Is American society moving toward racial/ethnic segregation or integration? Do we mean our national motto e pluribus unum - out of many, one - or would we rather live, work, and play in isolated clusters with our own kind?
The answers to these questions will determine in large part not only what kind of a country we will be but also what role we will play in the world.
The Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in 1954 was taken by many Americans to point toward an integrated society, but that has not happened. On the contrary, a recent report by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation concludes that "a class and racial breach is widening again as we begin the new millennium."
There is evidence that neither blacks nor other minorities want total integration in all institutions. Even before school desegregation, the National Theatre in Washington closed rather than admit blacks. After a few years, the theater relented, but few blacks came. That is still mainly true. Church congregations continue to be largely segregated by choice, because different groups prefer different services.
Meanwhile, there has been an unprecedented wave of immigrants from third-world countries. These have not assimilated as well as the 19th and early 20th century immigrants who were mainly from Europe. The US has been proud of its role as a melting pot, but the pot is getting bigger. There is a question of when we sacrifice diversity for homogenization.
In fact, the melting pot never melted everybody in it. In the 19th century, Chinese immigration caused such a prejudiced backlash that Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
That remained the law until World War II when it was repealed in deference to our ally in the war against Japan.
Even the European immigrants (and, now, their descendants), have not assimilated completely. Customs and religious practices brought from the old country still prevail in the ethnic neighborhoods found in most major cities - Scandinavians, Poles, Germans, Irish, Mexican, and Chinese prominent among them. But these characteristics are more a celebration of diversity than a recognition of separateness.
It is difficult to draw the fine line between diversity and separateness, especially in a time when the people are quick to see racial or ethnic discrimination or harassment where none exists. Sometimes policies or actions intended to promote diversity have the effect of promoting separateness instead.
Ironically, it is the public schools that have been a major force both for and against assimilation. In the late 19th and early 20th century, school was where the children of immigrants learned to be Americans and to speak English. More recently, the trend has been to make school the place where minority children, be they African, Asian, or Hispanic, learn how to be different.
It's OK to be different. The right to be different is part of being an American. But it's one thing to be different and another to be isolated as part of an ingrown ethnic/racial group.
Do programs of bilingual education promote assimilation by easing the adjustment of non-English-speaking children to a new environment, or do they delay assimilation by segregating children according to linguistic group?
Should books be placed on school reading lists by ethnicity of the author so as to reflect a particular school's enrollment or should books be selected according to the importance of what the author has to say and the clarity with which he/she says it?
This is a key test. Richard Wright and Toni Morrison ought to be on reading lists not because they are black, and Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez ought to be there not because they are Hispanic, but because they have important things to say and say them very well.
Countries less fortunate than the US provide abundant examples of the range of perils of separateness - Canada, Sri Lanka, India, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Burundi, to name a few.
A more subtle and imminent mischief of encouraging ethnic separateness is the linkage of ethnic groups in the US to their countries of origin. There is nothing wrong with this so long as it doesn't confuse the interests of the US with those of the country of origin. US policy toward China is influenced by the pro-Taiwan views of many Chinese-Americans. Policy toward Cuba is handcuffed by Cuban-Americans; Polish-Americans have been a critical factor in generating support for the expansion of NATO to include Poland. The list could go on.
There has always been a certain amount of this kind of influence on foreign policy. But it will grow and affect more aspects of policy as the pool of immigrants grows unless we start thinking more about e pluribus unum and less about racial/ethnic identity.
Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.