Beyond black and white

Today, many Americans are suspicious of any claims regarding the benefits of ethnic, racial, socio-economic, gender and cultural diversity. They see such claims as so much liberal hogwash aimed at justifying such policies as affirmative action in higher education and employment. The enormous diversity found in the U.S. has sometimes led to conflict. Yet it is also the source of our nation’s above average economic, political, military and socio-cultural successes, i.e., our professed exceptionalism.

So, isn’t it about time that we celebrate our diverse cultural roots? Here in Pine Bluff there are signs that our city is becoming the kind of cultural rainbow evident for many decades in other parts of the country. Slowly, but surely, we are becoming less and less a city whose population base consists only of blacks and whites. That change is for the better, and we must do all that we can to encourage it.

Joining the city’s small but longstanding community of American Indians and Chinese and Korean Americans are increasingly larger numbers of people from the Middle East, India and other nations of south and southeast Asia, Mexico and other Latin American countries, Africa, and the Pacific Island region. Though still small in comparison to native blacks and whites, their numbers increased between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Indications are that their share of the city’s total will grow even more in the future.

Many newcomers are small business owners whose entrepreneurship, work ethic and drive for success are equal to that of any who immigrated to the U.S. during earlier eras. Others are professionals who provide for our city much needed expertise in their lines of work.

They have increased our city’s mix of world views, language, music, style of dress, and cuisine. This is sorely needed in a city and state that often seem to be caught in a cultural time warp that came to a stand-still around the mid-1950s while much of the U.S. and world have begun to embrace an increasingly more interconnected “global village.”

As elsewhere, these newcomers will likely also alter over time our city’s politics. For example, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a disproportionate share of the residents who left the city of New Orleans and never returned were African Americans. Proportionately more whites came back. At the same time, large numbers of new Latinos were attracted to the area by the jobs required for rebuilding the city, and their inflow swelled the size of the existing Latino communities in the region. The city used the media to entice new residents of many other ethnic/racial heritages to aid its recovery.

Those demographic changes fueled much speculation regarding their impacts on the city’s politics, an arena in which African Americans had achieved much success over the preceding decades. A long-term Latino community leader was questioned about how Latinos would figure into this political equation. He quipped that the Latino presence might have an upside for the entire city. It might cause blacks and whites to squabble less among themselves, and to include Latinos within the embrace of their political bickering. He may be onto something. There is some evidence that in most other areas of the nation where in-migration has enlarged the pool of politically involved constituencies, that change has ultimately led to a much more vibrant and citizen-involved politics as new groups jockey for influence. In New Orleans nearly a decade later, that city appears to have begun to embrace its Latino and other, newer racial/ethnic residents. Stark social class differences remain as firmly entrenched as the city’s levee system; but, there are signs that some of the rawness of the longstanding black-white divide may be abating a bit.

The future economic viability of Pine Bluff and the entire Delta requires that we follow along a similar path. We must still do more to heal the historic divide between those of African and European ancestry. But our region’s enhanced economic vitality will also require an embrace of that broad spectrum of humanity that extends far beyond black and white America. Saint Louis, Mo., has put in place a program designed to attract to that city immigrant professionals and entrepreneurs, especially those trained in the high-tech arena. The Delta region begs for a similar program of outreach, and not just for high tech. Let diversity reign. The planet is the limit.

Darnell F. Hawkins received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of North Carolina. He currently lives in Pine Bluff after retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago where he specialized in criminal justice.