Post-ethnic America

In the past I wrote about my consideration of what it means to be an American given the religious, ethnic, racial, cultural and political diversity of the United States. While my divergence from Chinese stereotypes about Americans initially lead me to question by own American-ness, Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? only furthers my doubts both about the character of American identity and my right to claim membership in the group it designates.

I’ve just reread a book that offers a view of American identity that varies in important respects from Huntington’s assertion that the American national identity is characterized by a shared cultural commitment to Christianity, the English language, and European (mostly British) cultural heritage and values. Hollinger’s Post-Ethnic America does not call for a retreat from the struggle against nativism and Eurocentrism as does Huntington’s work. Instead, Hollinger argues that multiculturalism has achieved substantial success in fulfilling the unrealized promises of equality written into the founding documents. Now it is time to do something more.

Hollinger advocates a post-ethnic perspective values and engages diversity but takes an individual orientation toward appreciating difference instead of focusing on the recognition and preservation of sub-groups. Such an individual orientation would emphasize the voluntaristic nature of group memberships (including ethno-racial groups) while acknowledging the fact that discrimination on the basis of ascribed group memberships has no necessary relationship to actual identity and needs to be eliminated.

The corresponding post-ethnic national identity celebrates diversity, a civil society characterized by democracy, citizenship based upon endorsement of the spirit of egalitarianism in the founding documents, and the happy recognition that there exists a national culture that may be claimed by all who consider themselves American.

While it is laudable that Hollinger wants to walk a middle road between the assimilating forces of post-War universalism (which emphasized the commonalities of humanity) and what he sees as the resegregationist emphasis on group rights and cultures that characterizes the multicultural mainstream, his work has some problems. Can the voluntaristic nature of group membership be extended to American identity? If so, how does the nation include those who do not wish to be American while they do wish to live in America? Hasn’t Hollinger just moved the problems of social boundaries to national collectivities instead of ethno-racial (or other) sub-groups? Furthermore, Hollinger discusses the fact that civic nations are preferable to ethnic nations yet on what grounds does he make these claims and do they stand in light of the fact that most nations are based upon the assumption of primordial affinity?

I find myself reasoning in circles. Hollinger offers what I take to be an appealing ideal but I fear that it is attractive to me because my liberal standpoint on nation and diversity are not so different from his. How does post-ethnic America manage or arbitrate between conflicting cultural practices? What happens when the individualism Hollinger triumphs stands in conflict with the voluntarily-chosen primordial beliefs of some would-be American?

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