Fresh Eyes: The Montagnard Measure

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ayoung_portraitby Andrew Young

There are many ways to measure a city’s well-being. Years before the Great Recession I overheard two Irving Park grayheads talk about their trip east to Greenville, delighted to discover there familiar comforts like Starbucks, Target and Panera. Later my tech friends gushed over rumors that an Apple store was coming to Greensboro, confident we’d at last arrived. And so it goes, whether it’s talk of microbreweries, baseball stadiums, an aerotropolis or Trader Joe’s. As Mark Twain observed, we crave the approval of others because it confirms our good opinion of ourselves. He called this self-flattery “corn pone.”

In Greensboro corn pone can be found in the roles we assign ourselves and delegate to immigrants and refugees. We love to say we are gracious hosts, welcoming to strangers, but in practice we reveal the limits of our imagination. If Greensboro’s 30-plus years as North Carolina’s center for refugee resettlement is long, its history of unsatisfactory black-white relations is longer. We have dismissed the black community, especially the fate of young black males, because it is a narrative that has little to do with our present self-satisfaction with Starbucks or an arts center.

How interested are we in newcomers? To the extent that their lives and ways compliment us, interest us, entertain us. See how many crowd into ethnic restaurants or go to Mosaic Festival. How many care about the recent shooting death by the Greensboro police of Ms Vo, a mentally ill refugee, a sad story with so few redemptive qualities that online commentators are reduced to the exact verbiage deployed when black youth are accused of this and that.

So I offer another measure for Greensboro’s progress, the Montagnard Measure, after the refugee community found nowhere else in the US but here. Known also as Dega, they are a tribal people who in their encounters with the Vietnamese, French, Japanese, Americans and Khmer Rouge became familiar with Agent Orange, claymore mines, Communism, Christianity and the AK-47, suffering deaths in the hundreds of thousands and the destruction of almost all their villages by the time survivors flew into Greensboro in 1986. When I attend meetings about development, technology, health, arts or education I ask, “So how does this apply to our Montagnard community?” Because in almost every instance, it doesn’t. After almost 30 years, our elected officials cannot say how many live here, our courts cannot guarantee their constitutional rights by providing interpreters, our social services cannot respond to their family needs, our institutions of education offer no specialized programs, our health professionals are unable to understand their cultural practices, even our artists don’t know their artists. To count the population would not be difficult but would require political will. And once we knew its size we’d know its needs. This isn’t rocket science but because it isn’t corn pone, we don’t bother.

As Mark Twain observed, we crave the approval of others because it confirms our good opinion of ourselves. He called this self-flattery “corn pone.”

The Montagnard Measure challenges our notions about ourselves because it is an exact measure of our competence, not our faith, liberalism or conservatism. Since the community lives nowhere else except here, it almost exclusively seeks help at Moses Cone Hospital, attends almost only Guilford County Schools, and so on. Underneath local media feel-good stories we often see grinding poverty, ignorance, exploitation, unenforced housing-code violations, the absence of accountability and the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Fifty years after Freedom Summer we can hear and see things that elsewhere would invite shame, scorn and lawsuits. My criticism is not that we fail to act as a charitable community; it is that we persist in projecting onto refugees and immigrants ideas and attitudes that everyone would instantly recognize as crude, outdated, discriminatory, racist or illegal if we tried repeating them on African-Americans. Why care?

First, Greensboro’s future will be diverse and multicultural. In 1986 our region had an overwhelming white population. In 2010, Greensboro become a white minority city while Guilford and Forsyth counties reached 40-50 percent people of color. By 2040, nine of our region’s 12 counties will boast populations of 40 percent or more people of color, some above 50 percent. Most growth will be Latino, immigrant and refugee.

Second, we’re woefully unprepared. Authorities are culturally incompetent. Today a Latina third grader will be in her thirties in 2040. Today her illiterate mom performs second-shift drudgery earning $7.25 alongside Montagnard moms, helping the city crawl out of the Great Recession. The two most prominent buildings that went up during her childhood were Roy Carroll’s luxury condos and the detention center — memories she will recall when she is mayor. Today people of color are not a single voting block, rarely communicate with one another and do not share a common past. But their kids share a common future.

Andrew Young has been working with refugee for five years and is a research fellow at the Center for New North Carolinians.