A Love Letter to America's Diversity (audio)
Hakeem Jeffries' first speech after becoming Minority Leader reminds us of who we are
After a week of grim news as a result of a new Republican House majority bent on exploiting grievance and acting with vengeance, I hope you find it nourishing to remember the way in which new Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries spoke about the gift that is American diversity. While the short run may be full of distraction, chaos and fear, don’t doubt that the long-run will be an increasingly diverse country with all the promise that this portends for positive change. This is our demographic reality. As I conclude in this essay read aloud and here below, the strength of diversity “will eventually succeed in overcoming the insecure, the incompetent and the fearful.”
I know, I know. These are complicated times, fraught and full of conflict. I know it’s easy to imagine that too many of your people have lost their way, lost the vision that made it possible for them to love you and understand what makes you special. But please don’t worry: There are signs amid the madness that some of your public servants know you and are determined to sing from the mountaintops about your beauty.
I don’t know if you heard the beautiful speech by Hakeem Jeffries, the newly elected House Minority Leader in the wee hours of January 7. He had much to say about you, about who we are as Americans, and what Democrats value and believe. It was a powerful counterpoint to four days and 15 ballots jammed with conflict and chaos, and a promising sign that the new minority party has a leader who’s not about to stay quiet or let the Republican virulence run roughshod over the country’s basic commitment to governance and decency and the positive qualities that define us as Americans.
Many of the responses to Jeffries’ speech since Saturday morning have rightfully focused on his memorable A-Z depiction of what differentiates Democrats from Republicans. This clip put to music may be the most delightful way to listen to it. But what caught my attention and now motivates this love letter is Rep. Jeffries’s comments about American diversity—about how it represents our strength, not our weakness.
We believe that in America our diversity is a strength. It is not a weakness. An economic strength, a competitive strength, a cultural strength…We are a gorgeous mosaic of people from throughout the world. As John Lewis would sometimes remind us on this floor, we may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.
We are white, we are Black. We are Latino, we are Asian, we are Native American. We are Christian, we are Jewish, we are Muslim, we are Hindu. We are religious, we are secular. We are gay, we are straight. We are young, we are older. We are women, we are men, we are citizens, we are dreamers. Out of many we are one. That’s what makes America a great country.
As you know, Jeffries himself is the first Black man to hold the Minority Leader’s position in Congress. But he is far from the only sign of progress: Over the last two decades, Congress—or at least the House Democratic caucus—has increasingly begun to look like the country it’s meant to represent.
This year over a quarter of the House and Senate identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American. As outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted, today there are over 90 Democratic women in the House, up from 12 when she first arrived in Congress in 1987. And in this 118th Congress, Pelosi added, “The new members of our Democratic caucus will be about 75 percent women, people of color and LGBTQ.”
Taken together, it’s the most diverse in history, even as we note that the last Congress was the first body comprised of less than 50 percent white men. (White males only make up about 30 percent of the U.S. population.) Since 1987, according to The Washington Post, the number of Black, Hispanic or Asian women has risen to 13 percent from less than half of one percent.
No, this is not good enough, especially as women, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Indigenous people remain significantly underrepresented. And let’s not throw a parade for Republicans touting they will have more Black representatives than any time since 1877 during Reconstruction—a whopping five.
As The Boston Globe notes, “Republicans will account for just 27 of the 140 non-white members in the next Congress.” We are a long way from seeing a meaningful impact from that minority representation, especially at a time when the new speaker decries so-called critical race theory and devoted a portion of his first address to asserting the need for legislation to counteract “woke indoctrination.”
But here’s the thing: After four Trump years and the constant efforts to degrade people of color, fuel white nationalism and condemn refugees as dirty, criminal and dangerous—and the continuing effort of his acolytes such as Govs. Abbott and DeSantis to exploit this demagoguery—our country continues to become more diverse.
Between 2010 and 2020, for example, the white population declined, nearly four in 10 Americans identified with a race or group other than white, racial and ethnic minorities accounted for all of the nation’s population growth, and for the first time more than half of the nation’s population under 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority—trends that are expected to continue.
In addition, over the last half century, shifts in the foreign-born population have also been clear: In 1970, immigrants were most likely to come from Italy (13 percent of the immigrant population), Germany (10 percent) and Canada (10 percent). By 2013, the largest numbers were Mexico (28 percent), China (six percent) and India (five percent).
This is the demographic reality, even as some among us fear it and have organized themselves (ultimately, in vain) to fight it—and even die over it. As I see it, growing diversity in the country and in the halls of power is good news.
That diversity in heritage and lived experience means new insights, new perspectives, new questions being asked and, we hope, new and innovative answers being found. As we face grave challenges in everything from defending democracy to climate change, from economic inequality and racial injustice to global food insecurity and a growing global refugee crisis, we need talented people from every ZIP code and background to ask smart questions and help find world-altering answers.
Why in the world would we be dumb enough to emphasize scapegoating over problem-solving? Why would a leading nation prioritize holding a boot on the neck of the vulnerable rather than empowering the motivated among them to help us make things better? Why wouldn’t we find ways to expand quality education, economic opportunity and social mobility to make this possible?
Of course, history has shown this wasteful tendency to act against our best interests. As author Peter Schrag wrote in his 2010 book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America, “In almost every generation, nativists portrayed new immigrants as not fit to become real Americans: they were too infected by Catholicism, monarchism, anarchism, Islam, criminal tendencies, defective genes, mongrel bloodlines, or some other alien virus to become free men and women in our democratic society.” And then: “Again and again, the new immigrants of their children and grandchildren proved them wrong.”
With all the grim impulses of wannabe authoritarian, anti-democratic leaders to rile up racism and grievance and insist our gravest danger can be found at the southern border, they are simply exploiting these uneasy times rather than pursuing any actual solutions. As author Roger Daniels described in his immigrant history, Coming to America, “When most Americans are generally united and feel confident about the future, they seem to be more willing to share that future with foreigners; conversely, when they are divided and lack confidence in the future, nativism is more likely to triumph.”
Time and again, our history has revealed the ongoing tension between American ideals of equality, fairness and inclusion, along with the often-bitter rivalries among ethnic groups. Those conflicts escalated when American leaders failed to recognize the brains and skills both around the world and in our midst—convinced that fear-mongering and keeping people down were better ways to get and keep power.
In these often hard-hearted times, I may have hesitated returning to the caring words of poet Emma Lazarus from 1882, emblazoned on the pedestal of Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. They can appear almost corny among the more cynical; by those who’ve been convinced once again that we must keep playing a zero-sum game; or by those who failed to learn that our history has proven over and over that the more opportunity we create for individuals and groups in need, the more it benefits the many and strengthens the common good.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
America, you can count me among the realistic optimists who grasp that darkness never succeeds in snuffing out the light. As Hakeem Jeffries rightly noted Saturday morning, diversity is our strength:
[Diversity is] what makes America a great country. And no matter what kind of haters are trying to divide us, we’re not going to let anyone take that away from us. Not now, not ever. This is the United States of America, a land of opportunity. The fact that I’m able to stand up here today is another data point in that narrative.
As much as a fractured, troubled majority party is likely to misuse its power over the next two years (and surely fail to seriously address immigration or a host of other issues linked to inequality), count me among your advocates of diversity who understand that this strength will eventually succeed in overcoming the insecure, the incompetent and the fearful.