I WAS RECENTLY invited by a spirited group of students from Los Angeles High School to speak at a panel on immigration that they were putting together.
As a journalist who writes about hot topics du jour such as race and crime, immigration and how we're all getting along, I'm invited to a lot of such events. I'm always flattered, but I can't always accept.
But in this case, I felt that I couldn't say no. These were the very same young people, the same innocent, urban dispossessed who we columnists like to invoke and who we're always presuming to advise in our opinions and collected wisdom and analyses of the future. And Los Angeles High is one of those public school campuses that is peculiarly L.A. -- located on Olympic Boulevard just south of ritzy Hancock Park, but almost entirely black and brown, overcrowded and underperforming. I decided that I would go to be supportive.
It turns out, however, they didn't need my support. What I assumed would be an earnest approximation of the declaiming and chin-stroking that marks so many panels was something entirely different. "The Hidden Truth" was a sweeping youth's-eye view of the global effect of immigration that was as well researched and passionate as anything I've heard on the subject.
Ego was nowhere in play, and the only nod to adolescence were the snippets of soul music and hip-hop beats that kicked off the proceedings and played underneath some of the more sobering findings of the four presenters. They all argued against the exploitation of workers in developing nations by multinational corporations that help fuel global trade. They detailed how the U.S. and the World Bank encourage the indebtedness of developing nations, how even when immigrants "succeed" here, a wage and job gap opens between native- and foreign-born, black and white, male and female.
They illustrated points with well-timed graphics projected onto a screen; in fact, the judicious use of charts and visuals throughout gave Al Gore a run for his money. One student, Roberto Lavach, related a particularly affecting tale about the travails of border crossing that stilled even his most restless fellow students who filled the auditorium.
Of course, it was the question-and-answer period afterward that proved most enlightening. The first speaker at the microphone was not a student but a veteran social studies and economics teacher named Ms. Ley. She was white, petite, with short bobbed hair; keys hung around her neck on a long cord woven in the pattern of a U.S. flag.
After first congratulating the students on their execution, she accused them of being wildly imbalanced with their information. Trade is good, she insisted. America is basically good, a place of opportunity for all people -- those who want to work hard and not complain and be victims, as these students were obviously doing -- a place that respects the rule of law.
Which is why America is waging the war on terror, she continued, her voice rising, and why Saddam Hussein had to be taken out, weapons of mass destruction or no. And did the students even think about the horrors of America going communist? She cited Billy Graham as a great American.
The student audience of Latinos, blacks and Asians murmured their puzzlement and displeasure and shifted in their seats. I realized that what was at stake here was not a debate point or two but a fundamental view of America and who is most qualified to assert it. This could get ugly.
Then the remarkable happened. The panelists shushed the room. They said that Ley had a right to speak, that this was a forum that respected all points of view. They vetted her critiques one at a time, not conceding much but spending a good 15 minutes at it, long enough to persuade Ley to sit down.
Everyone left feeling charged, certainly dissatisfied, but not murderous. For all the strong feeling that broke along ideological lines, there was more engagement and less polarization at L.A. High that morning than in the country at large. "Graduation" took on a whole new meaning.