Age that once was is no more

Author: Barrett Rainey

A long, long time ago … when I was just a pup … kids were told this country was a “melting pot;” that all sorts of people from all sorts of places had come here seeking a new and better life.

We were told that was “good.” It meant different religions, different skills, different beliefs and – most distinct of all – possibly different skin colors. We were assured America was supposed to be that way; that was what made us strong. Many contributing, unique histories, skills and talents while creating a “racial tapestry.”

I wish it were still true. If it ever was. But it isn’t. Now we bunch up and keep our distances. Race and religion can often determine what part of the city we live in. And next to whom. Even small Northwest communities have Black, Asian, Hispanic or other racial neighborhoods. Assimilation used to mean coming together to share talents, treasure and even our differences for the advancement of all. It didn’t mean losing your heritage or racial identity by becoming someone else. Somewhere along the way, we lost that ability to be similar but not identical.

I come at this issue like a mongrel dog. My genealogical background is Heinz 57; a mixture of half a dozen European countries. That’s OK. But I truly envy those who have a clear racial or ethnic identity. They have language, music, culture and history to celebrate. They have a straight line to their roots. But when they close ranks, separate and apart from the rest of a community, we are the poorer for not being able to share all that.

There is a culture in the West that does not divide itself from others: the Basques of Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. Whatever community they’re in, they are fully integrated into its life. And most do so while preserving the Basque language and heritage of who they are and where they came from.

As a non-Basque, I find the language impossible and haven’t figured out the often repetitive music. But both are fascinating when they have festivals and other celebrations and the rest of us can get involved. They love to share Basque foods, games, dance and stories of how ancestors came to America, most often to herd sheep.

Many Basque families go to great lengths to teach their children all these things to preserve their distinct culture. Some even try to pass on the nearly-impossible-to-understand Basque language. They don’t do so as a way of separating themselves from daily life in a non-Basque society. They are fully assimilated but not at a cost of their own heritage.

Most Basques long ago took it upon themselves to live this sort of dual citizen identity, even though it takes extra effort. I’ve often wished they could be ambassadors to other ethnic groups to teach them how you can be Americans without sacrificing whatever your ethnicity might be. We would be a richer country with far fewer societal and economic problems.

Our self-imposed divisions of race, religion and skin color are at the bottom of a lot of the hate and divisiveness in our current national politics. Some even portray all illegal immigrants as criminals. It’s not true but it plays to unfounded fears in hopes of generating votes.

Others are trying to divide by sexual orientation, questioning the manhood, womanhood or life style of an opponent. Again, generating fear and distrust to separate.

Maybe worst of all is that portion of white Americans that still can’t accept the fact that a black man is president of this country and that a black family resides in the White House. Hate-filled emails circulate daily by the thousands with race as the bottom line. Right-wing talkers call him a racist. Birthers and others have blatantly challenged him as they never would someone whose skin was white.

So we have societal groups separating themselves from others who’re different. To them, assimilation is just another hard to spell word.

I miss the “melting pot” description we were taught when we were young. It sounded so good. It sounded like something we could really be proud of. It sounded like a really good idea.

Wonder if kids are still being taught that phrase. Or are they too busy. Being different.

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