This past Sunday, my family and I tried to make the most of a rainy weekend day in New York by enjoying what the city had to offer. My wife and I took our three children (son aged 11 and daughters aged five and seven), first to the New York Hall of Science in Queens, then to dinner at a neighborhood Malaysian restaurant in the Elmont section of Queens. I was born and raised in America, as were my parents. Like so many others in New York, my paternal grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe about a hundred years ago. My wife was born and raised in the Soviet Union. She emigrated when she was 19 and made a life for herself in America. She put herself through school, became a lawyer (investment management) and now is a partner at a national law firm. She is, in every way, an immigrant success story. Immigration is and has always been part of our lives. We celebrate our nation’s diversity. We enjoy our connections to the rich Russian culture and community in the New York area, and revel in exploring other cultures without having to venture across the planet to do so.
Today was one of those days. Dinner in Malaysia and then, not yet done with our adventure, we decided to take the nine minute drive to Jackson Heights for dessert in one of New York’s genuine Indian and Pakistani areas. We went to a sweet shop we had been to before. It was packed, so we waited in the front to get some things to go. It was still hot out, so Kulfi for the kids (Indian ice cream pops), and Masala Chai for myself and my wife. It’s almost impossible to get an authentic masala chai in New York outside of Jackson Heights, so I looked forward to it with as much delight as the kids to their ice cream.
While I waited to pay, my wife and older son sat on chairs behind me, my older daughter was on my wife’s lap and my younger daughter stood in front of them. The next moment, I heard my wife scolding a child, saying “that is bad, you shouldn’t do that.” I thought she was scolding one of our kids, which like in any family is not entirely uncommon. I turned around and instead, she was scolding a small girl (of Pakastini decent, I think), would couldn’t have been more than four years old. My younger daughter was back several feet against the counter, her head down. For the first moment, I didn’t understand what was going on. Then my son said, “She pushed her.” My wife was still towering over the small girl, and even more shockingly, the girl’s parents didn’t involve themselves.
I quickly ushered my family out. On the street my son said that the girl had said, “You shouldn’t be here, this is our place,” as she pushed his sister. He then told me that he saw the girl’s parents say, “Good”. My daughter was upset. She was not physically harmed, but she had been, however slight, assaulted because of the color of her skin, because she was different. I told her that it was not her fault, that she did nothing wrong. My little five-year-old then said, “the girl is bad”. I said, “No, children are not bad, they are taught these things. Her parents were wrong.” We retreated around the corner onto Roosevelt Avenue, one of the main commercial streets. The ice cream and splendor of the jewelry shops with their wares far more ornamental and detailed than typical American jewelry shops allowed my little one to move past the moment. It did not, for me however.
It was a terrible lesson for my children to see, that people who have chosen to live in America are teaching their children divisiveness. It is also a very dangerous lesson. Divisiveness is not an attempt to protect cultural heritage. There are countless immigrant communities who have managed to both maintain their culture and integrate into American society at the highest levels of accomplishment. Divisiveness will ultimately lead to hatred and radicalization within an immigrant community, not in every case, but even just one is too many. Equally horrible, it will lead to fear in the non-immigrant population. That fear may have the potential to do far greater harm. America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights was intended to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. It is the philosophical foundation for the modern free world. Yet no piece of parchment, no matter how thoughtful and eloquent, will ever protect a minority from the fear of the majority.
It is this kind of fear that led to the mass illegal internment of Japanese-Americans during world war two (ironically Korematsu v. United States has never been officially overturned by the Supreme Court) and has allowed the Republican nominee for president to ride populist fears including a call to ban all immigration by Muslims solely on the basis of their religion. In our current war with Terror, attacks by locally radicalized terrorists have claimed significant lives in San Bernardino, California, Boston, Massachusetts, and Orlando, Florida. These attacks are different from those where foreign agents of terror come to our shores to do us harm. These attacks were by our fellow Americans. I live in fear of the day when an entire religion or sub-group of our population is branded ‘the enemy within’, not based on some semi-fascist populist propaganda, but instead on objectively grounded fear.
I told my children tonight, “the girl’s parents were wrong, but that we must be better. We must be good.” What I did not tell them was that our democratic ideals and institutions are at stake. If we sacrifice those in the name of physical security we may survive, but what kind of life will we have left to live? The stakes in this War with Terror may very well be existential to what it means to be the United States of America and why millions of immigrants throughout our history fought and died to protect it.
To win this war we are all going to have to do our part. We have to reject populist hatred, but we cannot simply reject it and pretend we don’t have a profound problem. There must be a debate and a dialogue nationally on what we are to do before that little girl or one like her goes on to do something far worse than push an innocent child. To start, those of us who work with immigrants every day must help them understand that coming to live in America means being part of America That alone will not be enough. Like all wars, it will be hard, there will be victims and there will be hard sacrifices. Tonight, my five year old went to sleep with a smile on her face, but I did not.