Roman Catholic parochial- school system. The latter is now preferred even by many non-Catholic parents in the poorest part of the black ghetto as a more promising step up for their children toward the mainstream. This has contributed to the Chicago Catholic parochial-school system's becoming fifth biggest of allm the school systems in the US, after the public-school systems of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Visit, for example -- as this writer did -- Holy Angels parochial school on East Oakwood Boulevard in the most impoverished area of Chicago's predominantly black South Side. It has an enrollment of 1,300 children and a waiting-list of a thousand -- all black. It offers no usual vacation breaks but runs through 11 months of the year. Homework starts in kindergarten. A strict honor code is maintained. Corporal punishment is applied when deemed necessary. Attendance of parents of PTA meetings is a condition of acceptance of their children in the school. so, too, is regular attendance of all pupils at Catholic mass in the adjoining church on Sundays -- with suspension from school the penalty for skipping mass without good reason.

The still youthful, activist, and often controversial black priest in charge at Holy Angels, the Rev. George E. Clements, has no qualms about imposing these conditions, including obligatory attendance at Catholic mass for Protestant children. He says black parents are willing to meet the conditions. They do not grumble about having to find the $18-$25 monthly fee per child, even though more than half of the parents of children in the school are on welfare. And as the big waiting list shows, none of this deters parents from fighting to get their children in.

Charles Feeney, administrator for public-private school relations on the Chicago Board of Education, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal in 1976 as saying of Holy Angels School: "That school really hustles. The kids are fantastically disciplined. They've brought their average testing scores to par with the national levels. We aren't doing that in the public schools, no matter how hard we've tried."

This surely must be food for thought, both for those committed to the public-school sytem as the great democratic American nation-builder and for those convinced that the constitutional separation of church and state is vital to the continued health and vigor of the US. The mounting tidal wave of Hispanic immigration is likely to stir further the church-and-state and balance-of- religions questions, since virtually all Hispanics are Catholic. They are not only Catholic in religion but, more than most, Catholic in culture.

Yet in the case of Hispanics and their schooling the current issue has nothing directly to do with religion. Nor is it, as in the case of blacks, busing. For Hispanics, it is bilingualism, the federal funding of elementary education in Spanish for children not yet fluent in English.

Some critics of the program charge that instead of speeding up the arrival of Spanish-speaking children in the English-speaking mainstream, it will keep them out of it. Others are concerned lest Spanish officially become the second language in the US. Martin Kilson, professor of government at Harvard, says he believes that in any case, bilingualism is likely to take over from busing as the toughest issue in public education policy.

(The sensitivity of bilingualism as a national issue would probably be much increased if the Roman Catholic Church in the US took a public stand in favor of it -- which it has so far refrained from doing.)

Whether these concerns prove justified or not, the presence of Hispanics is becoming a fact of life across the length and breadth of the US, far beyond those areas where they were initially concentrated. For example, Ohio and Minnesota already have as many Mexican- Americans as Colorado and Nevada. In Chicago, by 1970, Mexican-Americans had moved into second place behind Polish-Americans as the second biggest foreign-born group in the city, from 16th place as recently as 1950.

The Hispanic presence is in one important aspect very different from that of both blacks and other major immigrant waves. Blacks are already Americans -- "exaggerated Americans," black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called them -- in the US sense of the word. Immigrant waves from Europe consciously chose to become Americans by cutting an umbilical cord and crossing an ocean to the New World. Hispanics, and more particularly the predominant Mexican-Americans, are cutting no umbilical cord, crossing no ocean -- but bringing their culture with them.

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