Joe Hicks, executive director of a coalition of 11 community-based groups formed after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, is worried about what he calls "tribalization," the splintering by racial, ethic and special interest groups into enclaves.
Should this tribalization continue, he suggests, each tribe--white, black, Latino, Asian, gay, Jewish, Christian fundamentalist or any other--will be out to get the biggest slice of the American pie rather than looking for the greater good.
Hicks, 55, who is African American, formerly directed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference here, and now heads the Los Angeles Multicultural Collaborative, a multiracial agency.
Hicks's perspective has recently been echoed on the mayoral campaign trail. "Today people take pride in their distinctive cultures," Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan recently told The Times. "But there's also jealousy of other cultures and antagonism between one culture and another."
A lot of people resist the label of being called "an American," Hicks said. For example, he said, "To many blacks, Americanism is synonymous with white culture. It means buying into white norms, and losing the attributes that make you part of a people."
In the wake of the O.J. Simpson case, Hicks said that when he lectures at Los Angeles high schools, "integration is one of the most difficult things to discuss. . . . Many of us no longer see a collective way to reach justice; rather, we see our interests wrapped up as being part of a minority group. As individuals step away from their community, they increasingly feel they are stepping away from empowerment" he said.
In a similar way, said Marcia Choo, the Korean-American director of the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center, many Korean Americans want to "preserve their identity and culture outside of mainstream America.
"It's not so much the individual but the community who resist joining the outside world," she said. "The assumption still exists that to be American is to be blond-haired and blue-eyed--something many of us don't want to be." In addition, Choo said, many Korean Americans, finding themselves subject to condescension by mainstream society, react by pulling further into their community.
Manuel Guillot, vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, sees a similar reluctance to integrate among many Latinos.
"Latino families tend to be close, with family dinners highly valued," he said. In mainstream America, with relatives often living at opposite ends of the continent, "that sense of safety is lost."
Similarly, he said, Latino culture holds that "quality time spent with friends is very important." Mainstream culture, by contrast, emphasizes looking out for No. 1, and a stress on mobility.
Thus, to many Latinos, becoming Americanized means abdicating a sense of self and community. One result: Some Latinos, particularly immigrants, continue to live in ethnic enclaves and make little effort at entering the mainstream.
Parts of the gay community also feel more comfortable keeping a separate identity, says Lorri Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. "There's a unique campiness and creativity in the gay community," which came about in response to discriminatory barriers, she said. As prejudicial barriers fall, "Some are afraid that certain elements of gay culture, including the way we have developed families of choice, and the strong familial bonds between us, will be lost."
Curiously, Hicks said, the sense of alienation felt by some ethnic groups is echoed in fringe white power organizations and "militias." Although outwardly opposed to one another, the various ethnic, racial and white-power groups feed off similar fears of each other. So far, the desire to maintain a separate minority identity has been largely overshadowed by the desire to join the mainstream, the community leaders interviewed agreed; separatists are still a minority within each culture.
Hicks recalls that as a student at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, "I was always standing up, giving black-power speeches." Seeking to bolster his arguments, Hicks instead came across evidence that "scientifically demolished the idea of pure racial groupings."
Thus began his "metamorphosis." Assimilation into the mainstream, Hicks came to realize, "involves not a giving up of one's own culture. Rather, it is subordination of one's own interests to the overarching American culture."
Over the last decade, Hicks said, "I have detected a reduction in our curiosity about one another," and a heightening of barriers between groups. Many whites who ask about how some blacks braid their hair are now fearful of being labeled racist--and so no longer ask.