I was deeply moved by a quote from this New York Times commentary.
Referring to the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, Dario Aguirre, a Mexican-American lawyer, said, “At least for Latinos, in some way, it’s the death of the American dream.”
The shooting in El Paso (Aug 3, 2019), which killed 22 people, was one of the two mass shootings in less than 24 hours in the United States – the other being in Dayton, Ohio (Aug 4). As of Aug 5, there had been more than one mass shooting per day in the US in 2019. Why there is so much gun violence in the US is a subject for another day, but for now I want to address the highly racial motivations behind the El Paso attack and their implications.
For my entire life (I am in my 40s), I have believed that the US was such a special place, that it epitomised and had successfully realised the ideal of bringing together people from anywhere and everywhere, of every race, creed and culture to live together in shared acceptance and a celebration of our shared humanity. Together they would pursue the American Dream that anyone could make it in the US if they worked hard, and uphold the American principle, as enshrined in the Constitution, that every human being had the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
My visit to the US in 2013 only served to reinforce this belief. Exploring the states of Vermont and New York, I felt very welcomed and very well accepted. I barely got a whiff of being singled out or disrespected because of the colour of my skin. Nor did I see anyone else being subjected to such discrimination, despite the mind-boggling diversity I saw around me (I met a Somali chambermaid in my New York hotel, then passed an Argentinian restaurant down the road, and bought Middle Eastern food from an Egyptian at a food truck). It seemed like the perfect melting pot.
Back in the 1990s when I was in university, I read projections that sometime in the 21st century, whites would become a minority in America due to the higher fertility and immigration rates for other groups. That should be no problem, I naively thought, America will simply continue to integrate all the different groups and unite them under her inspiring ideals.
But the El Paso shooting – together with numerous incidents of racial hostilities in recent years, as well as the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and his many racist statements against minorities – have made me realise that underneath the national stripes, we human beings are all the same. We have the same human nature: when our position is threatened, we have an impulse to become nasty, aggressive, even vicious. The rise of the Latino or Hispanic share of the US population, according to the NYT article, has almost tripled from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2018. Along with this rise and that of other minority groups has been a rise in white nationalism.
While I was feeling depressed about this, it occurred to me though that perhaps this brutish tendency might perhaps be more accurately called animal nature than human. It is that bestial, baser (lower-level) part of human nature that we can perhaps keep in check by developing the higher, nobler parts. For instance Americans could conceive and carry out programmes to facilitate friendships among different ethnic groups in society such as school camps that involved different schools with different ethnic mixes. Dialogues on ethnicity and culture to build understanding and reduce tensions and misapprehensions in a civilized manner.
Another approach would be the kind of social engineering which Singapore is famous for, such as the ethnic integration policy in public housing estates which imposes quotas on each ethnic group in each block and estate, thereby forcing the different groups to live in close proximity and preventing the formation of racial enclaves. Singapore’s immigration policy, too, has been said by academics such as G.W. Jones, to aim to maintain a stable ethnic mix in the country. But such policies would be, in all probability, politically untenable in a country with such strong liberal democratic impulses as the US. Americans are deeply suspicious of government control of people’s daily lives and life choices. That’s why the word “socialist” is such a dirty word in US politics.
In any case I’m not convinced that social engineering is as desirable a solution as some make it out to be. When I lived in public housing in Singapore, I could see neighbours of other races every day, but that didn’t mean that we would really mingle and develop any kind of a meaningful relationship. With such a top-down emphasis on social harmony, the impetus for any ground-up effort is stifled. Ordinary people in Singapre, I feel, have little motivation to work to build these bridges as they feel the government is exerting so much control in the area of race relations.
With the phenomenal creativity and ingenuity in the American DNA, I’m sure they can come up with other social innovations that can powerfully advance social harmony, even if a perfect society will always remain just an ideal.
I must admit that I, too, harboured an American Dream, as a Singaporean. In some ways I thought of myself as American as I identify so closely with their classic literature, their popular culture and some of their sports. Perhaps I still have the American Dream in my heart, that I might one day go and make a home there.
I hope and pray that the American Dream is not dead for the Latinos and other ethnic groups that do live in the US. I hope and pray that the better angels of human nature will triumph in the hearts of the American people – that American society will be able to navigate the stern social challenges ahead in a civilized manner and pull together with a focus on beautiful commonalities rather than differences.
Steven Ooi, a First Class Honours grad from the National University of Singapore, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as a GP and English tutor in 2016. He continues to blog on issues of concern to General Paper and student life.
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