Esther J. Cepeda: Strength lies in diversity

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CHICAGO — The main thing I took away from previewing the upcoming PBS special America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa: Clarkston Georgia is that though the phrase “strength in diversity” has achieved platitude status, it is particularly true when it comes to assimilating new Americans into historically homogeneous communities.

I’m not sure that was the intended message of this “Need to Know” election 2012 presentation, which is the first public affairs special on PBS in which a Latina served as executive producer.

Set to air Friday, this half-hour program sets out to explore the question of whether, due to rapidly changing demographic shifts, white America should be afraid of becoming a minority.

Unsurprisingly, by the end of the special we come to understand that the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” But it’s a conclusion that few communities dealing with an influx of immigrants might take comfort with, given the uniqueness of the example studied.

Hinojosa introduces us to Clarkston, Ga., a town of 7,500 people — 89 percent white in the 1980s — roughly 11 miles outside Atlanta.

After being selected by the federal government as a prime spot in which to settle refugees from countries such as South Sudan, Bhutan, Somalia and Burma, it’s now less than 14 percent white.

It was refreshing to see a documentary where both white and African-Americans are portrayed bluntly, but respectfully, as people with negative viewpoints of the effects of rapid immigration on small towns.

Frankly, older white Americans such as longtime Clarkston resident Graham Thomas are rarely given camera time to air concerns about plummeting property values, a loss of a sense of community and stresses on local schools, hospitals and police without being cast in the role of a foaming-at-the-mouth racist.

Even the town’s African-American mayor admits on camera that the main reason he even considered public service was that he felt he couldn’t just sit back and watch the immigrants take over his town — one that he remembered playing host to Ku Klux Klan rallies during his childhood.

All that said, there’s little enmity. Even the local shopkeepers, who, before the immigrant influx were on the verge of losing their businesses because the town was in such sharp decline, are grateful for their new neighbors, all of whom seem devoted to becoming citizens.

Only the careful observer notices the subtleties that have kept Clarkston, described here as “an Ellis Island of the South,” from devolving into the sort of anger festivals that other small communities with aging populations became once the face of their main street started changing.

For one, the new arrivals are all legal and, as protected-status refugees, came to town with some limited government subsidies for their integration. As refugees, they arrived with the burning desire to create for themselves a new permanent home and, as quickly as possible, adopt this country as their own. Lastly, being from different countries united them in their quest to learn English quickly.

Basically, this group of new immigrants, with their different customs and odd habits — many Clarkstonites claimed to have “heard” that their new neighbors liked to build fires in their living rooms and drink water straight from the toilet — are nothing like the Hispanic immigrants who are usually the subject of earnest, heart-strings-pulling documentaries that seek to portray how hardworking and fundamentally good new immigrants are.

There’s no Spanish language to isolate the new neighbors from the larger community, no suspicions about immigration status, no fear that household income is being exported to Latin America instead of being re-invested into the community, no shared allegiances to a particular homeland and no singular culture threatening to overtake the character of the town.

This observation isn’t a judgment of what constitutes a “good” immigrant versus the prevalent — and overhyped — stereotypes of “bad,” aka “unlawful, freeloading” immigrants.

Clarkston’s story is simply an example of how diversity truly plays a leading role in helping the melting pot make new Americans out of recent arrivals.

ESTHER J. CEPEDA is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.


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