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The Pluribus That Makes the Unum : THE AMERICAN KALEIDOSCOPE: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture. By Lawrence H. Fuchs (Wesleyan/University Press of New England: $45; 640 pp.)

February 10, 1991|Jesus Salvador Trevino | Trevino is a writer/director whose documentary films have dealt with border issues, immigration and Mexican American identity

Within a mile radius of my Los Angeles home you can find a Buddhist church, a Roman Catholic private school, a Mexican bakery, an Armenian-owned gas station, a junior high school with a Hispanic woman principal and a prestigious college with an African-American president. Nearby restaurants feature Italian, Yucatecan, Russian, Thai, Bolivian, Chinese and Japanese food.

The ethnic makeup of my neighborhood reflects the apparent success of America's political institutions at living up to their founding motto: e pluribus unum ; out of many, one. In this insightful and exhaustively documented book, Lawrence Fuchs documents how the American "civic culture" came to be, and how over the years it has accommodated as well as assimilated succeeding waves of immigrants.

Despite the idealistic premise of our civic culture--that all who live in the political community are eligible to participate in public life as equals--its viability was challenged from the beginning.

When non-Anglo European immigrants arrived after the passage of the Naturalization Act of 1790, citizens worried that the nation would be fractured by different languages and traditions. Even sophisticated thinkers such as Ben Franklin feared that these immigrants threatened the very notion of what it meant to be American.

"Why should Pennsylvania," he asked, "founded by English, become a colony of aliens (italics Franklin's) who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of (us) Anglifying them?"

Could the ideals of civic culture outlined in the Constitution--a document framed by men rooted in English tradition--be realized in a country with such different ethnicities, languages and religions?

The answer, of course, was yes. But ethnic harmony did not come easily. The Germans acted just as Franklin had feared. They banded together in social clubs, labor unions and schools in which only German was taught.

And yet, because these immigrants participated in the same economy and political culture, they remained tolerant of other languages and religions. The civic culture produced a society of what Fuchs terms "voluntary pluralism."

Voluntary pluralism seemed to work for European immigrants; the rights of the individual were protected by the umbrella of the civic culture. But Native Americans and African Americans were not so fortunate. Coexisting with the voluntary pluralism of European immigrants was the "predatory tribal pluralism" that allowed whites to dominate Native Americans and "caste pluralism" that kept blacks subjugated under white rule.

In long struggles, members of these two groups eventually would use the civic culture to gain the rights enjoyed by European whites. For Native Americans in North America, however, whose numbers had been slashed from more than 12 million prior to Columbus to 210,000 by 1920, it would not be until the 20th Century that Congress would enact legislation giving them decision-making power over their own lives.

Fuchs' elaborate study of the civic culture does not always make for easy reading, but it does offer a good handle for understanding the dynamics of race and ethnicity in American history. By providing detailed evidence to the contrary, "American Kaleidoscope" disarms nativist arguments that America will be undermined by immigrant aliens. Instead, it instills faith in the civic culture's ability to flex and adapt to new challenges.

Yet, one can't help but wonder if Fuchs' isn't seeing a glass half-full that many Americans still see as half-empty. In his zeal to demonstrate the impressive ways in which Americans of all backgrounds have made the American civic culture work for them, he tends to downplay the human price paid for these gains.

Lost in a succession of testimonials by immigrants extolling the virtues of the civic culture are the voices of many whom the culture has failed. One can't help but remember the Japanese Americans who were interned in concentration camps during World War II, the countless African Americans lynched in the South, the millions of Native Americans killed before the civic culture was fine-tuned.

To his credit, Fuchs acknowledges that the civic culture still doesn't work for a large sector of the American population. While newly arrived immigrants may benefit from the culture, many Americans whose families have been here for generations still live in an "ethno-underclass."

Most of these citizens are African Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans or Chicanos--caught in the cycle of poverty, and identified by Fuchs as the "the biggest domestic challenge" for those who believe in human rights of the 1990s. While "The American Kaleidoscope" offers insight, understanding and hope on how Americans can help achieve a more perfect union, the glass remains half-empty.

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