As a European, I have always been troubled by the notion prevalent among Americans that sustainable identity can be found in an ideological commitment to the Constitution, however noble the ideals contained within it may be. As the United States enters a phase of burning all its old gods, tearing down the statues of heroes, and questioning every foundational myth, this concern is only amplified.
When younger, college-educated Americans are increasingly questioning the rightness of the country’s founding, what is it exactly that keeps Americans united? Is there an American nation that could outlast the United States, in the way in which the Iranian nation will outlast the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the Chinese nation that will outlast the People’s Republic of China?
The idea that the American people are “a nation of immigrants” – native Americans must despair at this phrase! – is also highly problematic. This is not the stuff of which a people is made. Neither are ideological commitments to freedom (increasingly problematised), religious liberty (increasingly under threat), or any other ideal, however noble. Nation-building on such terms is no more sustainable than Alexander the Great’s idea that the ancient world could be united into a fellowship of the good.
The formation of American nationhood depends instead on a fundamental readjustment in American society, aided by a political commitment to the building of a people. These processes must include: the complete normalisation of interracial and interethnic marriage; a willingness to abandon legacy cultures and identities; the transcending of racial or ethnic identities; and, the designation of one’s identity as ‘American’.
It means the promotion of ‘American’ as an ethnic identity. It means embracing colour-blindness, something that ordinary Americans are better at than elected politicians. It means stopping asking people constantly on every form whether they are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, native American or a Pacific Islander. It means stopping describing candidates for elected office or suspects to crimes by their ethnicity or race. It means making the only ethnic designation for settled American citizens, ‘American’.
Despite the efforts of America’s external enemies, I have no doubt that this can be achieved, and is being achieved. When one encounters Americans overseas, of whatever background, they are immediately identifiable. Americans have a whole array of cultural and social habits, practices and traditions that mark them out from other people. They look different, speak differently, walk differently, interact with others differently. An African American in Africa, Asian American in Asia, or European American in Europe stands out like a sore thumb. Leave America for a while and you will discover that the world does not consider you to be white, black, or Hispanic, but American.
The formation of this new American ethnic identity – which like any other ethnicity is one into which people are always marrying into and marrying out of – has taken place in spite of the racialisation of political discourse and the belief that what really unites Americans is adherence to a common ideal and foundational myth. Alternative approaches to nation-building are unlikely to produce long-term peace and unity.
Instead of race-baiting and racial politics, for Americans to survive as a people, the focus must be returned to what unites them: ties of intermarriage, common community, living together, working together, fighting together, a common culture, and their Judeo-Christian heritage.
For Americans to guarantee that common future, they must be willing to let go of something of their past, and cling instead to the ties that bind.
This will mean moderate immigration built primarily around those marrying into American families, not immigration built around economic opportunity or neocolonial attempts to transplant foreign cultures and communities wholesale to North America.
It will mean the denial of race, the subtle promotion of anti-racism, the transcendence of prejudice, and the embracing of the notion of the single American ethnicity, united and indivisible.
It will mean the desegregation of American churches and communities, and the abandonment of special favours and long-held grievances.
Despite all the polarising talk of racial injustice and inherent racism, the United States has achieved more than most hegemonic powers in ensuring the enfranchisement of all communities. For America to survive as a nation, both the racism and race-baiting must stop.
America must decide to transcend historically-based identities, and embrace the one identity on which its survival depends. It must realise that if it is to be a people, the kinship identity that matters is American.