June 22, 2020 Reading Time: 13 minutes
americans, walking, new york

One of the continuing and burning issues in America today is determining how we view ourselves and how we view others, including in matters of race. Are we individual human beings who may or may not have by the accidents of birth particular racial and biological characteristics, or do we have certain racial and biological characteristics that determine and define who we are and how we should view ourselves in relation to others?

Now, of course, we are both distinct individuals and we are born with particular biological characteristics. Some of us have brown eyes and others have eyes of blue. Some of us are biologically male and others biologically female. Some of us are inclined to be right-handed, while others favor their left. Some of us have inherited genes that result in our being well over six feet tall, while some of us are barely more than five feet in height. 

Some of these inherited characteristics and attributes, no doubt and even inescapably, influence how we think about ourselves and what we notice in others. Most of us have normal eyes and vision to see with, and when our sight falls upon others, it is impossible not to notice if they are tall or short, red-headed or brunnette, male or female, white or brown. 

When some people say that it would be ideal if we had a “color-blind” society in terms of the significance of race or ethnicity, we do not literally mean not seeing or noticing how someone looks. You cannot avoid it, any less than when you look at two drinking glasses and we notice that one is a “water glass” and the other is a “wine glass,” as these have become enculturated in us about how we classify them in our mind. 

What we mean in terms of a color-blind society is that when we look at or interact with other individuals the external “fact” that they may be “white” or “black” will not lead to an immediate categorizing of any person as inherently “good” or “bad,” or “superior” or “inferior,” or inside or outside “our” group in terms of rights, treatment, or attitude. 

Most People are No Longer Hyphenated Americans 

As an example of mental attitudes and importance of ethnicity or national origin as a signifying and defining characteristic, I have noticed over the decades, as a professor in the classroom, the diminished awareness of family national or ethnic origin among descendents of Europeans. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s it was not uncommon to have peers my own age who were born in the United States saying (if asked) that they were Italian-American, or Irish-American, or German-American, etc., even if it was their grandparents or even great-grandparents who had originally come to America from the “old country.”

But over the last, say, thirty years or so, if I ask students when first taking attendance at the start of a new semester the national origin of their last name and/or where their ancestors had come from (in Europe) and when, the large majority have no idea. Plus, they do not seem very interested and find the question strange. Many of them seem to have never thought about it before my asking.

This is one example of the success of the American “melting-pot,” in my view. Family names, ancestry, national origin and background have basically become irrelevant or meaningless in terms of any personal or group identification for many people. They have all blended into one identity – “American.”

The same thing applies to religious affiliation. Americans, according to international surveys, are still the most churchgoing among the Western nations, but rarely do you find anyone who wears their religious connection on their sleeve. That is, identifying themselves as “Catholic-American,” or “Protestant-American.” By contrast, this latter is a distinction between Christian denominations that remains a significant personal and group identifier in Ireland, for instance.

Racial Discrimination and Intermarriage

The first major immigration restrictions imposed by the U.S. government were in the 1870s and 1880s, directed at the Chinese and then Asian immigrants in general wishing to come to America. One aspect of anti-Asian sentiment among, especially, white Americans, was the strong disapproval and opposition to interracial marriage. 

The 1957 movie, “Sayonara” (starring Marlon Brando, Red Buttons, and James Garner) highlighted the “impossibility” of a marriage between an American military serviceman stationed in Japan and a Japanese woman, the climax of which near the end of the film is the joint suicide of the couple, when the American has been denied permission to bring her to the U.S. as his wife; she is pregnant and they are fearful of how Japanese society will reject and socially ostracize their interracial child if she remains alone in her homeland. From the perspective of 2020, the issue of “American-Asian” marriages for a long time has been a non-issue in the wider society in the United States. 

Certainly, over the last three or four decades, it has equally stopped being, in general, a “social issue” among Americans of European and African ancestry. This is in stark contrast to well into the 20th century, when many state governments in the U.S. had laws on their books prohibiting interracial marriages. 

The 1967 movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” starred Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Their daughter announces her intention to marry a black man, played by Sidney Poitier. Being “good liberals,” they have brought up their daughter to judge someone by their character and not the color of their skin. But this does not stop them from having to grapple with their own implicit prejudices when it becomes a matter of practicing what they have been preaching to their own child. Today, black and white intermarriage and biracial children have also become a virtual non-issue for the vast majority of Americans. 

Ernest Renan and “What is a Nation”?

The issue is how do people view each other and the meaning and significance they assign to any physical or biological differences among them. Perhaps one way to approach this is in the context of what makes a group of people view themselves as belonging to a common citizenship or community as a “nation.” A starting point to think about this is a famous lecture by the 19th century French scholar, Ernest Renan (1823-1892), “What is a Nation?” (1882).  

Renan critiques and sets aside several explanations of what makes people view themselves as members of the same nation. He analyzes and questions the idea that “race” defines a people because even just among Europeans there is nothing classifiable as a “pure” and distinct biological race, since many hundreds of years of migrations, conquests and intermarrying had made Europeans a population of wide varieties of “racial” mixtures. 

Nor does the speaking of a common language necessarily define a “nation” or “national group,” as a number of countries containing speakers of several languages (e.g., Switzerland) do not prevent all or most of the citizens to consider themselves as all members of the same nation. Nor does a common language assure that the people in different countries speaking that same language (Great Britain and the United States) consider themselves as part of the same nation. 

Equally, Renan questions whether originating in or sharing the same geographical space means that all such people consider themselves as part of the same nation. 

So, what makes people view themselves as part of the same nation in Renan’s view? He suggests a common memory of shared experiences that later generations are taught and come to be part of their heritage and which also partly “defines” who they are and how they view themselves relative to some people but not necessarily to others. For example, a Russian today might still say that “we” defeated Napoleon in 1815 and Hitler in 1945, even though the person saying this might have been born long after both these events occurred. 

The other defining quality of a people belonging to the same nation, Renan argued, is the desire to have a shared future as well as a shared present. People view themselves as wanting to have a common social, political, and cultural future that in their minds, respectively, makes them part of the self-defining group. 

Renan said belonging to the same nation is expressed in a “daily plebiscite” in the sense that each individual, implicitly or explicitly, feels and acts every day as being associated and connected with a large number of “others,” many of whom he personally does not know and cannot know, and never will. But with whom he feels “tied” due to the sharedness of history, values, beliefs, customs, and traditions. 

Hans Kohn and Group Identity as a “State of Mind”

Another way of expressing this is in the words of the Austrian-American historian, Hans Kohn (1891-1971), who said in his classic study of The Idea of Nationalism (1944) that a sense of a shared nationality is, “A state of mind of the large majority of the people” who consider themselves connected to others through such things as language, territory, and traditions. But as Kohn emphasized, “The process of history can be analyzed as a succession of changes in communal psychology, in the attitude of man toward all manifestations of individual and social life.”

As Kohn and many others have highlighted, a sense of a shared “nationality” and derived “nationalism” is a relatively new force that has worked on the minds of people really only since the 18th and 19th centuries as an outgrowth of the French Revolution. With the beheading of the French king in 1793, the question arose, to whom did people have a shared sense of common loyalty and belonging in France?

Hans Kohn pointed out in, Prelude to Nation-States: The French and German Experience, 1789-1815 (1967), that when in January 1793, a messenger was sent to the French forces in the east of the country facing the anti-revolutionary armies of foreign monarchs to tell them that the king was dead, one of the French officers asked, “For whom shall we fight from now on?” The answer was, “For the nation, for the Republic.” Thus, loyalty was shifted from a monarch to “the people” of France and their “republican” institutions. 

In a sense the defining moment of what made someone a “citizen” of France versus a “subject” of the French king, Louis XVI, was the time it took for the blade of the guillotine to fall and sever his head from his body on January 21, 1793. But that it was a matter of people’s minds and not simply the movement of a metal blade was demonstrated by the fact that “royalist” versus “republican” as the meaning of a real and true Frenchman continued to haunt and divide those living in the country of France well into the 20th century. 

Individual Liberty as the Defining Mark of an American

It may be reasonably asked, what has all this to do with the racial issues and tensions in America today? It has relevance because it gets to the crucial question, “What makes and is an American?” What are the defining characteristics of such a person? 

When someone becomes a citizen of the United States, they take an oath of allegiance that, in part, says: 

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same . . .”

Notice there are no references to the idea that when legally becoming an American there is not a requirement you be of a certain racial or ethnic background, or that you must speak a particular language, or that you practice a certain religion, or that you share specific personal interests or beliefs. What you are giving an oath of allegiance to is the Constitution of the United States and its defense.

But suppose that new citizen actually reads through the Constitution. What do they discover? In essence, it is an organizational chart specifying the duties and responsibilities of the three branches of the U.S. government – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial – and certain limits (especially in the first ten amendments) on what the federal government may or may not do in its interactions with the citizenry. 

Why would someone be obligated to take an oath to an organizational chart? Because the Constitution was meant to respect and preserve a set of ideas expressed in an earlier document, the Declaration of Independence. The essential principles are captured in the part of the Declaration that most of us used to learn by heart beginning in grammar school: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Notice that the rights mentioned – to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – are not reserved only for the people living in the, now, declared independent 13 states on the eastern shores of North America. Or only to those who are descendants of those who came from Great Britain. No, these are stated to be universal and self-evident rights that each and every person, anywhere in the world, possesses and has a right to demand to be respected by his fellow citizens and by those in political power. 

Thus, what was declared as the defining characteristic of an American was the respect for and moral dedication to individual liberty in its various aspects. This was new in human history. An idea, not an ethnic group, or a language or religion or a particular ancestry, unified and connected those living in the United States. The idea of freedom.

Stories and an intergenerational memory of the Boston Tea Party, the battle of Lexington and Concord, the desperate times of Washington’s army at Valley Forge, the victory over the British and the permanent founding of the political institutional order of the country in the form of the Constitution in 1787; these have all served as the ‘common experience” for those already established in country and the waves of immigrant newcomers over the decades. 

This became the common heritage of all Americans. It did not matter if you or your ancestors had come from Britain, Norway, Germany, Italy, Poland, France, or Russia; in America those who had fought for liberty and independence and established the Constitutional order were everyone’s “relatives” in the shared idea of freedom. 

Slavery and Race in this History of America

But . . . this did not apply to everyone. Between 1525 and 1866, it is estimated that 10.7 million Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas and sold into slavery. The vast majority of them were brought to and enslaved in the West Indies and South America. About 388,000 were imported into what became the United States; by the time of the American Civil War in 1861-1865, the African slave population numbered around 4 million according to the 1860 census. 

For the 155 years since the Civil War brought an end to the institution of slavery, and the immediate postwar amendments to the Constitution that extended full citizenship and equal rights to those formerly held in bondage, the country has grabbled with full acceptance of those who were or who have been the descendents of those slaves. 

Slavery and the resulting social divides have made it a difficult and uneven process for the general integration of those of African ancestry into the general stream of American life. Separateness, humiliation, and sometimes violence burdened black members of American society. (See my article, “George S. Schuyler, Anti-Racist Champion of Liberty”.)

The issue facing the country today is, what shall be the political and philosophical basis upon which this process of integration may be completed so that someday, the color of a fellow American’s skin will be of no more significance in seeing him and judging than our noticing that someone is a blond or a brunette, has green eyes instead of brown eyes, and is right-handed rather than left-handed?

Erasing a Memory of America’s Past

American streets have lately been filled with groups calling for and trying to dismantle the history and heritage of the country. The tearing down of statues of famous Americans, including George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant, besides those representing the old Confederacy, represent an attempt to erase the past. On college and university campuses, the call is for an identity politics that forthrightly turns its back on the idea of individual liberty and wants to replace it with racial and gender collectivism. 

This path leads in only one direction, to the types of tribal warfare and violent conflicts that we have witnessed not only in the past but also in the present in many parts of the world, where the individual is little or nothing and the group is everything. Where “rights” are assigned to the group to which the individual belongs, and his destiny is determined by the political power and influence of the collective to which birth or circumstances have assigned him. 

America was the only country that in terms of philosophical principles turned away from the tribalism and collective control to which all of humanity had been confined throughout most of human history. The heritage and ideal of liberty was America’s hallmark, which recognized each person’s right to his own life, and to live as he peacefully chooses. Even if imperfectly and hypocritically, nowhere else on earth was privilege, favoritism, and special benefits from those in political authority the least practiced, in general, through a good part of the nation’s history. 

And if it be asked, but what about those of African ancestry? Even with all the contradictions and cruelties, no country has attempted to overcome this racial grievance of the past as much as the United States. Segregation laws were abolished, and more and more corners of society have been open and available for blacks to try to enter and be part of mainstream American life.  

Radical Progressives Want to Create a Cultural Void

In spite of impressions in the news and on social media, race consciousness has never seemed lower in general in my lifetime, from everything I see, in terms of everyday life and interaction. So why does this not seem to be the case? Because of how some people are continuing to view others and themselves. There are those in the “progressive” movement and the more radical left, who, in my opinion, are consciously determined to destroy a positive memory of and allegiance to the American experience of liberty and limited government. 

For them, it is all capitalist exploitation wrapped up in a “false consciousness” about freedom that hides a deeper economic, racial and gender slavery. All they see is a world of conflicting blacks and whites, Marxian class warfare transferred to a new racialism. (See my article, “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality”.)

They want to airbrush out of existence the reality and the history of a country that however imperfectly has been trying to live up to its founding idea of freedom for all. They would leave a cultural void into which their versions of political and economic and social collectivism could envelop the country.

This is an intellectual and political battle, if you will, for the soul of the country. If Ernest Renan and Hans Kohn were basically correct, that what makes a common sense of shared belonging as a people and a country are memories of a past and a state of mind about what binds people together and for what purposes in the present and looking to the future, then America will lose its reason for existing if its unique beginnings in a system of individual liberty is overthrown and forgotten. 

America’s hope has been for that color-blind society, and in spite of everything has been moving closer to it, in numerous facets of everyday life. Its path is being blocked not by anything inherently wrong in its founding principles. Its way is threatened by those whose view of man is based on collectivist identifiers that define and trap people into a group destiny from which they cannot easily escape. 

The task, therefore, is not to pass over or deny people’s inconsistencies in failing to always practice what has been preached. But rather it is to highlight and restore a memory of the founding ideals as a living force to move forward and successfully oppose those at work who would destroy what is the reason and rationale for there to exist a country called “America:” the dignity, freedom, and rights of each individual to peacefully and productively live his life for himself in voluntary association with others, with disregard for how anyone physically looks in terms of the color of their skin. 

(Forty years ago, the idea of a white woman with a black man on television was still “scandalous” for many. Now there has been a black woman with two — two! — white male lovers at the same time in the TV show “Scandal.”)

In other words, at one level even the traditional racial divides in America have been slowly but surely reduced and becoming more irrelevant. Though very, very far from the “new normal,” this, too, is an indication of the still at work American melting pot.

That is what makes tragic and “reactionary” the new “fashionable” politics of ethnic and racial identity, especially as this has come to the fore in headline stories about Rachel Dolezal who “passed” herself as black while in fact being white.

The emphasis on “race” consciousness, “race” experience,” “race” identity, “race” community is a reinforcing throwback to the tribal collectivism that the American “experiment” not only in self-government but in grounding the political order and society in an “individualism” of rights and identity and conception of self-worth was to be an alternative.

Another underlying theme of some of these comments and commentaries is that at most a “white person” only can be a “fellow traveller” in understanding and appreciating the difficulties of the “black experience” in America.

The idea of any universal human experience and potential for sympathy and empathy that transcends the local and incidental is downplayed. That we are all “one” under the accident of skin pigment is discounted as inconsistent with the inescapability of “race” identity and experience.

It is an implicit denial of one of the fundamental assumptions of the Enlightenment; that is, the common experience and the universal humanity of man, while not ignoring or denying the concrete historicities of human circumstances.

If consistently followed through, it will indeed be the end of the “American experiment” and a return to the primitive.

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

Books by Richard M. Ebeling

Get notified of new articles from Richard M. Ebeling and AIER.