Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.
The great enemy to the American vision is essentialism, which says that your ethnicity or your race is who you are in your unchangeable essence … The idea that identity and ethnicity are inborn and indelible from birth is a false view that leads to group hostility.
E.H. Hirsch, How to Educate a Citizen (pp. 111-12)
America as an Imagined Community
In a real sense, the nation state is, as Benedict Anderson put it, an imagined community, since no member can know more than a handful of their compatriots. This is unlike a real community (like a family or religious congregation) where members know and care for each other. Arguably, the welfare state is a poor replacement for these little platoons holding society together. Even so, citizens of a nation state feel a real sympathy for their compatriots. They are often willing to raise taxes to help them and even to die for them. Compatriots distinguish the in-group from outgroups daily, from the use of language to founding myths.
In the brilliantly funny, but also sad and scatological FX series Atlanta, which portrays mostly striving black women and mostly drifting black men, characters often refer to each other using the N-word. To me, this was an unpleasant term I heard constantly (from black people) while doing factory work in 1970s Baltimore. Of course, the N-word is used openly mainly within the African American “nation,” just as my tribe (back in the day, Sicilian Americans) would generally say WOP (“without papers,” referring to illegals like one of my grandparents) mainly within the group. Until a Sicilian felt securely rooted in a common American identity, a non-WOP would need be a familiar to say that without sanction. Yet within the group, WOP signified affection as often as derision: you were one of us, to be somewhat preferred in business dealings and dating. Based on my wife’s appearance, my mom incorrectly but approvingly insisted that “that girl has some WOP in her.”
Even so, those of my parents’ generation born here rather than in Sicily were unquestionably Americans first and WOPs a distant second. This was no small thing. Recall that, far into the 20th century, “race” denoted different European regions and nationalities in science, in government policies related to immigration, and in social and economic life. In the 1940s, when some of my relatives first married non-Italians, it was a far bigger deal than in the 1990s, when some married blacks. In the 1930s, a nearby beach had a sign saying—in the vulgar terms of the day—“no Italians, Jews, or blacks allowed.” My grandfather Maranto apparently thought the owner a fool, and not a proper exemplar of American values. Anyway, he had already bought his own waterfront property. When corrupt local officials tried to steal that property for alleged non-payment of taxes, my grandfather produced the receipts and threatened legal action, after which they backed down. That would not have worked back in Sicily. With Italy and all of Europe for comparison, my family considered America a land of opportunity, something they wanted to be part of, much as most immigrants do today. That is one reason grandfather’s children were not allowed to speak Italian in the home: Americans speak English. My family cheered when lawmen (both WOPs and regular Americans) broke the back of the mafia. In a similar vein, much of the civil rights movement of the mid-20thcentury was about marginalized groups joining rather than wrecking America, so America could live up to its founding values.
Schools taught those values and symbols. In public schools, my father learned to revere George Washington, not Giuseppe Garibaldi. This became relevant in 1942, when he and his brothers joined the U.S. Army to fight Italy and its Axis allies: Americans were their paisons. I suspect most of my extended family voted for Trump to slap leftist identity politics, but also due to Trump’s adept use of patriotic American symbolism (whatever the man’s behavioral patriotism deficits, as chronicled by John Pitney). As the brilliant Eric Kaufmann put it in an earlier article the American voice sounded far louder than the Sicilian one in my family’s multi-vocal nationalism.
To a multi-ethnic nation state like America, this is crucial in so many ways. A broader national identity allows one to expand, economically and culturally, beyond a narrow community. While racism and other bigotries presented enormous barriers in the 20thcentury and even more before, they were often superseded by a broader American identity. This identity was endorsed by civil rights movements and opposed by others (both northern WASPS and southern populists) who instead emphasized whiteness. Back then, civil rights meant support for merit over subnational tribal loyalties. For white-collar society, the SAT was created largely to infuse more scholarly merit into college admissions systems based partly on inherited privilege among WASPs. Blue-collar society had its own emphasis on merit as an American value. My father’s career in the U.S. Postal Service—which he pursued while keeping an interest in the family business—was promoted more by Jewish and black bosses than by Italians. I suspect non-Italians comprise more than 90% of the now century-old family business’s customers, and most of its employees. Like most Chinese restaurants, our Italian bakery could have never survived without out-group patronage, though it is in fact in-group patronage—that is, patronage from fellow Americans.
Living in suburbs and going to school with non-WOP fellow Americans literally changed my life trajectory. High school guidance counselors were mediocre bureaucrats, but luckily, my best friend was a year older and Jewish. His B’nai B’rith counselor told him about the General Honors Program at the University of Maryland. He enrolled, reported back, and I followed a year later. It turned out to be a great fit. In a state that was perhaps 5% Jewish in the 1970s and less now, the flagship public university honors program was about half-Jewish. That mattered little (save in romance) because of our common American identity, with an English lingua franca. No one in a seminar ever would have questioned someone’s point based on their ethnicity.
This common American identity that transcends other boundaries was something taken for granted in the 1970s. In retrospect, we should have recognized its fragility. In the 1800s, when Americans had greater loyalty to their states, ethnicities, and faiths (and less to the nation state), anti-Catholic pogroms were common. Of course, the history of anti-black violence in places from Tulsa to Rosewood is far better known, far worse, and often had support from public authorities. It claimed more than 3,000 lives from 1883 to 1927 and a far smaller, though non-negligible number since.
Still, as Thomas Sowell reminds us in Black Rednecks and White Liberals, this too could have been far worse: “All the blacks lynched in the entire history of the United States do not add up to as many people as the number of Chinese slaughtered by [Vietnamese] mobs near Saigon in 1782, or the Jews killed by mobs in Central Europe in 1096 or in the Ukraine in 1648, much less the slaughters of Armenians by mobs in the Ottoman Empire during the 1890s or the First World War.” Marxist regimes from Cambodia to Nicaragua oppressed ethnic and religious minorities with special zeal. It seems likely that more Ukrainians died at the hands of the Soviet state on individual days than the total number African Americans killed in America’s sad history of white supremacy.
Despite certain risks, multiethnic societies often have more vibrant economic growth, in part due to cultural exchange, not appropriation. This is today’s America. As series contributor Wilfred Reilly puts it in Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About, “cultural appropriation may be the one of the silliest damn concepts embraced by smart people.” In America, our best beer is German, our favorite takeout food is Chinese, great swaths of our pop culture from “White Christmas” to jazz were produced by Jews or African Americans, our language and law came from England, our democracy has roots in ancient Greece, and our very alphabet has Phoenician origins. There is nothing white-supremacist about any of this, nor about the 18 primarily non-white American ethnic groups with higher median household incomes than whites. An estimated 37% of Silicon Valley workers and 75% of computer scientists in the region are foreign-born, with Indians, Chinese, and Nigerians all overrepresented.
One sees this at my son’s STEM-oriented university, the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), whose students typically have higher SAT scores than the flagship campus, UT-Austin. UTD is a school where relatively new Americans attend to work rather than network (or woke). It resembles the City University of New York (CUNY) back in the day. Just as CUNY was once heavily Jewish, UTD is heavily South Asian and East Asian, and nearly a fifth Hispanic. A significant number of the East Asians who attained full scholarships at UTD as national merit scholars likely failed to get into more elite schools due to quotas limiting their numbers, just as quotas once limited the number of Jews in the Ivy League. Fewer than a third of UTD undergraduates are white, perhaps half that in my son’s STEM honors program, something he found attractive. (At the activities fair, we saw an anime orchestra and a Japanese American sorority.) The only noted campus protest occurred when Donald Trump hosted Indian Prime Minister Modi in Houston, leading a small number of Muslims and Hindus to protest and counter-protest. Given the diversity mantra of the day and its own diversity bureaucracy, UTD hosts a European Heritage Celebration to go along with Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Heritage Month, Black History Month, and various other celebrations. Yet these ceremonies mandated by diversity bureaucracies are strangely artificial. No one sees themselves as European. A white UTD student likely self-identifies as American, or Christian, or Texan—never as European. Similarly, almost no one sees himself as Asian, but as Indian-American (more likely Hindu or Muslim), Chinese-American, Japanese-American, Korean-American, or most often, American, a nationality that is unacceptable in postmodern academia.
The UTD students with recent roots elsewhere have no wish to return to the lands of their parents: They know too much. They appreciate America as a place where you can make money without bribing police or fearing religious zealots. In America, the roads function, crime is relatively low, the Internet works, and when you turn on the tap, you get clean water. Americans, including rural “European” American Trump voters, tend to be reasonably friendly, not bigoted. These are no small things. In appreciating them, the newer Americans seem to have more patriotism than European Americans like me. Yet immigrant patriotism is not quite the same as the patriotism of old.
The American nation state must mean more than a bundle of services if it is to endure.
We are Losing the American Nation
Pluralistic America has avoided the worst of the calamities of multi-ethnic states. Yet like any diverse society, ours is potentially fragile, as our own history of racial pogroms should remind us. Without a strong commitment to a single rule of law and a transparent merit system crossing group boundaries, how can one do business with outgroups knowing that they could forego payment or other contract obligations without sanction? If my grandfather lacked access to reasonably honest courts, he would have lost his waterfront property, and perhaps far more. To be clear, such things have happened even in the U.S., in the South more than other places, and to African Americans more than to most other people. But they are far less common than in other multi-ethnic nations.
Unfortunately, in any multi-ethnic society, ambitious political entrepreneurs magnify or even manufacture group differences to sow division, in order to win votes and avoid accountability for their own poor performance in office. As Thomas Sowell detailed nearly two decades ago in Affirmative Action Around the World, politicians in multi-ethnic nation states as different as Nigeria, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Germany, and the U.S. employed ethnic quotas—and profited from battles over those quotas to mobilize support in taking or holding power. Once those ethnic genies came out of their bottles, economic growth slowed, in large part due to violence. Sowell notes an estimated one million deaths in the Nigerian civil war alone. In the 2000s, at times 60 Nigerians a day died from ethnic violence. Parenthetically, this hardly compares with the roughly 25 dead so far in 2020-21 from America’s leftist Black Lives Matter-related unrest and the pro-Trump insurrection combined, despite a far larger U.S. population. Even adding in the carnage from higher homicide rates (chiefly involving African Americans killing African Americans), which likely resulted from the BLM’s push to “defund the police,” group-related violence in the U.S. claims at worse thousands of lives, not tens of thousands.
This does not mean all is well. As Sowell documents, an irony of affirmative action both in the U.S. and around the world is that schemes promoted to help the disadvantaged nearly always do far more for already advantaged politicians and their backers. The African American advance into the middle class sped up in the two decades before affirmative action, only to stall thereafter. Affirmative action can stigmatize successful “beneficiaries.” Sowell recalls Clarence Thomas’s lament that white employers undervalued his Yale Law degree, assuming his achievement reflected quotas, not merit. This has long been a widespread complaint of successful African Americans. As John McWhorter writes, affirmative action may reinforce stigmas that studious blacks are “acting white” and thus are not “authentic.” In Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, Jason L. Riley recalls a black teacher criticizing him for acting white in using standard English. Reflecting such pressures, Sowell shows that even as black college attendance rose, the absolute number of black high scorers on the SAT fell in the two decades after affirmative action was introduced. Possibly, as in other countries like Malaysia, emphasizing group solidarity rather than individual merit undermined cultures which promote upward mobility.
Sowell and others discuss a related issue that undermines minority progress—namely, that the ethnic solidarity encouraged by politicians erodes accountability. Jason Riley points out that an emphasis on black solidarity to fight discrimination in the U.S. has increased black voter turnout to the point where it is somewhat higher than white turnout, despite lower levels of education. Yet this very emphasis on solidarity allows black political leaders to evade accountability, blaming distant or long-dead whites for poor schools, high crime, and other public-service failings disproportionately affecting black communities. As political scientist Carol Swain recalls, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus she interviewed lamented that “one of the advantages, and disadvantages of representing Blacks is their shameless loyalty…You can almost get away with raping babies and be forgiven. You don’t have any vigilance about your performance.” The same is increasingly true among working class, mainly white Trump backers. As Trump himself once remarked, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Intergroup warriors are more apt to change their views of objective conditions rather than change how they judge political leaders presiding during those conditions.
Unfortunately, just as in countries like Nigeria and Sri Lanka, some American politicians have used ethnic solidarity to advance their own agendas. Long before Donald Trump engaged in conspiracy theorizing, African American preacher Al Sharpton raised his profile (and cash) through the 1987 Tawana Brawley hate crime hoax, and again in 1995 by attacking as a “white interloper” a Jewish-owned business in a Black neighborhood. The business was later attacked, killing seven along with the attacker—four more than died in the Capitol Hill insurrection encouraged by Trump. Yet both Trump and Sharpton remain respected politicians, albeit in different circles. These are hardly the only such savvy political entrepreneurs. In Hate Crime Hoax, series contributor Wilfred Reilly offers data indicating that at least one eighth of reported hate crimes (and likely far more) are hoaxes aimed at getting the “victim” money, fame, or influence. Some were even perpetrated to increase the status and budgets of college diversity bureaucracies, a remarkable example of what William Niskanen dubbed budget maximizing bureaucrats. As Reilly details, college administrators and the news media seldom hold hoaxers accountable, even though their actions spread alarm, cost money, and poison intergroup relations. Even cool kids like student body presidents have hoaxed: Reilly marshals evidence portraying the 2015 University of Missouri unrest as one likely example. Accordingly, he urges administrators to “stop the flow of benefits from which we currently reward these crimes.” (Many hoaxers are white and heterosexual, but they currently lack comparable institutional backing.)
Alas, Reilly’s sensible recommendations seem unlikely, since those on the left, who dominate both media and academia, are emotionally invested in believing in omnipresent white supremacy. As such, they are psychologically ill-equipped to ask tough questions, but instead cling to the belief that even in the cases of obvious hoaxes, underlying bigotry must be the root cause. As Eric Kaufmann and Zach Goldberg point out, on the left, the belief in omnipresent white supremacy has become a matter of faith, impervious to facts. Liberal whites (similar to disproportionate numbers of New York Times readers) have moved well to the left of most minorities on race-related issues such as the seriousness of police violence. According to Goldberg, this reflects in part the rise of Twitter since 2014, which gave activists previously confined to obscure blogs “access to a much wider audience.” Goldberg further finds a .95 correlation between the increased use of woke terms in the New York Times and racial liberalism among liberals, a relationship which cannot be explained by generational shifts. The secular John McWhorter grouses that, with the rise of wokeness, we now witness the birth of a new and far less charitable variant of Christianity.
For many, the new allegiance to wokeness has ended allegiance to the American nation on the left and, perhaps in response, enlarged anti-Americanism on the right. After all, one would never accuse one’s countryman of a fake hate crime, nor invade the capitol. These are not things one does to “paisons,” but to enemies.
Negative National Heritage: The 1619 Project
National disunity reflects the decline of national heritage, as well as the decline of reverence for traditional symbols and sites (e.g., Independence Hall or Mount Rushmore) and for individuals like successful presidents. As Jay Greene and his colleagues reported back in 2007, even in conservative Florida, more than twice as many public schools (11) were named after manatees than after the father of our country (5). Of course, school systems in places like San Francisco have more recently renamed schools that originally honored such now-hated individuals as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and even liberal former San Francisco mayor and longtime U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein.
These matters involve the differences between heritage and history. Ideally, history chronicles what happened as objectively as possible, within human limitations. Heritage, on the other hand, justifies a nation’s existence, accentuating and sometimes even creating positive stories. Heritage is Parson Weems writing of a young George Washington confessing to chopping down his father’s cherry tree because he cannot tell a lie. Arguably, Washington’s discomfort with and eventual renunciation of slavery is heritage that is historically accurate.
But what of negative heritage? What of a treatment that invents or twists facts to argue for a nation’s illegitimacy? This is the 1619 Project. With an estimated $10 million advertising budget, the New York Times and the Pulitzer Center intended the 1619 Project to have an immediate and lasting impact on elementary and secondary education, to replace a largely positive portrait with a canvas defining America by its slavery and racial oppression, and further portraying any and all American prosperity as based on that oppression. As Peter Wood argues in 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, 1619 is in part a case for reparations, but also “an effort to destroy America by teaching children that America never really existed, except as a lie told by white people in an effort to control black people.”
However unwise, this could make 1619 acceptable—if it were mostly true. It is not. As historian Robert Paquette states, only four of the 31 1619 contributors are historians, who are outnumbered by journalists and poets. None of those four specialize in the U.S. founding, showing how much the Times values historical expertise. Some basic factual errors in 1619 are documented as follows:
*As Peter Wood points out, slavery in the New World did not start in 1619. People owning people was globally ubiquitous, and widely practiced among certain Native American groups and the Spanish. In America, the first enslaved Africans (and the first slave revolt) came not in 1619, but in 1526 after the Spanish established a settlement in or near present-day Georgia.
*As economists like Phillip Magness show, the 1619 Project vastly overstates the economic importance of cotton, and thus of slavery, by a factor of eight or more, through obvious calculation errors. Confederate diplomacy seeking European allies rested on the assumption that, both in the U.S. and globally, cotton was king. Luckily, it was not.
*Slavery did not provide the model for American capitalism, but rather proved both more brutal and less able to accumulate capital than the free economies outside the South, as Reilly points out. Business innovations like double-entry bookkeeping, which 1619 attributes to plantations, in fact came centuries earlier.
*As scholars like John Stauffer point out, 1619 ignores the integrated nature of the abolitionist movement. It likewise ignores the historical fact that the U.S. Civil War was largely about slavery. If the South, the North, and Abraham Lincoln all supported involuntary servitude, as 1619 claims, then South Carolinians would never have attacked Fort Sumter.
*As Wilfred Reilly writes, 1619 posits a direct line between slavery and past oppression and current African American conditions, when a far more empirical appraisal is needed.
*Most important, 1619’s foundational premise is fake news. As a range of experts on the founding, from Princeton’s Sean Wilentz to Brown’s Gordon Wood, show, there is no evidence that the founders fought the Revolutionary War to preserve slavery (sharply contrasting reasons the South fought the Civil War). It would take Britain a half century after the U.S. revolution to outlaw slavery in its colonies. The founders rejected repeated South Carolinian efforts to explicitly protect slavery in the Constitution. Many of the founders believed (mistakenly) that slavery would wither away after they outlawed the importation of enslaved peoples. One historian and fact checker sympathetic to the 1619 Project’s goals nonetheless complained that, on this and other matters, the instigator and lead author of 1619, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, simply refused to accept facts.
An idea’s veracity may have little to do with its believability. Just as in the early 1800s, when many believed the story about George Washington and the cherry tree, so today millions believe that Washington fought the American revolution to maintain slavocracy. Nikole Hannah-Jones herself has defended the project by insisting that these are not objective truths but rather interpretations based on the identity of the interpreter, a postmodern argument negating any possibility for science or history, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay show in an earlier essay and in their book Cynical Theories.
Rebuilding the Nation
It may or may not be too late to rebuild a national heritage, and thus a national identity. As noted above, one promising sign is that immigrants and their children may well be more patriotic than longtime Americans. A second is the high and growing rate of interracial intermarriage, as previously noted by Eric Kaufmann. As America grows more multiracial, it will require ever more chutzpah to define the nation as inherently racist. Yet the postmodern left may prove up to the task, so relying on the perception of racism to dwindle may not be enough.
As Mickey Kaus observed in the 1990s, in the past, common experiences like military service bound (male) Americans across lines of race, religion, class, and geography. Indeed, as I will detail in the next essay of this series, the U.S. Army may still be the institution that best integrates and unites Americans. Sadly, in the 1960s that train left the station: today’s Americans and westerners are generally too individualistic for national service. It is likewise a fantasy, mostly on the part of the left, that controlling free speech could build national unity, rather than simply reinforce populist paranoia.
This leaves education. Through much of the 19thcentury, educators considered it a legitimate goal of public schooling to build a positive national heritage uniting across regional and geographic lines, to build the American nation as the super-group described by Amy Chua. Unfortunately, as E.D. Hirsch has chronicled in a series of books (most notably The Making of Americans and most recently How to Educate a Citizen), since the early 20thcentury, public schools gradually shifted from teaching content to custodial care of children. To the degree that schools still teach academic content, it is justified in strictly vocational terms. As Hirsch reports, and as I found while serving on a school board, those running public schools often see knowledge as detrimental to children, reflecting the roots of the U.S. education profession in early-20th century scientific management, which sought to make schools factories processing batches rather than teaching students.
Over time, this has had three significant effects. First, lacking knowledge, young people cannot think systematically about the world around them. Increasingly, the same is true of college graduates, as Arum and Roksa empirically demonstrate in Academically Adrift. This makes young people less able to discern fact from branding and more apt to support demagogues of the left and right, including ethnic or authoritarian ones.
Second, as Hirsch shows, schools traditionally taught standard English and common knowledge, including common expressions and a common history. All societies have a language of power, so teaching common knowledge and language enabled the poor to communicate with, argue against, hold accountable, and even join elites. Alas, Americans are now unable to debate whether our involvement in Afghanistan more resembles the Vietnam War or World War II since the mass public, and increasingly even elites, do not know anything about either. Regarding such matters as the U.S. founding and the Civil War, vast gaps in knowledge leave most young people (and their teachers) unable to refute 1619 and other negative heritage narratives.
Third, without a common conception of the American founding and values like free speech, young Americans lack the constitutional knowledge to understand why cancel culture on the left and insurrections on the right threaten the nation. Relatedly, as Hirsch says repeatedly, if Americans lack a common affection for national symbols from the capitol building to Mount Rushmore, the nation is ever more likely to split apart into smaller communities which invent their own symbols, leading to more rather than less racial (and other) unrest.
Good teaching of American heritage at the younger grades and history at the older grades could over time unite the country, as it did in my parent’s day. As Rick Hess points out, ignorance has enabled rightist violence in the nation’s capital and leftist violence elsewhere. Only a quarter of Americans can name the three branches of government. Yet educators seem unconcerned:
…the Rand Corporation conducted a national survey of social studies teachers and found that barely half thought it essential that students understand concepts like the separation of powers or checks and balances…Prominent voices in education and academe have given every indication that they are more interested in telling students why American institutions are fundamentally corrupt than in teaching students why these institutions are an inheritance to be safeguarded.
For three decades, E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has fostered nation-building in hundreds of schools. To combat both postmodernism and authoritarianism, this should be Hirsch’s moment. Unfortunately, I see little evidence of it.