The Disuniting of America:  Reflections on a Multicultural Society
(New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1998)

by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

(This reproduction is used for academic purposes only.)


The fading away of the cold war has brought an era of ideological conflict to an end.  But it has not, as forecast, brought an end to history.  One set of hatreds gives way to the next.  Lifting the lid of ideological repression in eastern Europe releases ethnic antagonisms deeply rooted in experience and in memory.  The disappearance of ideological competition in the third world removes superpower restraints on national and tribal confrontations.  As the era of ideological conflict subsides, humanity enters - or, more precisely, re-enters - a possibly more dangerous era of ethnic and racial animosity.

The hostility of one tribe for another is among the most instinctive human reactions.  Yet the history of our planet has been in great part the history of the mixing of peoples.  Mass migrations have produced mass animosities from the beginning of time.  Today, as the twentieth century draws to an end, a number of factors - not just the evaporation of the cold war but, more profoundly, the development of swifter modes of communication and transport, the acceleration of population growth, the breakdown of traditional social structures, the flight from tyranny, from poverty, from famine, from ecological disaster, the dream of a better life somewhere else - converge to drive people across national frontiers.

The world shrinks, and its population is more mixed up today than ever before.  Shrinkage subjects the world to a whipsaw, tearing it in opposite directions - intense pressures toward globalization on the one hand, toward fragmentation on the other.  The world market, electronic technologies, instantaneous communications, e-mail, CNN - all undermine the nation-state and develop a world without frontiers.  At the same time, these very internationalizing forces drive ordinary people to seek refuge from unrelenting global currents beyond their control and understanding.  The more people feel themselves adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea, the more desperately they swim toward any familiar, intelligible, protective life-raft; the more they crave a politics of identity.  Integration and disintegration thus are the opposites that feed on one another.  The more the world integrates, the more people cling to their own in groups increasingly defined in these post-ideological days by ethnic and religious loyalties.

What happens when people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographical locality and live under the same political sovereignty?  Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal antagonisms will drive them apart.  In the century darkly ahead, civilization faces a critical question:  What is it that holds a nation together?

No one in the nineteenth century thought more carefully about representative government than John Stuart Mill.  The two elements that defined a nation, as Mill saw it, were the desire on the part of the inhabitants to be governed together and the "common sympathy" instilled by shared history, values, and language.  "Free institutions," he wrote, "are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities.  Among a people without fellow feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist....It is in general a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of government should coincide in the main with those of nationalities.

In our world, those boundaries coincide less and less.  There are few ethnically homogeneous states left.  Events each day demonstrate the fragility of national cohesion.  Everywhere you look, tribalism is the cause of the breaking of nations.  The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia have already split.  India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Rwanda are in ethnic or religious turmoil.  Ethnic tensions disturb and divide China, South Africa, Romania, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Liberia, Angola, Sudan, Congo, Guyana, Trinidad - you name it.  Even nations as stable and civilized as Britain and France, Belgium, and Spain, face rising ethnic and racial troubles.  "The virus of tribalism," says the Economist, "...risks becoming the AIDS of international politics - lying dormant for years, then flaring up to destroy countries."

Take the case of our neighbor to the north.  Canada has long been considered the most sensible and placid of nations.  "Rich, peaceful and, by the standards of almost anywhere else, enviably successful," the Economist observes:  yet today "on the brink of bust-up."  Michael Ignatieff (the English-resident son of a Russian-born Canadian diplomat and thus an example of the modern mixing of peoples) writes of Canada, "Here we have one of the five richest nations on earth, a country so uniquely blessed with space and opportunity that the world's poor are beating at the door to get in, and it is tearing itself apart....If one of the top five developed nations on earth can't make a federal, multi-ethnic state work, who else can?"

The answer to that increasingly vital question has been, at least until recently, the United States.

Now how have Americans succeeded in pulling off this almost unprecedented trick?  Countries break up when they fail to give ethnically diverse peoples compelling reasons to see themselves as part of the same nation.  As Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, writes of his own country, one of the richest in Africa but today on the brink of chaos, "This is the Nigerians' greatest weakness - their inability to face grave threats as one people instead of as competing religious and ethnic interests."

The United States has worked, thus far.  A multiethnic country, it has somehow, except for a terrible civil war, cohered and endured.  What is it that, in the absence of a common ethnic origin, has kept Americans together over two turbulent centuries?  For America was multiethnic from the start.  Hector St. John de Crevecoeur emigrated from France to the American colonies in 1759, married an American woman, settled on a farm in Orange County, New York, and published his Letters from an American Farmer during the American Revolution.  This eighteenth century French American marveled at the astonishing diversity of the other settlers - "a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes," a "strange mixture of blood" that you could find in no other country.

He recalled one family whose grandfather was English, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four son had married women of different nationalities.  "From this promiscuous breed," he wrote, "that race now called Americans have arisen."  (The word race as used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant what we mean by nationality today; thus people spoke of the "the English race," "the German race," and so on.)  What, Crevecoeur mused, were the characteristics of this suddenly emergent American race?  Letters from an American Farmer propounded a famous question:  "What then is the American, this new man?"  (Twentieth-century readers must overlook eighteenth-century male obliviousness to the existence of women.)

Crevecoeur gave his own question its classic answer:  "He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.  The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles....Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men."...

E pluribus unum:  one out of many.  The United States had a brilliant solution for the inherent fragility, the inherent combustibility, of a multiethnic society:  the creation of a brand-new national identity by individuals who, in forsaking old loyalties and joining to make new lives, melted away ethnic differences - a national identity that absorbs and transcends the diverse ethnicities that come to our shore, ethnicities that enrich and reshape the common culture in the very act of entering into it.

Those intrepid Europeans who had torn up their roots to brave the wild Atlantic wanted to forget a horrid past and to embrace a hopeful future.  They yearned to become Americans.  Their goals were escape, deliverance, assimilation.  They saw America as a transforming nation, banishing dismal memories and developing a unique national character based on common political ideals and shared experiences.  The point of America was not to preserve old cultures, but to produce a new American culture....

As for the nonwhite peoples - those long in America whom the European newcomers overran and massacred, or those others hauled in against their will from Africa and Asia - deeply bred racism put them all, red Americans, black Americans, yellow Americans, brown Americans, well outside the pale.  We must face the shameful fact:  historically America has been a racist nation.  White Americans began as a people so arrogant in convictions of racial superiority that they felt licensed to kill red people, to enslave black people, and to import yellow and brown people for peon labor.  We white Americans have been racist in our laws, in our institutions, in our customs, in our conditioned reflexes, in our souls.  The curse of racism has been the great failure of the American experiment, the glaring contradiction of American ideals and the still crippling disease of American life - "the worlds fairest hope," wrote Herman Melville, "linked with man's foulest crime."

Yet even nonwhite Americans, miserably treated as they were, contributed to the formation of the national identity.  They became members, if third-class members, of American society and helped give the common culture new form and flavor.  The infusion of non-Anglo stocks and the experience of the New World steadily reconfigured the British legacy and made the United States, as we all know, a very different country today from Britain.  As early as 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, the great commentator on American democracy, was struck by "the immense difference between the English and their descendents in America."

The vision of America as melted into one people prevailed through most of the two centuries of the history of the United States.  But the twentieth century has brought forth a new and opposing vision....

In a nation marked by an even stranger mixture of blood than Crevecoeur had known, his celebrated question is asked once more, with a new passion - and a new answer.  Today many Americans disavow the historic goal of "a new race of man."  The escape from origins yields to the search for roots.  The "ancient prejudices and manners" disowned by Crevecoeur have made a surprising comeback.  A cult of ethnicity has arisen both among non-Anglo whites and among nonwhite minorities to denounce the goal of assimilation, to challenge the concept of "one people," and to protect, promote, and perpetuate separate ethnic and racial communities.

The eruption of ethnicity had many good consequences. The American culture began at last to give shamefully overdue recognition to the achievements of minorities subordinated and spurned during the high noon of Anglo dominance.  American education began at last to acknowledge the existence and significance of the great swirling world beyond Europe.  All this is to the good.  Of course history should be taught from a variety of perspectives.  Let our children try to imagine the arrival of Columbus from the viewpoint of those who met him as well as from those who sent him.  Living on a shrinking planet, aspiring to global leadership, Americans must learn much more about other races, other cultures, other continents.  As they do, they acquire a more complex and invigorating sense of the world - and of themselves.

But pressed to far, the cult of ethnicity has had bad consequences too.  The new ethnic gospel rejects the unifying vision of individuals from all nations melted into a new race.  Its underlying philosophy is that America is not a nation of individuals at all but a nation of groups, that ethnicity is the defining experience for Americans, that ethnic ties are permanent and indelible, and that division into ethnic communities establishes the basic structure of American society and the basic meaning of American history.

Implicit in this philosophy is the classification of all Americans according to ethnic and racial criteria.  But while the ethnic interpretation of American history, like the economic interpretation, is valid and illuminating up to a point, it is fatally misleading and wrong when presented as the whole picture.  The ethnic interpretation, moreover, reverses the historic theory of America as one people - the theory that has thus far managed to keep American society whole.

Instead of a transformative nation with an identity all its own, America in this new light is seen as preservative of diverse alien identities.  Instead of a nation composed of individuals making their own unhampered choices, American increasingly sees itself as composed of groups more or less ineradicable in their ethnic character.  The multiethnic dogma abandons historic purposes, replacing assimilation by fragmentation, integration by separatism.  It belittles unum and glorifies pluribus.

The historic idea of a unifying American identity is now in peril in many arenas - in our politics, our voluntary organizations, our churches, our language.  And in no arena is the rejection of an overriding national identity more crucial than in our system of education.

Our schools and colleges train the citizens of the future.  Our public schools in particular have been the primary instrument of assimilation and the primary means of forming an American identity.  "The great melting-pot of America," said Woodrow Wilson, "the place where we are all made Americans of, is the public school, where men of every race and of every origin and of every station in life send their children, or ought to send their children, and where, being mixed together, the youngsters are all infused with the American spirit and developed into American men and American women."  What students are taught in schools affects the way they will thereafter see and treat other Americans, the way they will thereafter conceive the purposes of the republic.  The debate about the curriculum is a debate about what it means to be an American.

The militants of ethnicity contend that a main objective of public education should be the protection, strengthening, celebration, and perpetuation of ethnic origins and identities.  Separatism, however, nourishes prejudices, magnifies differences, and stirs antagonisms.  The consequent increase in ethnic and racial conflict lies behind the hullabaloo over "multiculturalism" and "political correctness," over the iniquities of the "Eurocentric" curriculum, and over the notion that history and literature should be taught not as intellectual disciplines but as therapies whose function is to raise minority self-esteem.

Watching ethnic conflict tear one nation after another part, one cannot look with complacency at proposals to divide the United States into distinct and immutable ethnic and racial communities, each taught to cherish its own apartness from the rest.  One wonders:  Will the center hold? or will the melting pot give way to the Tower of Babel?

I don't want to sound apocalyptic about these developments.  Education is always in ferment, and a good thing too.  Schools and colleges have always been battlegrounds from debates over beliefs, philosophies, values.  The situation in our universities, I am confident, will soon right itself once the great silent majority of professors cry "enough" and challenge what they know to be voguish blather.

The impact of ethnic and racial pressures on our public schools is more troubling.  The bonds of national cohesion are sufficiently fragile already.  Public education should aim to strengthen those bonds, not to weaken them.  If separatist tendencies go on unchecked, the result can only be the fragmentation, resegregation, and triabalization of American life.

I remain optimistic.  My impression is that the historic forces driving toward "one people" have not lost their power.  For most Americans this is still what the republic is all about.  They resist extremes in the argument between "unity first" and "ethnicity first."  "Most Americans," Governor Mario Cuomo has well said, "can understand both the need to recognize and encourage an enriched diversity as well as the need to ensure that such a broadened multicultural perspective leads to unity and an enriched sense of what being an American is, and not to a destructive factionalism that would tear us apart."

Whatever their self-appointed spokesmen may claim, most American-born members of minority groups, white or nonwhite, while they may cherish their heritages, still see themselves primarily as Americans and not primarily as Irish or Hungarians or Jews or Africans or Asians.  A telling indicator is the rising rate of intermarriage across ethnic, religious, even (increasingly) racial lines.  The belief in a unique American identity is far from dead.

But the burden to unify the country does not fall primarily on the minorities.  Assimilation and integration constitute a two-way street.  Those who want to join America must be received and welcomed by those who already think they own America.  Racism, as I have noted, has been the great national tragedy.  In recent times white America has at last begun to confront the racism so deeply and shamefully inbred in our history.  But the triumph over racism is incomplete.  When old-line Americans, for example, treat people of other nationalities and races as if they were indigestible elements to be shunned and barred, they must not be surprised if minorities gather bitterly unto themselves and damn everybody else.  Not only must they want assimilation and integration; we must want assimilation and integration too.  The burden to make this a unified country lies more with the complacent majority than with the beleaguered minorities....

In a world savagely rent by ethnic and racial antagonisms, it is all the more essential that the United States continue as an example of how a highly differentiated society holds itself together.