Foreigners Now, Foreigners Forever?

The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Our Town

by Mary Pipher


Harcourt, 390 pages, $25.00

Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White

by Frank H. Wu


Basic Books, 397 pages, $26.00

Two authors born and raised in the heartland of America offer timely insights into problems - both new and old - of increasing importance to a nation that is undergoing rapidly accelerating change in its racial and ethnic composition, and to a nation that, not insignificantly, is experiencing a suddenly heightened sense of vulnerability to international terrorists.

Mary Pipher, who grew up in a "small town of white Protestants" in rural Nebraska, writes compellingly in The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Our Town about the emerging cultural complexity wrought by refugee-resettlement programs and migrant-labor patterns. She now lives in Lincoln, the state capital, where, she notes, "our nonwhite population has grown 128 per cent since 1990 [and] we are beginning to look like East Harlem."

Frank H. Wu, by contrast, was born in Cleveland and raised in Detroit, two urban industrial centers long noted for their ethnic diversity, but where, as an American of Asian descent, he is relegated to the role of "the perpetual foreigner." In Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, Wu describes the enduring slights and stereotypes facing Asian-Americans, who collectively make up the nation's fastest-growing demographic bloc.

Pipher is a psychologist who counsels many of the displaced and dispossessed foreigners who have flooded into her community. She suggests that, in the wake of September 11, Americans should view such recent arrivals less as a threat than as a resource.

The strength - and delight - of Pipher's writing lies in her gift for seeing the individual, human faces of those diverse newcomers she encounters in her dual role as therapist and interviewer. Without leaving Lincoln, she reports: "I have had long-term relationships with people who grew up in the mountains of Laos, in war-torn Bosnia, in a village in Jalisco, or on the steppes of Russia. I talked to a Nier tribesman about the refugee camps in Kenya and to a Muslim schoolteacher about the war in Sierra Leone."

Pipher focuses less on the troubles from which these refugees fled than on the formidable difficulties they now face - and may never completely overcome - in America. Although generally optimistic, she doesn't varnish the truth. In observing teenagers enrolled in "English Language Learners" classes, she notes that many are beyond the control of their bewildered parents. She writes of boys who run in gangs and get arrested for petty crimes, and of unmarried girls who become pregnant.

She warns that it's in America's interests to provide newcomers with readier access to language education, job training, basic worker protections, and an adequate minimum wage - all tools they will need to climb to the middle class. "Unless we once again develop that ladder," Pipher says, "we will have a permanent underclass of disaffected, resentful people."

Although a great many of America's most recent arrivals are from Asia, this country has a long history of mistreating "yellow" immigrants. Wu, a law professor at Howard University, recounts that Chinese laborers who helped build the transcontinental railroad were abused in the 1860s, Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II, and Korean-owned shops were torched in the Los Angeles riots of 1992. More recently, government officials have singled out Asians for special scrutiny in political fundraising probes and subjected them to unproven allegations of stealing atomic weapons secrets.

Wu's book, however, is neither angry nor tendentious. He adroitly works his way through the brier patch of America's racial challenges with remarkably good humor and an open mind to the views of those with whom he disagrees. He takes sides with neither the "assimilationists," who argue that newcomers should adapt to the traditions and values of the mainstream culture, nor the "multiculturalists," who defend and promote the maintenance of group differences.

As Wu wryly notes, assimilation worked best when the newcomers being integrated into the dominant European-based culture were also Europeans. "It is white ethnics - those who two generations ago would have portrayed themselves and have been perceived as less white and more ethnic - who have passed more readily into this abiding paradigm of upward mobility."

The predominance of Latinos, Asians, and other nonwhites in the current immigration stream makes things very different, Wu says. "Assimilation gratifies the ego of the whites who are assimilated toward, multiculturalism the ego of the people of color whose multiculturalism is celebrated," he writes, adding that he sees "significant flaws" in either approach.

Wu asserts that we will find a middle path between the two schools of thought as the reality sinks in that "sometime in the 21st century, our nation will cease to have a single identifiable racial majority." Pipher agrees that the immigrants who are most likely to adapt and prosper will be those who find "a niche that allows them to maintain their ethnic identity and become American. This shouldn't be an either/or, but rather a both/and situation," she argues.

In sum, both authors conclude that America's much-vaunted motto of E pluribus unum remains, as it always has been, a work in progress. Or, as Wu puts it, "Ours is a yet undiscovered country."