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April 11, 1993|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking).

SAN FRANCISCO — In the aftermath of last year's riot and looting, the commonplace about Los Angeles has it that the city is melting, melting under a cloudless sky. On the contrary, it seems that a city--a new Los Angeles--is forming. The city famous as a collection of separate suburbs is no more. For people in suburbs realize now that they are not so far away from neighborhoods of poverty. Blacks are very much aware of Asians. Latinos are aware of blacks. Los Angeles is not dying; a new metropolitan idea is being born.

I have been traveling recently across America, visiting colleges and making happy-talk appearances on morning television. On airplanes and in classrooms, I have been hearing Americans say--what they say in Los Angeles --that the country doesn't exist any more.

So what else is new? Americans have always said that. We Americans have never believed in ourselves in the plural. What, traditionally, we share as Americans is the belief that we share nothing in common at all. Who is more American, after all, than today's brown and black neo-nationalist in Los Angeles?

America is a Puritan country, Protestant-baptized. We believe in individualism, are suspicious of the crowd. As Americans we trust diversity, not uniformity. We trust the space between us more than we like any notion of an American melting pot.

In a century less secular than our own, 19th-Century Americans more easily recognized the Protestant character of this country. Today, we speak of "Asians and Latinos." The 19th Century spoke of Catholics and Jews.

When the Irish started coming to this country in the early 19th Century, America's fear was a theological one. War was brewing with Mexico. Nativists worried that the Irish would join with the Mexicans--their fellow Catholics--and overturn the Protestant state. Which was not a bad argument, except for the fact that it ignored the reality of America and the influence of America.

America exists. One hundred and fifty years after America feared the Irish, Patrick J. Buchanan wonders if we can't, after all, erect a wall between San Diego and Tijuana.

Today, there is something called "multiculturalism" in the classroom, and our teachers speak of our diversity. We celebrate "our friends" the Guatemalans.

In fact, our friends the Guatemalans are converting to the Mormon church. And our friends the Guatemalans are working as nannies in Beverly Hills and teaching the children of 90210 how to ask and say thank you in Spanish. In fact, people influence one another, lives change, cultures mix.

Our teachers used to be able to tell us this. Our teachers used to be able to pose the possibility of a national culture--a line connecting Thomas Jefferson, the slave owner, to Malcolm X. Our teachers used to be able to tell us why all of us speak Black English. Or how the Mexican farm workers in Delano were related to the Yiddish-speaking grandmothers who worked the sweatshops of the lower East Side. America may not have wanted to listen. But our teachers used to insist that there was something called an American culture, a common history.

We are without a sense of ourselves entire. In the classrooms of America, I heard no term more often in recent weeks than multiculturalism. All over America, in identical hotels, there are weekend conferences for business executives on multiculturalism. The same experts fly from one city to the next to say the same thing: We live in a multicultural America.

What any immigrant kid could tell you for free, on the other hand, is that America exists. There is a culture. There is a shared accent, a shared defiance of authority, a shared skepticism about community. There is a stance, a common impatience at the fast-food counter. Moreover, though the executives at the multicultural seminar do not want to hear it, the deepest separation between us derives not from race or ethnicity but from class. To put matters bluntly, the black executive at Pac Bell or ARCO has more in common culturally with her white colleague than she does with the gang kids in South-Central.

White middle-class kids in Santa Barbara know this. They are infatuated with lower-class black style. Ghetto talk, gesture, dress. The suburban kids see in the lower-class black their opposite. As Americans, the suburban kids are infatuated with the defiance of black toughs, with their swagger. Today's rapper is the new Huck Finn. Of course, the white kids want to imitate these outsiders and challenge authority--it is a most American thing to do.

Aficionados of multiculturalism, meanwhile, give us metaphors like the mosaic.

America is a mosaic, they say. Or America is a rainbow. Or America is a shopping bag, separate but equal, blah blah. The deeper truth is that people have souls. People meet, they argue, they flirt, they fight, they compete, they have children, they divorce, they remarry, they bewilder themselves.

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