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Melting pot or not?

People often say the United States is a melting pot, a place where immigrants arrive and accept a new, “exceptional” identity, that of an American.  In this melting pot, people are proclaimed to be equal and their different previous national identities become one.  More recently, however, individuals are questioning this assertion, and as Andrew Hacker (in his book “Two Nations: Black & White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal”) puts it: America is more of a “lumpy stew.”  Put simply, despite the widely accepted belief that previous backgrounds simply go away in a free, welcoming America, many inequalities linger. A pot with many ‘unmelted’ pieces remain.

Despite recent focus on Hispanic immigration, Hacker’s book primarily focuses on interactions between blacks and whites.  For him, the divide is not only most noticeable but also longstanding and systematic in American society.  One of the main takeaways from Hacker’s book is that blacks, unlike whites, are nearly always self-conscious of their own race, which is to say, the day-to-day lived experiences of blacks are inherently different because of their history in America’s dominant white society.

After considering questions Hacker raised in his book, I attended several Martin Luther King Jr. remembrance events hosted on campus last week. I interviewed both students of color and white students about feelings they held of their own race: whether or not they were self-conscious of it on a daily basis and if they found the Concordia-sponsored MLK day events purposeful and effective for increasing awareness of race-related issues, or, on the other hand, if they merely thought the day was an opportunity for people to perform their acceptance of diversity. As expected (and stated in Hacker’s book), white students simply do not think about their race on a daily basis. What’s more, white students reluctantly answer the question, perhaps worried of saying the “wrong” thing.

For students of color at Concordia, although aware of their race at dominantly white campus, their answers to my questions were much like the white students: carefully worded and reluctantly shared. The on-campus events, nonetheless, were seen as constructive ways to engage in crucial conversations about race—conversations that are usually too uncomfortable for typical DS banter. They wholeheartedly approved of the MLK day events as an effective tool for creating a more aware and accepting campus.

Yet Hacker points out an interesting white political divide that translates well for days like this: conservative whites, who may want to ignore MLK’s birthday because it only perpetuates a hopefully fading racial divide, and liberal whites, who, as briefly mentioned above, merely want to show their acceptance. Of course, Concordia students (of all races) that I spoke with believed the day’s events were an appropriate remembrance of a civil rights hero, a day definitely worth celebrating and a perfect time for a wake up call to students that believe the issue is no longer relevant. But while Hacker presents no real solutions in his book for increasing awareness of these racial inequalities (as he mentions in the prologue), it is still incredibly important for students interested in influencing the affairs of the world to heighten our awareness of longstanding, systematic racial inequalities and not be afraid of engaging in difficult and uncomfortable conversations about race.

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