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Joining the Mainstream

  • Date: 12/13/2003
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • The world is shrinking.

    Our movement to a global economy and an increasingly mobile population is creating a radically new set of capabilities and, with them, social adjustments.

    Shifts in international migration show a significant relocation of people from poorer countries to industrialized ones with stronger economies, and the influx is dramatically changing the makeup of our own western culture.

    The largest influx of Americans in U.S. history occurred at the turn of the 20th Century. Eighteen million immigrants - mostly Europeans - gained citizenship between 1890 and 1920.
    (William Booth, Washington Post, February 22, 1998, p. A-1)

    Our country, indeed, is a nation of immigrants, founded by and populated by people seeking the opportunity of freedom and the freedom of opportunity to achieve success.

    Fundamental to that experience has been the slow-but-sure narrowing of social and cultural distances between immigrants and the mainstream.

    Shortly, we will honor someone who came from India and successfully bridged the distance to the mainstream.

    Dr. Mark Apte, the former chair of The University of Akron Board of Trustees, came to America in 1968 and forged successful and rewarding careers in both medicine and education. He has provided valuable leadership to the Boards of Trustees at the University and at Northeast Ohio Universities College of Medicine.

    Dr. Apte has achieved his success without forsaking his native culture, and he remains active in Indian cultural and musical activities and in other professional activities throughout the region.

    As those of us who have come here from other countries can tell you, joining the mainstream is not always a smooth transition.

    Political boundaries are often defined along cultural lines, as new immigrants fight the contention that they should automatically be expected to assimilate into the culture of their host country.

    Today, we are in the midst of a second wave of immigration. Only today's immigrants overwhelmingly originate from Asia and Latin America.

    In fact, among minorities, Hispanics have become the majority, and their influence is quickly impacting the American mainstream. Think of Ricky Martin, Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez!

    Their influx and influence are changing this country's demographics so rapidly that within your lifetime, no one ethnic group, including those of European descent, will make up a majority of our nation's population.
    (William Booth, Ibid)

    And just as our demographics are changing, so are the very notions of assimilation.

    As immigrant populations reach critical mass in many locations, we begin to realize that it is no longer Woodrow Wilson's "great melting pot of America" that is transforming them, but rather they are transforming the American mainstream.

    What is assimilation?

    Some would see it as the process by which individuals or groups of different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds become part of a larger social family, as they are at least partially absorbed into the culture of a country's dominant population.

    In reviewing a recent book for the Wall Street Journal, Gregory Rodriguez effectively puts in perspective a more contemporary approach to a longstanding issue of assimilation.

    Let me share with you some of what he said:

    Rodriguez tells us that, "Assimilation has been central to the American experience since the first European colonists arrived on these shores."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, "A New Way of Joining the Mainstream," The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2003, p.D8)

    "And for just as long, its definition has been a source of contention and of confusion. In 1782, the Frenchman J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur waxed poetic about this new nation, where individuals from different backgrounds ‘are melted into a new race of men.' (While still,) In the same era, Benjamin Franklin was (complaining) about the ‘Palatine boors' in Pennsylvania who threatened to Germanize the colony's Anglo-Americans."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, Ibid)

    "Though integral to an American sense of nationhood, such feelings of extended kinship operate according to rules that are both unclear and unstable - and always have been."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, Ibid)

    "The ‘Americanization' movement, for example, was for many (the very purpose of assimilation). For others, it was merely a program of coercion and cultural condescension."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, Ibid)

    "Over the past generation, the very idea of assimilation has come under attack from multiculturalists, who favor separate but equal cultures in one place. They argue that current immigrants - two-thirds of whom hail from Latin America and Asia - should not be expected to assimilate into the culture of their host country. Still others believe that a globalizing world has made the very idea of assimilation nothing more than a quaint notion."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, Ibid)

    Alba and Nee, two sociologists and authors of the book reviewed by Rodriguez, "...define assimilation not as a linear process of ethnic obliteration but a dynamic one (maybe a more realistic one) in which minority and majority cultures converge. In the authors' rather fluid definition, assimilation has less to do with one group adapting to another than with the blurring of boundaries among groups. In other words, assimilation is a two-way street, and mainstream culture (as it turns out) is more malleable than monolithic."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, Ibid)

    There are "...useful parallels between the high tide of European immigration at the turn of the 20th century and today. (Although the) differences between the two periods have been overplayed in part, because of the tendency to mythologize the earlier...ethnic experience (of European whites)."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, Ibid)

    It is not likely "...that nonwhite newcomers (again will be) destined to join the ranks of disadvantaged minorities...(because) race has declined as a barrier to mobility in the post-civil-rights era."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, Ibid)

    "As for the academic buzzword ‘transnationalism' - the idea that new Americans will maintain civic ties in multiple places...it is doubt(ful) that the children and grandchildren of immigrants will be truly ‘at home' in more than one nation. Because culture is so deeply embedded in language,... ethnic distinctions will weaken as languages are lost (or exchanged)."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, Ibid)

    "...unlike some earlier immigrants who were first treated as racial outsiders only to be redefined later as (part of America)...(today's) immigrants... are likely to erase the formula whereby ‘mainstream' equals (European or) ‘white.' Like millions of earlier immigrants, the newest immigrants are likely to change America at least as much as America changes them."
    (Gregory Rodriguez, Ibid)

    And so, it would seem that we all must work to create a better understanding of other cultures and do what we can to combat ignorance and intolerance.

    As many of you have heard me say, universities are magical places where you can dream and dare and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    That magic lies in the relentless pursuit of truth, in the progressive discovery of knowledge and most of all in the recognition of the interconnectedness of life and in the awareness that we can, and we must advance our common good.

    As part of your University of Akron experience, you have met people from diverse backgrounds and from many cultures - some very different from your own.

    It is my fervent hope that, through a shared knowledge and understanding of these other cultures, you will find ways to sustain the relationships you have made and broaden your horizons even more.

    German Scientist and Philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg said it best: "In each of us, there is a little of all of us."

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