The Liberty of Strangers: Making the American Nation

The Liberty of Strangers: Making the American Nation

The Liberty of Strangers: Making the American Nation

The Liberty of Strangers: Making the American Nation


Harry S. Truman once said, "Ours is a nation of many different groups, of different races, of different national origins." And yet, the debate over what it means--and what it takes--to be an American remains contentious. Nationalist solidarity, many claim, requires a willful blending into the assimilationist alloy of theseUnitedStates. Others argue that the interests of both nation and individual are best served by allowing multiple traditions to flourish--a salad bowl of identities and allegiances, rather than a melting pot.

Tracing how Americans have confronted and relinquished, but mostly clung to group identities over the past century, Desmond King here debunks one of the guiding assumptions of American nationhood, namely that group distinction and identification would gradually dissolve over time, creating a "postethnic" nation. Over the course of the twentieth century, King shows, the divisions in American society arising from group loyalties have consistently proven themselves too strong to dissolve. For better or for worse, the often-disparaged politics of multiculturalism are here to stay, with profound implications for America's democracy. Americans have now entered a post-multiculturalist settlement in which the renewal of democracy continues to depend on groups battling it out in political trenches, yet the process is ruled by a newly invigorated and strengthened state.

But Americans' resolute embrace of their distinctive identities has ramifications not just internally and domestically but on the world stage as well. The image of one-people American nationhood so commonly projected abroad camouflages the country's sprawling, often messy diversity: a lesson that nation-builders worldwide cannot afford to ignore as they attempt to accommodate ever-evolving group needs and the demands of individuals to be treated equally.

Spanning the entire twentieth century and encompassing immigration policies, the nationalistic fallout from both world wars, the civil rights movement, and nation-building efforts in the postcolonial era,The Liberty of Strangersadvances a major new interpretation of American nationalism and the future prospects for diverse democracies.


In June 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson received an honorary doctorate from Howard University, America's most prominent black university. He took the opportunity to outline his views of America's racial history. In his commencement speech, the president tackled the issue of merging two hitherto separate peoples into an inclusive democracy. Johnson declared, “[I]n far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope.” Echoing Malcolm X, Johnson conceded that “the great majority of Negroes” experience the United States as if it were a foreign state, an accusation made by America's international allies and enemies alike.

Yet even as he acknowledged historic injustices toward a definable group of Americans, Johnson strategically tied his reforming agenda to an individualistic conception of American nationhood: “American justice is a very special thing…. [A]ll of every station and origin… would be touched equally in obligation and in liberty.” The president proclaimed that the moment of democratization had arrived: “[I]t is the glorious opportunity of this generation to end the one huge wrong of the American Nation and, in so doing, to find America for ourselves, with the same immense thrill of discovery which gripped those who first began to realize that here, at last, was a home for freedom.”

The integration of groups, the central theme of Johnson's speech, has been a recurring motif of the American nation. Around the world . . .

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