This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
What is the essence of American identity? Of all the problems that threaten the American project, be they related to national security, climate change, or the national debt, the question what it means to be an American may be the most vital.
The perennial challenge and virtue of our national experiment has been to forge an overarching American identity through societal interactions of vastly divergent groups of people. This is not just a cultural challenge but also a psychological one: Our ability (or inability) to identify with those who are different from ourselves. Yet, the challenge of American identity looks different today, in an age of multiculturalism and identity politics, than in decades past. If we are to set the conditions for a more unified national identity, we have to reckon with the unique difficulties confronting our ability to weave the American people together through shared cultural narratives.
The United States of today is rapidly running out of symbols around which all Americans can unify. In recent years, the activism of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has driven this truth home as much as anything. In 2016, Kaepernick set off a firestorm by publicly kneeling during a pre-game performance of the national anthem, in protest of police brutality directed towards African Americans. The debate that followed was, perhaps surprisingly, not focused primarily on the issue of police conduct and race, but, instead, on the nature of patriotism — specifically whether or not it was patriotic to protest the American flag over social and political grievances. To a substantial degree, the fault lines that emerged in this debate tracked cultural and ethnic differences. According to one poll, 50 percent of white Americans saw behavior like Kaepernick’s as “trying to disrespect the flag,” versus only 11 percent of black Americans who felt the same.
One of Kaepernick’s subsequent protests brought out these differing perceptual realities even more clearly. In the run-up to Independence Day 2019, Nike, who signed a major endorsement deal with Kaepernick the year before, pulled a shoe from its shelves that featured an image of the Betsy Ross flag (the early American flag with 13 stars for the first 13 colonies rounded in a circle). Nike’s reason? Kaepernick’s association of this flag with the legacy of slavery. To many Americans this seemed like a far-fetched connection, not to mention a cowardly capitulation on the part of Nike to a politically charged brand of historical revisionism. A few months later, the New York Times joined the fray, with a well-promoted collection of essays featuring largely African-American authors that hit Kaepernick’s theme.
The 1619 Project, featured in the Times series, is an effort to reframe American history around the proposition that slavery is the country’s defining historical institution. Hence the project pinpoints 1619 — when the first African slaves were brought to colonial America — as the crucial date of the country’s founding, rather than 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed. In this telling of American history, it is hard to find an American institution or symbol dating back any great length of time that could not be linked in some fashion to the legacy of slavery or racism. Given that even our interpretations of our shared history as Americans appear to diverge so contentiously — along not merely political but also cultural and ethnic lines — it may be no surprise that we are increasingly unable to achieve social and political comity in our public life.
It is easy to lament such activism and historical revisionism as divisive, obscuring Americans’ shared self-understanding. However, it is important for us — and for cultural conservatives in particular — to recognize that these historical and cultural counter-narratives put forth by predominately left-leaning but also disproportionately minority critics of color are rooted in historical realities. That is, these counter-narratives are in no small measure a reflection of the fact that cultural assimilation in the United States has manifested in a different, often long and bumpy, modes of integration the consequences of which are still with us. As Aviva Chomsky has pointed out, “Italian, Polish, and Jewish immigrants may not have identified with, or been accepted into, white society when they first arrived in the United States. But they, or more often their children, assimilated by becoming ‘white’ and experienced upward mobility as they melded into the white majority.”
An honest look at the history of the assimilation experience of particularly “non-white” European immigrants to the United States bears the truth of this analysis out — and for two primary reasons. One is phenotypical. “Non-white” European immigrants, and especially their children, were ultimately able to weave themselves into the social fabric of America in part because they could, on the whole, visually “blend in” more easily than those non-whites who came here from elsewhere in the world. But for African Americans, many of whom have been in the United States since well before the country’s founding, this phenotypical barrier was grossly compounded by a racial ideology that undergirded systematic oppression.
The other reason is cultural. Western, central, and Eastern European immigrants to America have differed profoundly in their prior cultural experiences and traditions, regardless of when they may have arrived at Ellis Island. Yet, broad similarities and common inheritances in the form of religious and other cultural traditions provided rough but real pathways to a genuine melting pot, one that came to include both European immigrants and the Anglo-American majority. By contrast, immigrants from Asian countries have not, historically, had whatever small advantages are afforded by “looking white” or by broadly shared “Western” cultural traditions in assimilating into mainstream American life.
Of course, these pathways for “ethnic” whites can be overstated. In his book “The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics” from the early ‘70s, the Catholic intellectual Michael Novak focused on the travails of working-class ethnic whites in trying to find their place in America. Novak wrote of himself: “Growing up in America has been an assault upon my sense of worthiness…I was made to feel a slight uneasiness when I said my name…What is a Catholic but what everybody else is in reaction against?…We felt blocked at every turn.” This does not mean that, over time, there has been no significant and meaningful integration of the major ethnic groups in the U.S. into something of a cohesive, national culture.
There are wide spaces within contemporary American life, in popular, civic, and commercial culture, which are still widely shared by a diverse array Americans. But there is an important difference between the integration we see today and that of the previous century. To be sure, the tension between wanting to “blend in” to the country that has become one’s home while also not wanting to lose what is distinct and valuable about one’s own cultural traditions, is common to Chinese and Mexican immigrants in the 21st century and Italian and Jewish immigrants in the 20th century. While this tension is longstanding, however, the various ethnic subgroups in America today can and do carry their cultural identities — and therewith their social and historical interpretations of America and their place within it — into the mainstream of American life. It is not as necessary, for example, for black Americans to make themselves acceptable in “white” culture in order to survive and succeed. Instead, they (and other ethnic subgroups) can and do retain their own cultures as they enter into a common American culture.
The relative success of this multiethnic integration in some parts of American life is a double-edged sword. Take the rise of ethnically centered T.V. shows, which conspicuously celebrate particular identities before mainstream audiences, or diversity and inclusion programs, which impose a highly regulated regime of social interaction between different identity groups, with differing standards for offense and discipline depending on the particular group in question. Or consider ethnic studies programs, which offer starkly divergent interpretations of American history. Add to this the emergence of social media and other communications technologies that allow us to custom build our own ideological silos catering to our preferred narratives. What we are left with is a set of circumstances in which tribal identities are increasingly the only identities that feels solid enough to unify us.
As a result, “American” identity appears as an abstraction — one subject to incompatible interpretations and assessments by diverse peoples who have the technological means to isolate themselves from one another’s opinions like never before. Yet, the tumult of these colliding social forces offers an opportunity: to rearticulate those enduring values which may speak to an ever-diversifying America. In the immigrant story and the slave story we can discern a common striving for a better life, one that approximates the American ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. The project of supporting a shared American identity in our time — the unum that is supposed to flow from this pluribus — is one that will require reweaving our divergent narratives back gether in a way that identifies our shared values while also recognizing the fact that Americans have wildly different historical and cultural experiences.
A new American story, growing from the same roots, will allow us to recover a shared identity and sense of belonging.
John Wood, Jr. is director of public outreach at Better Angels.