William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Chapter 14
A Common Destiny: Prospects for the Black City

Americans have always thought themselves a special people. In the late 20th century we must reject many of the ways in which earlier generations sometimes conceived this notion; for 17th-century Puritans it involved a religious, specifically Protestant, example to the world; for late 19th-century racists a mission of "Anglo-Saxon," conquest; in the post-World War II era a superiority based on "free enterprise," an economic system which proved we were best because we were richest. But there have been other and more attractive ways of expressing the central idea of special destiny, notably the idea that this country is a kind of "great experiment."

For its most eloquent earlier spokesmen, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, the experiment was political, as for generations after the United States was founded we were the only major nation in the world with a formally democratic government. This is of course no longer relevant: while the attractions of democracy--and some of its problems--are dramatically evident during the 1990s, many countries have constitutions at least as democratic as ours, and the United States can no longer claim the lead. But toward the end of the college year, with a little embarrassment--neither I nor today's students are comfortable with idealistic flights of fancy--I sometimes suggest that the idea of "experiment" may still be worth considering, in terms not of democracy but of race and ethnicity.

America was founded after all without any of the elements which defined a "nation" in the Old World: its people had no unique language, no common religion or culture or history. Three races, too, were already in place--the black fully one-fifth of the total--and innumerable separate ethnic groups, making it impossible for us to claim even a mythical common ancestry. From the start then, however reluctantly, we have had instead to learn to live with diversity. And if we are no longer pioneering in politics, we are after all still

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