View from Lodi, CA: A Multicultural Microcosm

During the weekend of June 22-23, the Lodi residents were encouraged to join the "Declaration of Peace" gathering to recognize Abraham as the common figure among Christians, Jews and Muslims.  Another local meeting, the Seerat Conference, at the Lodi Muslim Mosque also discussed Abraham's role in the three religions.

The two events got me thinking (again) about one of America's most controversial topics—religious and ethnic diversity. I'm forever tinkering with my feelings about diversity. My ever-shifting position is a logical consequence of my job at the Lodi Adult School where I have students from 20 different countries in my classes. I've lived on both sides of the diversity coin. The West Los Angeles primary school I attended was distinctly not diverse. We were all Roman Catholic, white and middle class. But when I was ready to start high school, my family moved to Puerto Rico. I was one of only a handful of kids who didn't speak Spanish. And since Americans weren't particularly welcome, I was out of the loop.

In most ways, it doesn't really matter what anyone thinks about multiculturalism. Diversity in America, and especially California, is here to stay. Individual opinions will not influence California's diversity. The Public Policy Institute of California (www.ppic.org) recently released a new report, "A State of Diversity: Demographic Trends in California's Regions."[PDF] The report found that in each of California's nine regions, population growth in the 1990s was greatest for either Hispanic or Asian/Pacific Islanders. In three of the nine regions, no race or ethnic group constitutes a majority. These trends started in 1980 and will continue well into future decades.

Personally, I accept multiculturalism but with qualifications. I don't like to hear people say, "Our diversity is our strength" or "Celebrate diversity" because those phrases are trite and dismissive of diversity's inherent complexities. 

For an example of why I often pause before I "embrace" (as we are constantly encouraged to do) diversity, read Mary Min Vincent's June 24th story in the Lodi News-Sentinel, "'Declaration of Peace' discussed at Lodi's Seerat Conference." In her story Ms. Vincent reported that the Muslim women, in keeping with tradition, entered through the back of the building and sat in quarters where they could hear but not see the speakers. Muslim women do not have equal status with Muslim men.

And Americans object to Muslim women's second-class status. In an informal survey I conducted among female friends, none indicated a willingness to enter the rear door while I went in the front.  That valid concern was not addressed this weekend. 

Brenda Walker, writing on www.limitstogrowth.org, reminds us that many women in Middle Eastern countries are denied rights as basic as driving and voting. Much more serious rights violations include genital mutilation and honor killings. The conference organizers emphasized that not all people and nations need to agree on everything to live in harmony. And while that's certainly true, misogyny is something Americans cannot wink at.

Multiculturalism is an emotional subject; everyone has his own opinions. And while I respect the media's right to support multiculturalism as avidly and unabashedly as it does, I prefer a more balanced approach.

For the few days before and after the conferences, the extensive local coverage gave me the distinct feeling that I was I was being lectured to.   Here's a summary: on June 21, a news story; on June 22, two lengthy editorials by event organizers and a letter to the editor by two other organizers; on June 24, two front page stories (one above the fold) with five color photographs; and finally on June 29, another editorial and letter to the editor. Final tally: over eight days, three news stories, three editorials, two letters to the editor and five color photographs.

The message that I got was, "If you are a concerned citizen, you will be at the Lodi Boys and Girls Club and the Lodi Muslim Mosque."  The reality is that only 300 people attended each of the conferences. That's less than ½ of 1% of Lodi's population.

But that doesn't mean that the other 99% aren't just as strongly opposed to hatred, intolerance and violence. Those who didn't attend, like me, are for the most part just as interested in promoting good will. Among those who didn't go to the conferences, each doubtless has his own way of creating harmony with his neighbors.

I can tell you what my colleagues and I at the Lodi Adult School do. Each student, regardless of race or creed, is treated with all the respect and decency that every human is entitled to.

That was true before September 11, 2001 and will be true as long as the Lodi Adult School is standing.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.