Take Care and Protect Democracy are pleased to present this symposium on building a truly inclusive and multi-racial American democracy.
As America is becoming more diverse, and minority groups are staking their claims for justice with growing self-confidence, much practical action is needed to ensure that each group is treated fairly. We need to confront historical injustice, to root out discriminatory practices, and to overcome obstacles to full political participation. But it seems to me that no set of practical measures will be able to sustain equal rights for minorities and reconcile the dwindling majority to the new America. To accomplish that equally important, and even more ambitious, goal we need to develop a shared vision for what such a multi-ethnic society should look like.
This is all the more difficult because neither of the two visions that are currently in the ascendant—let’s call them the Myth of Neutrality and the Embrace of Identity—are capable of commanding such a broad consensus. To start building the foundations for a fair, multi-ethnic society, we thus have to understand the shortcomings of these two visions, and to start building a third.
The Myth of Neutrality
According to the Myth of Neutrality, the only real obstacles to equality are of a formal nature. To be sure, our institutions have, despite the good intentions of the Founding Fathers, failed to live up to this formal equality for most of our nation’s history. Slavery and Jim Crow, the assault on Native Americans and the internment of Japanese-Americans, were all instances in which the nation betrayed its guiding ideals. But thankfully, this narrative holds, most of the obstacles that once stood in the way of a just, multi-ethnic society have now been overcome: With the dismantlement of Jim Crow and the introduction of civil rights legislation, we have finally enacted formal equality.
In this view, to build a multi-ethnic society we simply need to defend the formal equality enjoyed by every American. This obviously entails defeating white supremacists and other groups who want to restrict the political rights of our fellow citizens on account of their race or creed. But it also entails resisting the left’s desire to grant special consideration to some Americans on account of the disadvantages their groups have suffered in the past.
The principal problem with the Myth of Neutrality is that it often blinds its adherents to the important informal ways in which minority groups suffer discrimination or structural disadvantage. As a result, it tends to be overly complacent in the face of an educational system that sends a lot of children from minority groups to highly segregated schools; of employers who are less likely to invite applicants with black-sounding names to interview; of a criminal justice system that, in practices, often treats people differently based on the color of their skin; and of political practices that effectively disenfranchise a lot of minority voters. In reality, ethnic minorities in America still face forms of injustice that are rather more subtle in nature than the open system of discrimination that dominated the country’s south during the Jim Crow era. A political vision that fails to combat—or even to recognize—these inequalities is unlikely to guide the way towards a more just future.
The Embrace of Particularism
The second vision for the future of the multi-ethnic society takes the shortcomings of the Myth of Neutrality as its starting point. It points out that America has, for most of its history, woefully failed to live up to the ideal of formal neutrality. Worse still, even the gradual elimination of open discrimination has failed to put disadvantaged minority groups on an equal footing.
The ideals of the Founding Fathers should, according to this vision, be seen as a rhetorical fig leaf that made it all the easier to perpetuate a deeply unjust reality on the ground. Since these ideals have consistently been applied in a hypocritical manner, it is (supposedly) high time to put them to rest—and to place disadvantaged groups themselves at the center of our political vision.
Doing so usually entails two complementary claims. The first is that there is nothing wrong with a political vision that stresses the interests of particular groups because “all politics is identity politics.” On this view, some political actors claim to speak in the interests of all citizens. But upon closer inspection, all political claims turn out to advantage one identity group over another. Indeed, most political movements in American history have merely been forms of white identity politics. When the Founding Fathers wrote about representative assemblies pursuing the “public” or “common” good, this narrative holds, they were simply putting lipstick on a pig with a very strong sense of its own identity.
Second, while all politics is identity politics, some forms of it are more legitimate than others. Some groups have, after all, enjoyed vast advantages and privileges throughout American history while others still continue to suffer intense discrimination. Social progress, this visions suggests, therefore consists in helping the claims of rising minority groups triumph over those of the dwindling majority group.
Unfortunately, this vision, too, suffers from serious shortcomings. While the public good of which the Founding Fathers spoke so fondly remains ever elusive, it is difficult to envisage how representative politics could work without some aspiration of serving shared interests. If we give up on the idea that there are some policies that are truly in the common good for all Americans, and others that unfairly favor one group over others, then elections are reduced to contests of strength between different groups—and the very possibility of civic friendship among people who have different identities comes under threat.
What’s more, the best future envisaged by the adherents of the embrace of particularism still remains rather bleak. If things go according to plan, a rising coalition of minorities will build a winning coalition, finally gaining the power to displace the dwindling white majority from its dominant status. But on this vision, the best we can hope for is a multiethnic society in which people forevermore remain organized along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. And if that’s the case, then even a dwindling majority that has lost its power to perpetuate its own advantages nevertheless retains the strength to poison the country’s politics for decades or centuries to come.
Toward a Third Option
The Myth of Neutrality fails to take the roots of group inequality seriously. Meanwhile, the Embrace of Particularism gives up on the hope of a shared moral vision, threatening to exacerbate conflict between groups. Is there a realistic alternative to both?
Developing that third vision is a major undertaking, whose scope far exceeds what is possible in such a short contribution. But its basic contours are suggested by the failings of the two visions that are now predominant.
If America is to build a truly multi-ethnic society, we need to embrace a vision that both defends the universal ideals of the Founding Fathers and is acutely conscious of the many ways, informal as well as formal, in which they continue to be breached. Unlike the Myth of Neutrality, such a vision would recognize the centrality of group identity to the actual experiences Americans currently have. But unlike the Embrace of Particularism, it would continue to hold out the hope of a society in which the color of our skin, or the content of our religious beliefs, becomes less salient in our daily lives.
Such a vision, then, would be particularist in its recognition of how deeply identity shapes the experiences and the opportunities of Americans today. But it would be universalist in seeking to build a society in which, as Martin Luther King Jr. put the point in his most famous speech, the content of your character matters more than the color of your skin—not only for what you can do, but also for whom you see as your friend.