By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — The unfriendly airwaves of talk radio this week gave us an inadvertently revealing moment.
Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a Republican immigration hard-liner and part of what The Wall Street Journal just branded “the GOP’s Deportation Caucus,” was giving his retort to the paper’s pro-business editorialists on Laura Ingraham’s radio show Monday: “They need to be patriots, and they need to think about America first,” Brooks said.
America First? How 1940! The congressman went on to condemn those who say the Republican position on immigration is dooming the party by alienating Latinos. “This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party,” Brooks said. “And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s a part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare.”
It was the battle cry of the white man, particularly the Southern white man, feeling besieged. I don’t share the fear, but I understand it. The United States is experiencing a rapid decoupling of race and nationality: Whiteness has less and less to do with being American. The Census Bureau forecasts that non-Hispanic whites, now slightly more than 60 percent of the population, will fall below 50 percent in 2043. Within 30 years, there will cease to be a racial majority in the United States. In a political sense, this is bad news for the GOP. But for the country, the disassociation of whiteness and American-ness is to be celebrated. Indeed, it is the key to our survival.
This is not merely about a fresh labor supply but about the fresh blood needed to cure what ails us. To benefit from such a transfusion, we not only need to welcome more immigrants but also to adopt pieces of their culture lacking in our own — just as we have done with other (mostly European) cultures for centuries.
This is the theme of my friend Eric Liu’s provocative new book, “A Chinaman’s Chance.” Liu writes about Chinese-Americans (Asians, as it happens, eclipsed Hispanics last year as the fastest-growing minority in the United States) but the thesis is similar for other immigrant cultures. Liu argues that the United States needn’t fear China’s rise because the Chinese have already given us the tools to beat them economically: their sons and daughters.
“America has an enduring competitive advantage over China: America makes Chinese-Americans; China does not make American-Chinese,” Liu says. “China does not want to or know how to take people from around the world, welcome them, and empower them to change the very fabric of their nation’s culture.”
Liu observes that American culture has an excess of individualism, short-term thinking and prioritizing of rights over duties. He calls for “a corrective dose” of Chinese values: mutual responsibility, long-term thinking, humility, moral character and contribution to society.
“What Chinese culture at its best can bring to America is a better balance between being an individual and being in a community,” he writes, offering the example of Tony Hsieh, the Taiwanese-American chief executive of Zappos who is pouring some $350 million into reviving downtown Las Vegas: “He’s an American gambler with a Chinese long view; he is supremely confident yet mainly silent; he has so little of the American need to sell himself, so little extroversion, that he jokes even his friends aren’t sure he likes them.”
Part of Liu’s confidence that the U.S. will triumph over China is that his ancestral land, in modernizing, is losing some of the best aspects of Chinese culture — and acquiring our own excesses. He notes that, as the Chinese extended family frayed, the government enacted a law requiring adult children to visit their elderly parents — the sort of thing Chinese did voluntarily for millennia.
China responds with edicts because it lacks the source of continuous adaptability and vitality that imported cultures give the United States. The inherent advantage in the American system will continue — if we don’t get hung up about whiteness.
The tea party movement was a setback because it elevated extreme individualism over collective responsibilities and because it tapped into nativism and further undermined trust in institutions. Some tea partyers such as Brooks may never be able to leave the bunkers where they defend whiteness.
But for other conservatives and Republicans — and, more importantly, for America — it’s not too late.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist