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America's Selective 9/11 Memory

September 08, 2008

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. His last post, a Q&A with Jean Lobell, managing director, Community Resource Exchange, is here.)

Diversity_4Just five days after two jetliners were flown into the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that citizens of more than eighty nationalities had lost their lives as a result of the attacks and subsequent collapse of the towers. Ever since that day, pundits and politicians have endeavored to cast 9/11 as an exclusively American experience.

With the seventh anniversary of 9/11 looming, it may be useful to reflect on why Powell's words failed to make a difference in the narrative that was created around the events of September 11 as well as what lessons we should learn from the experience going forward.

Today, there are more linkages binding people around the globe in common cause than at any time in history. The huge diaspora migrations of the last two centuries have been replaced by communities with "feet in two worlds" -- worlds in which, for a growing number of immigrants, the bonds to one's nation of origin are regularly renewed. Every day, tens of millions of people around the globe connect across huge distances with friends and family back home via telephone, telegram, and e-mail. In 2007 alone, Mexican-Americans working in the United States remitted $24 billion to family members back home. Perhaps more importantly, the "other" has now become "we." Here in New York City, for example, close to two-thirds of my fellow residents are either immigrants or children of immigrants.

Those who make the case for assimilation choose to ignore the fact that America today is a "gorgeous mosaic," the term former New York City mayor David Dinkins used in his inauguration speech in 1990. Indeed, the Census Bureau projects that by 2042 the United States will be a "majority minority" nation.

Of course, in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, and Houston, as well as rural areas like southern Louisiana, this trend actually confirms what many nonprofit leaders already knew. As in previous waves of immigration, nonprofit settlement houses, health care facilities, and other frontline human services organizations are the first to witness and address the reality of America's changing demographics. More importantly, nonprofits are building and reinforcing the ties that bind new arrivals to their country of choice.

I remember vividly an acquaintance I made over fifteen years ago. A statuesque Ghanaian man dressed in flowing national dress introduced himself to me as the founder of the Sahel AIDS Project. When I asked whether he was based in Accra or not, he looked askance and told me the organization was working with Ghanaians on Staten Island.

Public and private foundations, too, are adjusting to the demographic changes under way in America. The Dominican Bridge Fund raises funds for projects in the South Bronx and Washington Heights/Inwood neighborhoods as well as in the Dominican Republic. Similar vehicles include Give2Asia, Kiva, Global Green Grants, and GlobalGiving.

On the seventh anniversary of September 11, let's remember the nationalities of all those who died on that terrible day and re-dedicate ourselves to enlarging and stengthening the gorgeous mosaic that, more than ever, represents America's future.

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by DJ  |   September 09, 2008 at 10:13 AM

I don't know Michael....your heart is in the right place, but part of me thinks that turning 9/11 into some tapioca excuse for a diversity-building exercise is just wrong. There are other, much more immediate (and timely) lessons 9/11 can teach us.

"Those who make the case for assimilation choose to ignore the fact that America today is a "gorgeous mosaic"

Really? I like good looking mosaics as much as the next guy, but here's the thing- in a mosaic, all the pieces have to fit. There has to be some level of assimilation. I fail to see why these two ideas are incompatable.

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