We’re now in a political war about immigration and cultural change, with the “build a wall” crowd ascendant. But it’s hard to square the demagoguery with the reality at a local middle-school graduation.
At the moment it was announced that Britain had decided to turn its back to Europe, I was sitting in a gymnasium, coincidentally listening to a Sudanese refugee read a poem.
It was a promotion ceremony for the eighth-graders at Washington Middle School in Seattle’s Central Area.
Despite all the news of late about the whitening of the Central Area, the ceremony looked like a United Nations assembly. The school is about a third white, a third black, 15 percent Asian, 10 percent Latino and 8 percent so mixed the demographic reports had to make a new category, called “of two or more races.”
But these racial categories tell only a small part of the story. Eighteen languages are spoken at the school, from Somali to Vietnamese to Amharic. Eight of the graduates had the surname Mohamed. There were seven Nguyens, six named Tran and three named Li. Oh, and two Smiths and a Johnson.
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The eighth-grade girl picked to read her poem, “Right Now,” came here as a war refugee from Sudan. Given her background, some of her lines were freighted with extra meaning: “Right now, this was the worst and best year ever. I’m happy we got through it and are here together.”
It occurred to me, amid the sea of kid suits and hijabs, that the scene in that gym is the “right now” of what’s really roiling America and Great Britain.
There was a startling study out the other day about cultural attitudes as the nation changes. The Public Religion Research Institute interviewed 2,500 Americans and found that anxiety over a brown planet may be driving much of the political upheaval this year.
“Concern about the U.S. becoming a majority nonwhite nation has increased significantly over the last few years,” the study found. For instance, fully half of Americans today say they are uncomfortable or bothered when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English.
The researchers note this unease spikes among Donald Trump supporters, to 77 percent.
The survey found extraordinary levels of distrust of immigrants among the Trump crowd. Two-thirds of Trump backers believe immigrants will increase crime in local communities. An incredible 80 percent say immigrants are more of a burden to America than a benefit. Sixty-eight percent say the country has changed mostly for the worse since the 1950s.
How can you square these views with the reality — the right now — of the gym scene described above? You can’t. The changes that made Washington Middle School look like the international terminal at La Guardia are hardly unique to Seattle. They’re happening everywhere.
If people speaking foreign languages grates on you, imagine how tense it would be to go through daily life in much of America.
One impulse might be to retreat. Build a wall. Go it alone, as Britain has chosen. The world doesn’t work this way, and hasn’t for decades. But it is an impulse.
As I was sitting in the gym bleachers, the Washington State Republican Party started crowing about England’s vote, tweeting: “The world is beginning to right itself. Britain first. America to follow.”
Does the state GOP know that “Britain First” is the name of a right-wing anti-Muslim movement that runs vigilante “Christian street patrols,” purportedly to root terrorists out of British neighborhoods? Maybe not. Maybe like Trump supposedly didn’t know that his slogan of “America First” referred to an isolationist 1940s organization with some anti-Semitic leaders.
It’s surreal to hear this separatist demagoguery echoing even as new waves of immigrants become part of us. It’s not that we’ve successfully achieved integration or equality — far from it. (As a reminder of this, one eighth-grader wrote in the program about how she alone made up “33% or more of the black population” in her advanced learning classes.)
But even if you wanted to wall off the country and turn back the clock to a more monocultural time, the reality is we have gyms full of multihued and multitalented eighth-graders out there saying: “We exist. We’re here already. In fact we’re the future.”
After the ceremony I got to meet the poet. She was wearing a headscarf and talked excitedly about going on to high school, at Garfield.
I told her she had a bright future in America. But later when I was looking at the political news on my phone, I wondered if what I had said was really true.