Not Necessarily in Conflict: Americans Can Be Both United and Culturally Diverse

Article excerpt

In considering whether identity is freedom-limiting or freedom-enhancing, it is important to focus on the interplay between one's identity as an American and one's identity as a member of a particular racial or ethnic subgroup of Americans. Our collective identity as Americans is based on shared values of individual freedom, political democracy, and a commitment to the rule of law. These ideals transcend racial and ethnic differences. (1) They do not, however, eliminate the cultural differences between Americans, nor should they.

Unfortunately, however, some commentators on both the political right and the political left have suggested that one's identity as an American and one's ethnic or racial identity are contradictory or incompatible, and that in order to celebrate one, it is necessary to suppress the other. (2)

There are some commentators on the political right, for example, who wish to ignore and even eliminate most racial and ethnic differences. These commentators incorrectly believe that the suppression of racial and ethnic pride is necessary for effective assimilation. (3) These critics misinterpret the desire to preserve cultural traditions, celebrate the achievements of other group members, or honor a group's distinctive past as a rejection of our shared American culture. They thus find it difficult to understand why, for example, some immigrant parents want their children to learn their native language as well as English; why some Latinos feel special pride in Alberto Gonzales's service as Attorney General of the United States; or why some African-Americans have lobbied for the placement of a National Museum of Black History on the National Mall.

Many of these conservative commentators fear that an emphasis on differences in the cultural arena is a slippery slope that will inevitably lead to different--and ultimately unequal--treatment in the legal arena. To preserve the idea of equal treatment under the law and the anti-discrimination principle embodied in the text of the Fourteenth Amendment, these conservatives argue that we should ignore race and ethnicity altogether and reject multiculturalism in any form. (4)

If realized, this desire to suppress identity would limit freedom in at least four ways.

First, it would limit the freedom of individuals to celebrate their culture and history in the ways they see fit.

Second, it would limit the freedom of minority groups to honor members of their community and to highlight successful models of assimilation into the American mainstream.

Third, it would limit academic and intellectual freedom to study various racial or ethnic cultures.

Fourth, it would limit the freedom to engage in democratic politics, which is inherently and necessarily a collection of factions or identity group interests. (5)

But, while the suppression of ethnic identity is freedom-limiting in these and other respects, the exaltation of ethnic identity over all else (6) poses an even greater danger to the American polity and to freedom generally.

First, an overemphasis on racial and ethnic identity does, as some conservatives fear, undermine our national identity as Americans. When schools fail to inculcate American values, giving short shrift to the history of the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the American Civil Rights Movement, while emphasizing the history of Africa, Latin America, or Asia, they are severing the ties that bind Americans together in the name of diversity. This is simply wrong.

Second, an overemphasis on racial or ethnic identity encourages segregation in schools, the workforce, the political sphere, and elsewhere. It encourages school districts to herd Latino students into failed bilingual education programs that reinforce the retention of foreign customs and language at the expense of learning English. (7) It encourages employers to relegate Latinos and African-Americans to ethnic enclaves, requiring them to work primarily on minority issues. …