One of the most important and unforgettable phrases uttered in my lifetime was Rodney King's plaintive plea, "Can we all get along?" King's aphorism exemplifies a central issue of our time. How can people from different backgrounds and cultures happily, respectfully, and productively mesh their lives together in our American melting pot?
Culture is one of the reasons contemporary Americans sometimes have a hard time getting along. While differences in ways of life have always existed, increased immigration, population density, and the instant flow of global information have thrust society's cultural distinctions in the face of many Americans. Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than in Fremont.
Fremont became a city a little over fifty years ago, when five mostly white farming communities incorporated into one city. Beginning in the '70s, a dramatic demographic shift began with Latino and Asian in-migration. Today, fewer than one third of the residents are white, and Fremont may be the most diverse medium-size city in the country. According to Indian-American city councilwoman Anu Natarajan, residents trace their heritage to 147 countries and speak more than 150 languages in their homes. Diversity is especially evident in the city's religious landscape, which includes at least four mosques, three Buddhist Temples, Sikh and Hindu houses of worship, and the iconic Peace Terrace, a road on which Muslims and Methodists built houses of religion side by side.
Fremont's evolution has not always been smooth, but given the potential combustibility of the mix, the city should be seen as a success story of how different groups can live together.
With a dwindling few exceptions like Fremont's NUMMI auto plant, the post-Word War II industrial melting pot is but a distant memory today. Cities provide the best present-day vantage points for viewing the blessings and difficulties of cultural and religious differences.
This culture stew is the subject of a new film produced under the aegis of the Pluralism Project, a group from Harvard University that has been mapping US religious diversity. In Fremont, USA, filmmakers Elinor Pierce and Oakland resident Rachel Antell tackle Fremont's laudable efforts to deal with cultural and religious diversity through civic engagement. The film, subtitled A City's Encounter with Religious Diversity, explores the cultural changes that have come to Fremont.
The film focuses primarily on relations between Protestants and practitioners of Asian religious traditions. All the figures interviewed agree that the city council and bureaucracy have been very supportive of the growth of different traditions and communities. Fremont has an active Human Relations Commission and has made efforts to employ a diverse workforce. For people concerned about the relationship between government and religion, it is interesting that Fremont uses communities of faith as a way to contact its ethnic populations.
The horror of 9/11 tested the relative peacefulness of Fremont's diversity. Mosques and Afghani businesses were attacked. Fremont has the largest Afghan population in the United States and the second-largest Sikh community. In response, these groups realized that deep concerns remained within the majority populations, in spite of what seemed like fairly harmonious relations. A conscious decision was made to reach out to the overall community in order to promote deeper understanding. In a very cool event, the Sikh and Muslim communities sponsored a "Wear a Hijab/Turban Day" to demystify these parts of their culture. Anyone could come and be fitted for a hijab or turban.
Backlash against immigration has arisen on several other occasions, flaring up in the public schools, around the city's Fourth of July parade, and whenever immigration is a hot topic.
But even with these occasional tensions, the film's narrative of life in Fremont seems surprisingly smooth — until the murder of Alia Ansari. An Afghani mother of six, Ansari had come to California with her family in 1986 to flee the fighting in Afghanistan. While she was walking to school with her youngest child to pick up two of her other children, a man walked up to her, put a gun to her head, and shot her. The death had an immediate terrorizing effect on minority communities in Fremont. The film portrays Fremont's city officials as incredibly proactive. The city's mayor immediately visited the family and allowed extraordinary memorial activities on city land. The Presbyterian Church led a well-attended community memorial. Imagine how things might have been different if Oakland and BART officials had reacted similarly following the shooting of Oscar Grant.
Getting along is not easy. It takes time, and there are few external markers of success. Productive interpersonal interactions seldom produce outcomes that can be followed in a box score or tracked in a bar graph, and Americans are too prone to dismiss things that can't be measured or quantified. Furthermore, intentional civic engagement often seems bland and boring to many, especially if no immediate economic interest is involved. Like many of my fellow Americans, I would rather watch the car crashes and fantasy intrigue of the latest Jason Bourne movie than sit around all day and talk about my feelings. But I know that I am better off doing the hard work of getting to know and become comfortable with the "other." So, I work to nurture that part of myself. It is demanding but necessary work.
When we think about the lessons of Fremont, Rodney King's heroic words still ring true. "We all can get along," he told us. "I mean, we're all stuck here for a while. ... Let's try to work it out." The residents of Fremont show us one way to do this. Their efforts deserve our admiration.
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