The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Societyby Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
The bestseller that reminded us what it means to be an American is now more timely than ever in this updated and expanded edition, including "Schlesinger's Syllabus," an annotated reading list of core books on the American experience. The classic image of the American nation--a melting pot in which differences of race, wealth, religion, and nationality are submerged in democracy--is being replaced by an orthodoxy that celebrates difference and abandons assimilation. While this upsurge in ethnic awareness has had many healthy consequences in a nation shamed by a history of prejudice, the cult of ethnicity, if pressed too far, threatens to fragment American society to a dangerous degree. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner in history and adviser to the Kennedy and other administrations, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is uniquely positioned to wave the caution flag in the race to a politics of identity. Using a broader canvas in this updated and expanded edition, he examines the international dimension and the lessons of one polyglot country after another tearing itself apart or on the brink of doing so: the former Yugoslavia, Nigeria, even Canada among them. Focusing inward, he finds troubling new evidence that efforts to preserve a plurality of cultures here in the United States threaten to do the same.
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roots, a liberation from the stifling past, an entry into a new life, an interweaving of separate ethnic strands into a new national design. "We have it in our power," said Thomas Paine for the revolutionary generation, "to begin the world all over again." The unstated national motto was "Never look back." "The Past is dead, and has no resurrection," wrote Herman Melville. "... The Past is the text-book of tyrants; the Future the Bible of the Free."
And the future was America--not so much a nation, Melville said, as a world. "You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and people are forming into one federal whole." For Ralph Waldo Emerson too, like Crevecoeur, like Melville, America was the distillation of the multifarious planet. As the burning of the temple at Corinth had melted and intermixed silver and gold to produce Corinthian brass, "a new compound more precious than any," so, Emerson wrote in his journal, in America, in this "asylum of all nations, the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, & Cossacks, & all the European tribes--of the Africans, & of the Polynesians, will construct a new race ... as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting pot of the Dark Ages."
were poets. George Washington was a sternly practical man. Yet he believed no less ardently in the doctrine of the "new race." "The bosom of America," Washington said, "is open ... to the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions." But he counselled newcomers against retaining the "Language, habits and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them." Let them come not in clannish groups but as individuals, prepared for "intermixture with our people." Then they would be "assimilated to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people."
similarly insisted on the distinctness of the new American identity. When a German baron contemplating emigration interviewed Adams as secretary of state, Adams admonished his visitor that emigrants had to make up their minds to one thing: "They must cast off the European skin, never to resume it. They must look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors,"
be transformed into a "new race"? How was Emerson's "smelting pot" to fuse such disparate elements into Washington's "one people"? This question preoccupied another young Frenchman who arrived in America three quarters of a century after Crevecoeur. "Imagine, my dear friend, if you can," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote back to France, "a society formed of all the nations of the world ... people having different languages, beliefs, opinions: in a word, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without a national character, yet a hundred times happier than our own." What alchemy could make this miscellany into a single society?
of Americans to democracy and self-government. Civic participation, Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America, was the great educator and the great unifier.
Immigrants, Tocqueville said, become Americans through the exercise of the political rights and civic responsibilities bestowed on them by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
sense because citizenship, at least for white America, was defined not in the European style by jus sanguinis--law of blood--but by an adaptation of jus soli--law of the soil, i.e., of location. To become citizens, newcomers had only to swear to support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the land. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, people who thus declared their allegiance, even though not descended from the "iron men" who had won independence, were Americans "as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration." In the new republic civic commitment replaced bloodlines as the test for citizenship.
foreign commentator on American democracy, James Bryce, wrote The American Commonwealth. Immigration had vastly increased and diversified. Bryce's European friends expected that it would take a very long time for America to assimilate these "heterogeneous elements." What struck Bryce, on the contrary, was what had struck Tocqueville: "the amazing solvent power which American institutions, habits, and ideas exercise upon newcomers of all races ... quickly dissolving and assimilating the foreign bodies that are poured into her mass."
Gunnar Myrdal of Sweden, found the essence of the "solvent power" in what he called "the American Creed." Americans "of all national origins, regions, creeds, and colors," Myrdal wrote in 1944, hold in common "the most explicitly expressed system of general ideals" of any country in the West: the ideals of the essential dignity and equality of all human beings, of inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and opportunity.
Myrdal said; the churches preach them; the courts hand down judgments in their terms. Myrdal showed why the Creed held out hope even for those most brutally excluded by the white majority, the Creed acting as the spur forever goading white Americans to live up to their proclaimed principles, the Creed providing the legal structure that gives the wronged the means of fighting for their rights. "America," Myrdal said, "is continuously struggling for its soul."
The American Creed had its antecedents, and these antecedents lay primarily in a British inheritance as recast by a century and a half of colonial experience. How really new then was the "new race"? Crevecoeur's vision implied an equal blending of European stocks, and Emerson's smelting pot generously added Cossacks, Africans, and Polynesians. In fact, the majority of the population of the 13 colonies and the weight of its culture came from Great Britain.
French, Spanish, and Dutch rivals, the British were free to set the mold. The language of the new nation, its laws, its institutions, its political ideas, its literature, its customs, its precepts, its prayers, primarily derived from Britain. Crevecoeur himself wrote his book not in his native French but in his acquired English. The "curse of Babel," Melville said, had been revoked in America, "and the language they shall speak shall be the language of Britain."
inescapably, an Anglocentric flavor. For better or worse, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition was for two centuries--and in crucial respects still is--the dominant influence on American culture and society. This tradition provided the standard to which other immigrant nationalities were expected to conform, the matrix into which they would be assimilated.
immigration gathered speed. European peasants who may never have dared go twenty miles from their birthplaces now undertook the unimaginable adventure of a journey across perilous seas to a strange land in search of a new life. The land was indeed strange; and they could not but feel a need for reassurance and security. So at first they tended to cling to their compatriots and to the language, schools, churches they brought with them. These ethnic enclaves served as staging areas for regrouping and basic training before entry was made into the larger and riskier American life.
and northern Europe. The Anglos often disliked the newcomers, disdained their uncouth presence, feared their alien religions and folkways. Germans and Scandinavians were regarded as clannish in their fidelity to the language and customs of the old country. The German fondness for beer gardens and jolly Sundays excited puritanical disapproval. The Irish were regarded as shiftless and drunken; moreover, they were papists, and their fealty to Rome, it was said, meant they could never become loyal Americans. They were subjected to severe discrimination in employment and were despised by genteel society. W. E. B. Du Bois, the black scholar, testified that when he grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the 1870s, "the racial angle was more clearly defined against the Irish than against me."
resentment among the old-timers. By the 1850s immigrants made up half the population of New York and outnumbered native-born Americans in Chicago. Nativist organizations sprang up, like the Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner and its political front, the American Party, calling for a lengthened naturalization process and curtailment of the political rights of the foreign-born. They were referred to as Know-Nothings because members of the Supreme Order, when asked about their secret oaths and rituals, would reply, "I know nothing."
president, Millard Fillmore, as their presidential candidate. "Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid," observed Abraham Lincoln, "As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.'"
rose. In the century and a half since, despite recurrent xenophobic outbursts, no nativist political party has appeared to take its place. However prejudiced white Anglo-Saxons were in practice, they were ashamed to endorse nativism in principle. Equally important, an expanding economy in an underpopulated country required a steady influx of new hands. Immigration alleviated the labor shortage, and economic need overpowered moral and aesthetic repugnance.
Americans. "The frontier," in the words of its great historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, "promoted the formation of a composite nationality... In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics." In the crucible of the cities too assimilation proceeded apace. Even "the Irish immigrant's son," Bryce reported in 1888, "is an American citizen for all other purposes, even if he retain, which he seldom does, the hereditary Anglophobia."
After the Civil War came the so-called "new" immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Over 27 million arrived in the half-century from Lee's surrender at Appomattox to America's entry into the First World War--more than the total population of the country in 1850. The new immigrants--Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Russians, Jews--settled mainly in the cities, where their bizarre customs, dress, languages, and religions excited new misgivings.
solvent" to fulfill Washington's conception of Americans as "one people" held fast. However much they suffered from social prejudice, the newcomers were not barred from civic participation, and civic participation indoctrinated them in the fundamentals of the American Creed. They altered the ethnic composition of the country, but they preserved the old ambition to become Americans.
land in 1904 after many years abroad, was at first dismayed by the alien bustle of Ellis Island. But he soon understood and appreciated "the ceaseless process of the recruiting of our race, of the plenishing of our huge national pot-au-feu, of the introduction of fresh ... foreign matter into our heterogeneous system." Though he wondered at times what immigration would do to Americans "ethnically, and thereby physiognomically, linguistically, personally," though he saw at times "the 'ethnic' apparition" sitting like a skeleton at the feast, he was more impressed by the "colossal" machinery that so efficiently converted the children of immigrants into Americans--the political and social habit, the common school, the newspaper, all so reliably producing what James called "the 'ethnic" synthesis." He spoke with something like awe about "the cauldron of the 'American' character."
cauldron--the original faith received its most celebrated metaphor a few years after James's visitation. In 1908 it play by Israel Zangwill, an English writer of Russian Jewish origin, opened in Washington. The Melting-Pot tells the story of a young Russian Jewish composer in New York. David Quixano's artistic ambition is to write a symphony expressing the vast, harmonious interweaving of races in America, and his personal hope is to overcome racial barriers and marry Vera, a beautiful Christian girl. "America," David cries, "is God's crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! ... Here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages ... and your fifty blood hatreds.... A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians--into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American."
of a lower-Manhattan settlement house. In the background the Statue of Liberty gleams in the sunset. The composer, alone with Vera, gestures toward the city:
When the curtain fell in Washington and the author walked onstage, President Theodore Roosevelt called from his box: "That's a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that's a great play." "I'm not a Bernard Shaw man or Ibsen man, Mrs. Zangwill," T. R. later told the playwright's wife. "No, this is the stuff." Zangwill subsequently dedicated the printed play to Roosevelt. The Melting-Pot played before rapt audiences across the country. Jane Addams of Hull-House in Chicago observed that Zangwill had performed "a great service to America by reminding us of the high hopes of the founders of the Republic."
Yet even as audiences cheered The Melting-Pot, Zangwill's metaphor raised doubts. One had only to stroll around the great cities, as Basil March did in William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes, to see that the melting process was incomplete. Ethnic minorities were forming their own quartiers in which they lived in their own way--not quite that of the lands they had left but not that of Anglocentric America either: Little Italy, Chinatown, Yorkville, Harlem, and so on.
inclination to ease their access into Anglo-America. And when it did, when barriers fell, when new immigrants gained acceptance through money or celebrity, there loomed the prospect of intermarriage. In having his drama turn on marriage between people of different races and religions, Zangwill, who had himself married a Christian, emphasized where the melting pot must inexorably lead: to the submergence of separate ethnic identities in the new American race.
doubtless thought so. In the early twentieth century, most of their children certainly did. But soon ethnic spokesmen began to appear, moved by real concern for distinctive ethnic values and also by real if unconscious vested interest in the preservation of ethnic constituencies. Jewish reviewers castigated Zangwill: "All the worse for you and me, brother," wrote one, "who are to be cast into and dissolved in the crucible." Even some of Anglo-Saxon descent deplored the obliteration of picturesque foreign strains for the sake of insipid Anglocentric conformity.
device to impose Anglocentric images and values upon hapless immigrants--an impression reinforced by the rise of the "Americanization" movement in response to the new polyglot immigration. Americanization programs, benign in intent, sought to expedite assimilation by offering immigrants special education in language, citizenship, and American history. The outbreak of war in 1914 gave Americanization a more coercive edge. Even presidents as friendly to immigrants as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson worried whether in crisis "hyphenated" Americans might not be more loyal to the old country than to their adopted land.
Lusitania, Wilson addressed an audience of recently naturalized citizens in Philadelphia. "You cannot become thorough Americans," he told them, "if you think of yourselves in groups. America does not consist of groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American."
country," Theodore Roosevelt said two years later. "Either a man is an American and nothing else, or he is not an American at all." He condemned Americans who saw the world from the standpoint of another nation. "We Americans are children of the crucible," T. R. said. "The crucible does not do its work unless it turns out those cast into it in one national mould."
"One national mould"? Not everyone agreed. In 1915 Horace Kallen, a Jewish-American philosopher, wrote an essay for The Nation entitled "Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot." The melting pot, Kallen argued, was valid neither as a fact nor as an ideal. What impressed him was, on the contrary, the persistence of ethnic groups and their distinctive traditions. Unlike freely chosen affiliations, Kallen said, the ethnic bond was both involuntary and immutable. "Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent: they cannot change their grandfathers. Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, in order to cease being Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, would have to cease to be."
civilization. He saw the nation not as one people, except in a political and administrative sense, but rather "as a federation or commonwealth of national cultures ... a democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously through common institutions ... a multiplicity in a unity, an orchestration of mankind." This conception he came to call "cultural pluralism."
encourage ethnic separatism without weakening the original ideal of a single society. One critic warned that cultural pluralism would "result in the Balkanization of these United States." But Kallen made his attack on Anglo-centered assimilation at a time when critics of the melting pot could reasonably assume the solidity of the overarching framework. Because he considered political unity a given, he put his emphasis on the protection of cultural diversity.
confined to academics, intellectuals, and artists. The larger public in the postwar years experienced disenchantment with Europe, a Red Scare directed largely against aliens, the rise of the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, and a campaign, realized in the Immigration Act of 1924, to freeze the ethnic composition of the American people. The new law established quotas on the basis of the national origins of the population in 1890, thereby drastically reducing the flow from southern and eastern Europe.
followed in the 1930s by crises that, on some levels divisive, nevertheless strengthened the feeling that all Americans were in the same boat and had better pull together. The Great Depression and the Second World War showed the desperate necessity of national cohesion within the frame of shared national ideals. "The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed," Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1943, "is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy."
Gunnar Myrdal in 1944 showed no hesitation in declaring the American Creed the common possession of all Americans, even as his great book An American Dilemma provided a magistral analysis of America's most conspicuous betrayal of the Creed: the treatment by white Americans of black America.
Americans, yet in practice they applied only to white people. Most interpretations of the national identity from Crevecoeur on were for whites only. Even Horace Kallen, the champion of cultural pluralism, made no provision in his "democracy of nationalities" for black or red or brown or yellow Americans.
color into the American equation. With his usual prescience, he identified racism as the irremediable flaw in American democracy. This "most grasping nation on the globe" had doomed the red man to extinction; and the presence of a black population was "the most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union." The more optimistic Emerson and Zangwill had thrown nonwhite nationalities into their smelting or melting pots, but Tocqueville saw racist exclusion as deeply ingrained in the national character.
systematically pushed the American Indians back, killed their braves, seized their lands, and sequestered their tribes. They had brought Africans to America to work their plantations and Chinese to build their railroads, They had enunciated glittering generalities of freedom and withheld them from people of color. Their Constitution protected slavery, and their laws made distinctions on the basis of race. Though they eventually emancipated the slaves, they conspired in the reduction of the freedmen to third-class citizenship. Their Chinese Exclusion acts culminated in the total prohibition of Asian immigration in the Immigration Act of 1924. It occurred to damned few white Americans in these years that Americans of color were also entitled to the rights and liberties promised by the Constitution.
power" of American institutions and ideas retained its force, even among those most cruelly oppressed and excluded. Myrdal's polls of Afro-America showed the "determination" of blacks "to hold to the American Creed." Ralph Bunche, one of Myrdal's collaborators, observed that every man in the street--black, red, and yellow as well as white--regarded America as the "land of the free" and the "cradle of liberty." The American Creed, Myrdal surmised, meant even more to blacks than to whites, since it was the great means of claiming their unfulfilled rights. Blacks, new immigrants, Jews, and other disadvantaged groups, Myrdal said, "could not possibly have invented a system of political ideals which better corresponded to their interests."
Hitler's racism forced Americans to look hard at their own racial assumptions. How, in fighting against Hitler's doctrine of the Master Race abroad, could Americans maintain a doctrine of white supremacy at home? How, with China a faithful American ally, could Americans continue to forbid Chinese to become American citizens? If the war did not end American racism, at least it drove much racial bigotry underground. The rethinking of racial issues challenged the conscience of the majority and raised the consciousness of minorities.
equal opportunities in employment, opposed segregation in the armed forces, and fought in their own units on many fronts. After the war, the civil rights revolution, so long deferred, accelerated black self-reliance. So did the collapse of white colonialism around the world and the appearance of independent black states.
and demanded their rights. Women, the one "minority" that in America constituted a numerical majority, sought political and economic equality. Jews gained new solidarity from the Holocaust and then from the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. Changes in the immigration law dramatically increased the numbers arriving from Hispanic and Asian lands, and, following the general example, they asserted their own prerogatives. American Indians mobilized to reclaim rights and lands long since appropriated by the white man; their spokesmen even rejected the historic designation in which Indians had taken deserved pride and renamed themselves Native Americans.
of ethnic identity by the now long-resident "new migration" from southern and eastern Europe--Italians, Greeks, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians. Claiming to speak for white minorities aggrieved by the idea of the melting pot, Michael Novak, an early and influential theorist of multiculturalism, wrote The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. "Growing up in America," Novak said, "has been an assault upon my sense of worthiness," and to improve his self-esteem he affirmed the need for a politics of identity. Against the conception of America as a nation of individuals, Novak hailed what he called "the new ethnic politics," which, he said, "asserts that groups can structure the rules and goals and procedures of American life."
"third-generation" effect formulated in Hansen's Law, named after Marcus Lee Hansen, the great pioneer in immigration history: "What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember." It was reinforced too, and powerfully, by the waning American optimism about the nation's prospects. For two centuries Americans had been confident that life would be better for their children than it was for them. In their exuberant youth, Americans had disdained the past and, as John Quincy Adams urged, looked forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors. Amid forebodings of national decline, Americans now began to look forward less and backward more. The rising cult of ethnicity was a symptom of decreasing confidence in the American future.
Ethnic as a word has had a long history. It originally meant "heathen" or "pagan" but soon came to mean anything pertaining to a race or nation. In this sense everyone, even the Lowells and the Cabots, were ethnics. By the time Henry James used the word in The American Scene, however, "ethnic" had acquired an association with foreignness. As applied since the 1960s, it definitely means non-Anglo minorities--a reversion to the original sense of being beyond the pale.
debut in 1940 in W. Lloyd Warner's Yankee City series. From its modest beginning in that sociological study, "ethnicity" moved vigorously to center stage in popular discourse. The bicentennial of American independence, the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, the restoration of Ellis Island--all turned from tributes to the melting pot into extravaganzas of ethnic distinctiveness.
from the minorities en masse than from their often self-appointed spokesmen. Most ethnics, white and nonwhite, saw themselves primarily as Americans. "The cravings for 'historical identity,'" Gunnar Myrdal said at the height of the ethnic rage, "is not in any sense a people's movement. Those cravings have been raised by a few well-established intellectuals, professors, writers--mostly, I gather, of a third generation." Few of them, Myrdal thought, made much effort to talk to their own ethnic groups. This movement, Myrdal added with a certain contempt, was only "upper-class intellectual romanticism."
could create audiences. Spokesmen with a vested interest in ethnic identification repudiated the ideal of assimilation. The melting pot, it was said, injured people by undermining their self-esteem. It denied them heroes--"role models," in the jargon--from their own ethnic ancestries. Praise now went to Novak's "unmeltable ethnics."
denouncing the melting pot as a conspiracy to homogenize America, Congress passed the Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act--a statute that, by applying the ethnic ideology to all Americans, compromised the historic right of Americans to decide their ethnic identities for themselves. The act ignored those millions of Americans--surely a majority--who refused identification with any particular ethnic group.
because it was unprecedented) began as a gesture of protest against the Anglocentric culture. It became a cult, and today it threatens to become a counter-revolution against the original theory of America as "one people," a common culture, a single nation.
Meet the Author
Arthur M. Schlesinger (1917 - 2007) was a historian who served as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. Among his many works are the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson and A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.
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This is a brilliant essay on multiculturalism. Schlesinger points out that "a common language is a necessary bond of national cohesion." So we should do everything possible to ensure that those who live here in Britain can speak English. We need to have a common culture, in our single society, of one nation. We should defend British working class culture, which is the positive aspect of our country's history, while rejecting the bourgeoisie's imperial, reactionary culture. Schlesinger writes, "Belief in one's own culture does not require disdain for other cultures." This is like self-respect - respecting oneself does not mean disrespect for other people.