People need a positive sense of identity. We need to feel like we belong to a community larger than ourselves. If we can't find one built around positive, productive values, too many of us will gravitate toward one built around negativity and hate. This is how terrorists are made.
Although Dylann Roof is apparently an extreme example, we do have an identity crisis among many white Americans. This is particularly true for those whose families have lost a connection to any ancestral, ethnic heritage. When they ask themselves, "What am I?," the answer "white" carries little to nothing in terms of sustaining, nourishing content.
We can see this nothingness in a Utah baseball team's "Caucasian Heritage Night," which was to consist of eating hamburgers with mayonnaise on Wonder Bread, jumping (presumably because white men famously "can't"), and watching "Friends." The event -- which the team meant to be "fun" -- was cancelled after the Charleston massacre. This is literally and figuratively minor league compared to Charleston, but it is telling that this is what people think of as white heritage, at least in its benign form. As Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People, noted: "Whiteness is on a toggle switch between 'bland nothingness' and 'racist hatred.'" Roof ended up at the latter.
What if, instead of the emptiness that whiteness offers, whites -- along with everyone else in this country -- identified in a meaningful way as members of the American community? What if we made a real effort to cultivate not merely patriotism -- which is a bond between the individual and the state -- but an inclusive sense of Americanness that connects individual Americans to one another? This collective feeling must be built around an idea of America and a narrative of our story that truly reflects the experiences of Americans of every background.
This kind of American national consciousness centers on the concept of democratic pluralism, which I've defined previously as follows:
A society that embraces democratic pluralism recognizes that some of its citizens will identify as members of groups based on shared heritage, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc., and that these affinities may even cross the borders of countries. Such a society acknowledges this diversity and the choices it offers citizens in expressing their identity. However, a robust and successful democratic pluralism, in the case of the United States, calls on its citizens to identify with America as their country and, equally importantly, to identify as members of the community of all Americans. Such a community evinces a commitment to democratic ideals and the common good as well as a shared history, and is one where citizens communicate with one another by means of a common language and culture.
Barack Obama has long espoused an American identity conceived along these lines, most recently and powerfully in Selma, where he spoke to commemorate 1965's Bloody Sunday March. But this is something that cannot come only or even primarily from the president if it's going to reach alienated whites.
Such a notion of America is anathema to racists who peddle white supremacy and an exclusionary white nationalism. In response to post-Charleston calls to remove the Confederate flag from its location outside the South Carolina State House, the president of the League of the South, Michael Hill, wrote that our country's flag "now stands for multiculturalism, tolerance and diversity." He meant that as an insult, but he's right -- although I'd add democracy, equality, and freedom as well. There's little on which Mr. Hill and I agree, but he's on to something here.
Hill's definition of what our country stands for is the same one reformers from Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King to Barbara Jordan to Harvey Milk have utilized to call on America to "live up to the true meaning of its creed." That definition also allows us to characterize those who spread hate and bigotry as anti-American. As the above photo of Dylann Roof above makes clear, that's exactly what they are.
The one quality that at least has the potential to unify the diverse collection of human beings comprising our citizenry is Americanness. What else do Americans have in common after all? But Americanness isn't born within us, it isn't stamped on our foreheads at birth. We have to inculcate it starting at a young age, it must be part of our civic education. We have to teach one another that we are Americans -- one united people -- in order for us to feel that an American identity means something.
People want to be proud of who they are, but pride in being white appears to be a recipe for racism. Pride in one's Americanness, however, can work against racism if we explicitly define Americanness in an inclusive way. It is exactly that definition that so disgusts people like Michael Hill.
The kernel of this identity is already out there. We see it in remarks from Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who took the opposing position from that of Michael Hill on the Confederate flag, and called for his fellow white evangelicals to understand how that flag makes most African Americans feel: "White Christians, let's listen to our African American brothers and sisters. Let's care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them."
A sense of community requires an understanding that there exists a "we" and "our" that binds together its members. Mr. Moore captured that understanding perfectly. So, for that matter, did Woody Guthrie, who spoke of an American community of "you and me" that includes everyone, and excludes no one. What we need is something far more meaningful than a white identity built around the likes of Chandler Bing. We need an American identity built on a foundation of that shared history -- not a whitewashed version of it, but one that can, as President Obama declared in Selma, "look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals."
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