15 December, 2005Issue 5.1HistoryNorth AmericaPolitics & Society

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The Myth of ‘One People’

Michael Lindsay

Desmond King
The Liberty of Strangers: Making the American Nation
Oxford University Press, 2005
176 pages
ISBN 0195146387

Few Americans are likely to be aware of the historical contribution of painter Pierre Eugene DuSimitiére to the Second Continental Congress of 1776. But it was the Swiss-born portrait artist who first suggested that E Pluribus Unum should serve as the official motto of the United States. Ever since, the motto has symbolized the nation’s commitment to an America held together by a national creed based on the ‘self-evident truth’ that all men are created equal. The promise of America is built on the pledge that anyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or religion can freely pursue their happiness without fear of prejuidice.

While even the most casual observer of America will appreciate the rhetorical power of this creed, it would be na√Øve to believe that America has succeed through time in truly practising what it has preached. From George Washington to George Bush, politicians have invoked notions of a national identity, infused with references to a supposed ‘people’ defined by a shared race, ethnicity or religion. American immigration and social policies, from official segregation to prohibition of Asian immigration, have historically been used to exclude minority groups from full and equal membership in the American nation. Recently, ethnocentric notions of America have enjoyed resurgence, in light of America’s struggle against militant Islam, and the growth (by means both legal and illegal) of America’s Hispanic population. These contemporary trends have led prominent scholars like Samuel Huntington to offer polemical defences of the ‘Anglo-Protestant’ culture of the nation (as he did in his recent book, Who are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity). Ultimately, the vision of an America, so eloquently voiced by Arthur Schlesinger Jr, as a nation of individuals who would ‘forsake old loyalties and join to make new lives together as “one people”,’ has historically been more of a myth than a reality.

Desmond King’s The Liberty of Strangers is a welcome contribution to the literature on American nationhood. King, a professor of politics at Oxford, is an expert on the subject of race, ethnicity, and immigration in Western democracies. In The Liberty of Strangers, he undertakes a broad survey of the history of America’s social policy and public rhetoric concerning citizenship, articulating a challenge to the orthodox account of American nationalism. Whereas traditional notions of American nationalism stress the primacy of the individual, King argues American nationalism is actually the product of political struggle between groups.

According to King, ongoing attempts made by ethnic and racial minority groups to win full inclusion in American society have led their members to think of their relationship with the nation in collective, rather than individual, terms. These group demands have precipitated policies of redress that have been group-specific, thereby further entrenching collective approaches to citizenship in America. The result, King argues, is a more fluid national identity than the prevailing ideology of ‘one people’ can capture. For whereas ‘one people’ nationalism implies individuals with disparate backgrounds identify with each other simply as fellow ‘Americans’, King’s theory suggests that many citizens hyphenate their national identity with their ethnic or racial identity. Thus, a poor black man living in Louisiana likely feels that his American experience, and his station in the nation, is only fully encapsulated by the term ‘African-American’.

But while King sympathizes with those who offer an account of citizenship based on ‘a politics of difference’ acknowledging the different cultural locations of individual citizens, he claims not to go so far as to propose that citizenship in America would be best thought of as multicultural. Rejecting the idea that citizenship should offer political recognition of cultural communities as well as individuals, King’s theory is instead concerned with an historical analysis of the enduring significance of groups in the American polity. He nonetheless believes that group identities are unlikely to erode. The creation of new group divisions, and the recurrence of divisions thought settled, he suggests, continues, and will continue, to shape political debate in America in profound ways.

Recent events in America provide us with the opportunity to assess King’s theory. The meaning of American nationhood seems to have renewed significance at a time when large swathes of the nation continue to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Images beamed to television screens around the world of the thousands left stranded in New Orleans have painfully highlighted the systemic poverty that afflicts large segments of America’s black population. The scenes from the Superdome staggered the citizens of America, leaving many to wonder anew whether, as President Lyndon Johnson famously suggested in 1965, African-Americans lived in ‘another nation’. From Reverend Jessie Jackson to Kanye West, prominent members of the African-American community publicly questioned the Bush administration’s commitment to the relief effort, as well as the media’s differential portrayal of the storm’s black and white victims: the former depicted as looters, rapists, and refugees; the latter depicted as victims and survivors.

Despite the passage of thirty years since the adoption of the Civil Rights Act, Katrina has revealed the continuing salience of race in American political debate. The tragedy made the rhetoric of ‘one people’ seem empty; a narrative of the cohabitation of two peoples seemed far more appropriate in the wake of the storm. The episode suggests that King is right to draw attention to the continuing importance of groups, particularly racial minorities, in America.

It is unclear, however, that the demands for inclusion made by minorities in America should actually impact the character of American nationalism. King does not seem to be arguing that American minorities seek political recognition in order to preserve their ethnic or cultural identities. His argument, rather, is that these groups desire the nation to live up to its professed ideals, and afford them full integration in their national community. The political claims of minority groups in America seem to be directed simply at attaining equal treatment and respect as promised by E Pluribus Unum. In other words, the minority groups King highlight are neither challenging nor changing American nationalism. They are simply drawing attention to the inconsistency of their collective experience with the nation’s espoused values.

Where does this leave King’s theory of American nationalism? If King’s project is to demonstrate how enduring group divisions will preclude Americans from ever believing that they exist as the ‘one people’ referenced in the nation’s motto, he has provided us with food for thought. If however, King aims to demonstrate the mutation of American nationalism at the hands of groups, he has not made a compelling case. Minorities in America use the very rhetoric of ‘one people’ nationalism in making their demands; if anything, they are driving America towards, rather than from, the ideal of individual equality enshrined in the nation’s official motto.

In the end, we are left with the impression that King’s project might be a mix of both. Nonetheless, The Liberty of Strangers is a thoughtful contribution to a political debate that has become especially salient in light of recent events. Despite all expectation that the transformative social change of the last generation would lead to a withering of group identities in America, the American melting pot remains as much as ever an idealist vision rather than an attainable goal. If nothing else, King has provided an insightful account of how American nationhood has been shaped by the political struggle of its minorities.

Michael Lindsay is an MPhil student in Comparative Government at Somerville College, Oxford. His interests include constitutionalism in Canada and the United States.