Reckoning with White identity to get to a durable E Pluribus Unum

Note: I submitted this to Reason for publication but they were not interested, so I decided to post it.

Mike Gonzalez raises an important question in The Federalist about the future of the United States: is demography or culture the key to the future?

Of course they are related, but his premise is that “the left” is undermining the concept of E Pluribus Unum, (the motto of the United States, “from many, one”) by focusing on divisive identity politics. He says:

“Yes, after creating a caste order dividing society into identity silos based on race, ethnicity, sex—anything that conveys feelings of victimhood—the left is now shocked that some whites could, too, fall prey to identity politics. Nothing could better illustrate the left’s gaping blind spot about human nature.”

I agree with Gonzalez that determining what E Pluribus Unum means practically today is crucial to the thriving of the United States. However, I think he misses the mark on several key points about Race and identity politics that stand in the way of his stated goal of finding a 21st Century version of E Pluribus Unum.

First, all politics are identity politics, though I shared Mr. Gonzalez’s understanding and use of the term as applying only to Black or Latina/o or LGBTQ politicians or movements until the last few years, because I did not think of myself as a White man as having an identity. I just was. This is how White identity politics has been able to operate in the United States—as the quiet, assumed default and shaper of everything it wanted to shape since the American Revolution, because it was the unquestioned source of power, and all else was other. Gonzalez is correct about self-preservation being a key attribute of human nature, and White as the default ideal is being openly challenged, which portends a loss of power, and it is uncommon to cede power without a fight.

Second, Mr. Gonzalez identifies the rise of “affirmative action” with the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson as the beginning of “the left” dividing our country into the oppressed and the oppressors, setting the United States melting pot on a stove that is ready to boil over after 50 or 60 years of such left-driven Racial division. Let’s just say that Mr. Gonzalez and I read U.S. history a bit differently. In fact, “a Racial caste system” as he terms it is plainly evident in Article 1, section 2, clause 3 of the original U. S. Constitution, ratified in 1788.

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

The refinement of the Racial caste system has been an ongoing project of the United States government since the 1790 Census and the work of figuring out where each person fits into a hierarchy of human value most commonly marked by Race is among the oldest of American ideas, long co-existing in compartmentalized fashion with equal justice under the law, freedom and equality. Mr. Gonzalez notes a paradox in his mind, that “the left” went off course with identity politics just as our nation was addressing the long standing mistreatment of Black’s throughout U.S. history. However, it was precisely the Century of White identity politics from the end of the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that rendered the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 little more than words on paper for freed Slaves, Blacks and those who could not pass as White that necessitated the new federal actions of the 1960s. These steps are viewed as revolutionary today, but they are best understood also the lurching forward in making good on a Century-long deferred promise the United States made to freed Slaves and their descendants after the Civil War. White identity politics allowed the power structure of the United States, to un-ironically fight World War II to protect freedom as we systematically denied freedom to many of our own citizens.

Third, Mr. Gonzalez invokes the period of great European migration to the United States as being the hey-day of E Pluribus Unum personified, with a slowly simmering melting pot instead of the boiling cauldron of grievance that “the left” brought about beginning in the 1960s, and stokes still today. His remembrance of the good ole days are as follows:

“The country’s leaders could have decided long ago — for instance, during the 1893-1925 Ellis Island period — to herd the teeming masses of Armenians, Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, Lebanese, Sicilians, Slavs, and Syrians under artificial identity categories. They could have labeled them “minorities” in need of compensatory justice, and constantly inculcated grievances in them.”

He goes onto describe an assimilation process that has built the fabric of improvement through immigration into our nation, which I agree is something to be celebrated, but in doing so he shows a tremendous blind spot about our shared history and how it affects us today.

“As changing demographics are challenging enough, however, America’s earlier leaders sensed that (my insert in parens: using identity politics as he says ’the left’ has done since the 1960s) would be a grave mistake. So they did the opposite, extending the enjoyment of equal treatment under the law along with the possibility of becoming American to all newcomers to the nation.”

The extension of equal treatment of the law to immigrants was and is the correct choice, however, the period 1893-1925 also saw active blocking of this same extension to freed Slaves and Blacks in spite of a bloody Civil War and an amended Constitution. Further, to the extent you cast “Black identity politics” as grievance based, in fairness there are at least a few grievances of note to be pressed by descendants of freed Slaves, for events taking place solely after the ratification of the 13th Amendment that used the word Slavery for the first time in the U.S. Constitution, when it was banned, namely the systematic project of seeing that the 14th and 15th Amendments were little more than words on a page in a practical sense for Blacks. The 1960s, whatever else they were, saw a Century-delayed concerted federal efforts to see that the descendants of freed Slaves would receive equal justice under the law that some European immigrants received while Blacks were being systematically oppressed and denied the rights that we said they had because they were citizens a Century before. White identity politics saw to this.

Finally, Mr. Gonzalez sees “the left” as fomenting disunion using Racial appeals in the election, and I see President Trump doing so with other Republicans participating or looking the other way to differing degrees. President Trump did not invent the appeal to Whites for their vote on the basis of fear of Blacks, and Racial equality generally. Such appeals to Whites have been a bi-partisan effort when viewed across the past 150 years, and were first systematized by the Democratic Party during Reconstruction, while the Republican Party then generally pushed for making freed slaves full citizens. The most important point is that since the Civil War, conservatism, whether practiced by the Democratic Party in 1890, or the Republican Party in 1990 or today, had as a cornerstone of its appeals, sometimes whispered at other times shouted, the danger of Whites losing power to Blacks and others. White as the quiet, unassailed default source of power was and is a lot of what was trying to be conserved.

What next? The original sin of the United States is not Slavery per se, but our inability to plainly name the paradox of the founding of the nation on two pillars: rousing language of equality against tyrannical European Kings and religious-based hegemony, and the forced Enslavement of Black Africans. We had a chance to name, own and collectively repent of this following the Civil War, in the sense of the Greek word for repentance used in the New Testament—metanoia—“to go the other way” if we had simply worked to live into what we said we were going to do in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. However, we made a choice and went still another way, that saw to the systemic denial of equal justice under the law to freed Slaves and their descendants after we gave our word, as enshrined in the Constitution.

Human beings have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize divergent ideas, which enables self-deception. I agree with Mr. Gonzalez that there are many White folks who are scared and angry for a variety of reasons, but at least some of this is a sense that they can no longer view their identity as White as the default, or ultimate holder of power of a variety of types. Indeed, E Pluribus Unum would seem to assume that no Racial identity has the upper hand, instead giving way to a generative process of refreshing norms and traditions, without White serving as the quiet default to be aspired to.

The way forward into a durable E Pluribus Unum will require us to commit to a future that is based on honesty about our past and future with respect to Race. We do not need another creed, but simply need to struggle to live into the aspiration stated as fact by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. This has always been anything but self-evident, but it is an aspiration worth pursuing, and in doing so we can tell the truth about ourselves, and walk away from our original sin of not talking plainly about the role of Race in our shared lives together. The primary benefit to many Whites may simply be our nation telling the truth, and no longer engaging in corporate self-deception. I think that is not only enough, but a lot. It is not too late to live into the audacious idea of the United States of America.

Mike Gonzalez. After Decades of Dividing America on Race, Left Insists the Right is Really to Blame. Reason, August 29, 2020. Census Measurement of Race throughout history https://www.census.gov/data-tools/demo/race/MREAD_1790_2010.html

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University https://academiccouncil.duke.edu/ . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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