This view – that a once homogenous nation is finally, and inexorably, becoming a gorgeous mosaic – betrays a profound ignorance of U.S. history, while exposing the danger of our current brand of racial politics.
Our nation of immigrants has been a multicultural mecca from the get-go; the American experience has always been defined by the challenge of living with difference. The early Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, wasn’t founded by a unified group of Pilgrims, but a broad array of religious and secular groups who were often at odds. The colony exiled Roger Williams (in 1635) and Anne Hutchinson (in 1637) because of their radical views.
In the centuries that followed, the United States continued to attract people with widely divergent views about life and community, not to mention skin hues and faiths. Has any other nation given rise to more religious denominations, sects and utopian communities? This has always caused tensions, too. During the 18th century, some residents of English extraction, including the normally tolerant Benjamin Franklin, fretted that Germans immigrants flooding into Pennsylvania might resist ever learning the English language. The influx of Irish immigrants before the Civil War stirred jingoistic concerns, as did the arrival of Italians, Asians, Jews and other Eastern Europeans during the 1880s and 1890s.
Each of these groups brought their own cultures with them – cultures rooted in centuries and even millennia of tradition. People whose ancestors had lived in the same small village, who had passed their lives never meeting someone who spoke a different language, wore different clothes, ate different foods or held different beliefs than they, suddenly found themselves living cheek to jowl with rare and exotic foreigners.
Such a voluntary multicultural experiment had never been tried before. Given the tribal nature of human beings and our long history of war, it is not surprising that each of these groups encountered (and often expressed) bigotry and exclusion — though none more suffered more than the enslaved Africans brought here in chains and Native Americans.
The miracle — and there is no better word for it — is that our country eventually found a way to unum this pluribus, creating unity while respecting difference. This is the essence of American Exceptionalism, which has never been a claim for American perfectionism. It describes our unparalleled success at transforming a flawed yet wondrous resource — human beings — into a great nation.
Shelves of books detail this accomplishment but the secret sauce was captured in a short paragraph by William Tyler Page called “The American’s Creed.” Written in 1918 — as our nation was trying to forge newfangled immigrants as well as the descendants of Union and Confederate soldiers into a force that would fight and die for it during World War I — it stressed the universal “principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity.”
The promise was that no matter one’s culture and beliefs, all would be treated the same. No society has achieved that ideal, but America has come closer than most. Tragically, powerful forces now want to erase this history and throw away this secret sauce. Ironically, in the name of “equity,” radical activists and bien pensant liberals are seeking to reject America’s multicultural history by dividing us into two made-up groups.
Even as they recognize that race is a social construct, they insist that all people of European heritage are “white,” denying those people’s longstanding recognition of difference and embrace of multiculturalism by identifying themselves as Irish Americans, Italian American, German Americans and so forth.
They cast the vastly different immigrants from other continents as a unified group they call “people of color.” These powerful forces are also working to undermine the secret sauce that has held us together, attacking not only the principles of “The American’s Creed” but broader fair-play concepts such as objectivity, neutrality and meritocracy that have allowed so many to enjoy the blessings of liberty, making the United States the richest, most powerful and tolerant nation in the world.
This effort — driven by a zero-sum quest for power that seeks to organize people by race and inexorably pits them against one another — is the triumph of ideology over experience. It ignores and denies the lessons of our past, the exceptional set of laws and ideas our ancestors developed to invent a nation from an ever changing, always diverse and multicultural people.
Given this historical amnesia, I pray that the old saying is true, that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”